Reading The Historian's Craft in the Age of Trump

I wrote this essay in the summer of 2016, and spent the ensuing year revising it. Yet I never hit publish. Partly, I felt (and feel) like an imposter; neither Bloch’s work nor WWII are within the purview of my own historical research. Additionally, I’m not sure I entirely agree with my conclusions about the role historians must play in this current moment.

However, I just read the following piece (“The Medievalist Who Fought Nazis with History”) on Forbes.com, and I decided to share this because I do believe that Bloch was telling us more than “the point of history [is] to have something to say about the present.” So I offer my own thoughts for debate.

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Recently, I found myself reaching for my well-worn copy of Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft, a 200-page meditation on the meaning and value of history and a primer on how to do it well. The book has a tragic backstory. Marc Bloch was a French Jewish historian who was well known and respected for his scholarship on medieval and early-modern French feudal society. After Nazi troops invaded France in 1940, Bloch went underground and began to work on two manuscripts. He wrote the first, Strange Defeat, during the summer of 1940 to chronicle how and why France failed to rout the German invasion. Bloch then began writing The Historian's Craft. In late 1942, while working on the manuscript, he became active in the French Resistance. Vichy police eventually captured him in March of 1944 and he was turned over to the Gestapo for interrogation. He was tortured, imprisoned, and then murdered by a firing squad in June 1944. Bloch's colleague, historian Lucien Febvre, took up the task after the war of assembling the unfinished text into a draft for publication. 

Why did Bloch choose to write a book on historiography and methods, of all possible topics, while a war raged around him? The introduction to The Historian’s Craft provides some indication of his motives. Bloch wrote that because Western civilization “has always been extremely attentive to its past,” it was only natural that “whenever our exacting Western society, in the continuing crisis of growth, begins to doubt itself, it asks itself whether it has done well in trying to learn from the past, and whether it has learned rightly.” [i]

The Historian's Craft thus begins with a quote from Bloch's son, who as a young boy asked of his father, "Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?" Bloch explained that buried in this simple question posed by his child lay a deeper question, "no less that of the legitimacy of history.” [ii] From the outset, then, Bloch devoted The Historian's Craft to explaining the "usefulness" of history as an intellectual discipline devoted to understanding human lives. Bloch emphasized that “useful” history portrays people, events, and decisions in the past as complex and dynamic, the product of coincidences and contradictions just as often as of logical choices. 

Bloch emphasized, however, that "this question of use must always come second in the order of things, for, to act reasonably, it is first necessary to understand.” [iii] He believed that explanation was paramount—interpretation and judgment were by necessity secondary. "If the judgment only followed the explanation,” he wrote, “the reader could simply skip it. Unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations.” In the context in which Bloch was writing, when the “loss of taste for explanations” had allowed European fascists to persecute Jews and other minorities whom history had judged unfavorably, Bloch’s appeal was not for objectivity. Rather, he desired for historians to write history that was so rich and penetrating that politicians could not easily flatten it for their use as evidence of a group’s defectiveness or as a justification for action against a group. Indeed, Bloch continued, “When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white.”[iv]

Bloch thus concluded the introduction to The Historian’s Craft by describing it as “the memorandum of a craftsman who has always liked to reflect over his daily task.” [v] Indeed, “reflective” perfectly describes the book. It is quiet and wise. In a time of chaos, Bloch bored down to examine the nature of history and the essential mechanics of historical research. And yet by focusing on the foundations, Bloch also challenged historians to think more broadly about the judgments they built atop it. 

Are historians to blame for the ease with which politicians flatten history? We must ask ourselves how and why history is so easily dismantled and rewritten by politicians, while our scholarship is dismissed. Have our attempts to prove our contemporary relevance led us to pass too many judgments and ironically led us to undermine our own legitimacy? 

If so, the consequent question is not whether or not to be an activist historian. I still believe the answer to that question is yes. The question is how we can be activist historians without cutting our legs out from underneath us. Bloch would be the last person to say that this means ignoring the needs and interests of the present. Rather, he urged historians to be more understanding. “Even in action,” he wrote, “we are far too prone to judge. ... A little more understanding of people would be necessary merely for guidance, in the conflicts which are unavoidable; all the more to prevent them while there is yet time.” [vi]

I think there is another reason, however, that Bloch wrote this book in the midst of the war, and it’s for the same reason that I turned to his book in the midst of this political moment. The rigorous evaluation of methodology grounds the historian in the present without effacing the infinitude of history and the constant evolution of historiography. There is an inertia created when these contradictory forces are balanced against one another, providing a moment for the scholar to pause, catch their breath, and “ask himself with a sudden qualm whether he has spent his life wisely?” [vii]

These moments of inertia are when it’s most tempting to assert our usefulness by putting judgment before explanation. Bloch urges us to look inwards at our own methodological practices. Not because it will challenge the new regime, or instantly make American society more empathetic, but because it is a balance against the loud, the chaotic. It’s a forceful assertion of the importance of reflection and humility. 

 

[i]Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 4-6.

[ii]Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 3-4.

[iii]Ibid., 11.

[iv]Ibid., 140.


[v]Ibid., 19.

[vi]Ibid., 143-4.

[vii]Ibid., 4.

My Smash + Grab Research Trip to New Orleans

Last week I had the pleasure, for the first time in months, of spending a day in the archives. With the financial support of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I was able to travel to New Orleans and conduct research Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection.

I prepared for my visit using the DEVONthink for Historians Smash and Grab Checklist, a template that Ada and I designed and included in Super User guide (we also have a Low and Slow Checklist for longer-term archival visits). We created these checklists because our philosophy is that database maintenance is as important as database mining. It’s like a car—you can’t drive it if you don’t change the oil regularly.

The Day Before

I began by creating a new folder for the Tulane Louisiana Research Collection. Withinn that folder I created a new Smash and Grab Checklist (by clicking Actions > New from Template) and reviewed the three tasks listed under “Before the Archive.”

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Per step one, I created a new plain text file within the same folder and labeled it “Archival Notes LaRC Tulane September 27 2018.” I added contact information for the archivists I had corresponded with, the address of the archive, and then listed the collections, boxes, and folders I planned to view during my visit. And then I headed for the airport!

The Day Of

I woke up early so I would have time to double-check that my database, scanner app, and walking directions to the archive were set and that I was ready to go.

I arrived at the archive a few minutes after it opened, delayed by a deluge of rain that slowed my pace. By the time I reached Tulane I was soaked! But between 10:30 AM and 3 PM, I diligently combed through boxes and folders.

As instructed in the “In the Archive” section of the checklist, I kept a dutiful record of the materials I viewed. In my archival notes, I wrote down the contents of each folder (in the aggregate, unless particular documents were of interest) and indicated if I had scanned a particular document.

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I used the CamScanner app to create PDFs of each document. I like CamScanner because it has a batch feature that allows you to capture a multi-page document in one PDF (other apps might do this as well, but this was the first one I found). From the app, I transfered the PDFs to my laptop via email. This could also be done with a cloud storage service.

Before I left, I downloaded and opened each file to check that the PDF was readable and complete. When you can’t necessarily get back to an archive, it’s essential to do the job right the first time. It’s hard when you’re mentally drained and your eyes are itchy and tired and all you want is to go eat a big lunch and nurse a beer. But I forced myself to do it!

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After the Archive

My first post-archive task, per the checklist, was to transfer all of the PDFs into the database and move them into their appropriate folders. I ended up only scanning 10 documents, and so I had time to do this before the archive closed. With so few documents, I decided that box and folder sub-folders were not necessary and I simply stored the documents by collection.

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After a few days of enjoying the Big Easy, I sat down to finish the checklist. I added tags to each document, which varied; I did tag all with the year they were written and “New Orleans” so that I could easily aggregate all my documents from the Crescent City regardless of which archive they I found them in. Once the document was tagged I created a SuperAnnotation and filled in the citation information. The final step was to label both the document and SuperAnnotation with the red dot, which I’ve assigned to mean “To Do”—it’s a reminder to come back and take notes about the document’s contents.

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Conclusion

The Smash and Grab Checklist kept me organized on this whirlwind research trip by spreading out the work across three days. It kept me accountable and on-track with my database maintenance, and relieved the decision fatigue that often sets in during work travel. I just did what the steps instructed, and when I finished all of my new documents were in my database, tagged and together with their citation information. On past trips this has not always been the case! I feel like I’ve earned my Super User bona fides.

If this nine-point, step-by-step checklist seems like it could be useful to you during your archival trips, become a DEVONthink for Historians Super User. The guide includes 100 minutes of video lessons, the SuperAnnotation template, and a script that transfers your citation information to Bookends, a reference management software.

Legitimacy

They say that it only takes two things to be a writer: to write, and to call yourself a writer. But I can now tell you that there is an undeniable joy and pride that comes from seeing your work printed in a book. A book that two very senior scholars had the idea to write, and asked me if I would contribute a chapter to it. And when I said yes, they then read and carefully edited my words and tightened my argument, and then sent it to the UK where a person agreed it was worth publishing and spent a lot of time and energy laying it out in a fancy book-printing computer program, and then sent to a big book-making factory and had it bound up. And now it costs $53.70 on Amazon and is ranked #1,428,714 on the site's best seller list (but is boosted up to #1416 in books about African American history). 

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I was working from my dining room table yesterday afternoon when my husband came home and brought in the mail. After weeks of waiting, the book had finally arrived--and I was in the middle of working and it had been a long, long day and I just threw up my hands and said "finally!" and went along with what I was doing. What was a little more waiting, at this point?

The chapter that I contributed to this book originated from a year-long seminar I participated in during the 2014-15 academic year. I began the research in the fall of 2015, completed a draft in August of 2016, and did three rounds of revision and submitted a final version by the end of that year. In the spring and summer of 2017 I made final edits and approved the page proofs. The book was finally released in December 2017, but a printing delay meant that my copy was not sent out until mid-March. And then it took three weeks to ship from the UK. If you had told me that I would not see the fruit of this labor for four years, I probably never would have done it. Yet that's fairly typical for academic publishing, and realistically it would have taken a fifth year if I had submitted it to a journal.

So I left the book sitting on the table while I finished working, ate dinner, and watched Sunday night's episode of Silicon Valley with Kevin (so good!). Before leaving to meet a friend to see Viet Than Nguyen speak, I scooped it up and threw it in my bag. We arrived early enough that I had time to show her before the event started. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and after she insisted on taking pictures of the book I began flipping through to find my chapter.  You might be surprised to know which page made me verklempt.

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I created this chart and table in Excel and I am not being self-deprecating when I say that the originals are amateurish and lacking in aesthetic merit. So when I opened to this page in the book, and found that they looked professional and "like what a chart in a book should look like," it drove home the point that I had actually done something legit.

So my eyes watered a little bit, though I did not actually cry, and I spent a few seconds saying something dumb like "wow, huh, wow" before pulling it together and changing the subject. 

After the talk I came home and before I went to sleep I placed the book on the table next to my bed. When I got up this morning I put it in my bag and carried it around with me all day. This afternoon I brought it to show my therapist. But I think by tonight I'll be ready to find a nice home for it on a bookshelf. 

I never was a kid who really knew what she wanted to be when she grew up, but I was always writing--journal entries, awful short stories and poems, school papers, personal essays, letters to friends, and later blogs, and newsletters, and a dissertation. So this book does not quite represent my actualization into the person I dreamed I could be. Instead, it underscores what I already know: I've become a writer. 

 

Charleston Recommendations

During my two-week stay in Charleston, I would spent the workday in Addlestone Library and then departed each evening to explore the city. Although I tried some of the more well-known restaurants--Xiao Bao BiscuitBar at HuskLeon's--and checked out popular tourist sites like the waterfront park and the market, my favorite places, foods, and experiences were more quotidian. For any scholars who have the distinct pleasure of conducting research in Special Collections at the College of Charleston, these are my recommendations for sustenance, libations, caffeination, and a bit of exercise.

Caviar and Bananas: Charleston's version of Dean and Deluca. You can get coffee, pastries, deli items, salads, sushi, charcuterie, fancy specialty foods, wine, and beer. I ate lunch there almost every day, and although I tried many different items I kept going back to the Baja Salad.

Westbrook Brewing Co. Gose: After tasting this beer on one of my first evenings in the city, I discovered that this was my sister's favorite beer! That's saying something, since my sister works in the craft beer industry. Since Westbrook does not distribute to Pennsylvania, I had to drink my fill before I left...

Caw Caw Interpretive Center Early Morning Bird Walk: On Saturday morning, my mom and I drove out to this former rice plantation for a guide-led birding expedition. For $10 each, we borrowed excellent Nikon binoculars, through which we spotted bald eagles, egrets, herons, phoebes, yellow-rump warblers, pied-billed grebes, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and many other wetland birds. I could not recommend this experience more highly, but wear bug spray. With DEET. 

Black Tap Coffee: This was the best spot I found for a few hours of work outside the library. This small neighborhood shop pours an excellent cup of coffee and has ample outlets, free wifi, and bright sunny windows. 

Queen Street Grocery: One of the most charming things about the area around College of Charleston were the corner groceries. Queen Street Grocery was the closest one to the house where I stayed, and I enjoyed grabbing a beer (the Gose, obviously) and salad to eat there or take-out. 

Colonial Lake: With all the eating and drinking I was doing, I made sure to do plenty of walking every evening. My best walks were around Colonial Lake, where I joined many neighborhood residents who were out exercising their dogs, catching up with friends, and enjoying the sunsets while getting in an evening workout.

Dispatch from the Archives

I found plenty of helpful, interesting information about the Charleston JCC in the archive last week, but I also amassed a collection of the most endearing, charming names: 

Flo Fleischman

Pinky Portugal

Arch Lugenbeel

Wally Butterworth

Rabbi Raisin

Puggy Solomon

And one of the best sign-offs I've ever seen on a letter... 

"As ever, that tubby bundle of lard, Arnie."