Lives as lenses

Historians, it seems to me, are temperamentally divided into those who gravitate to the particularities of studying people — and those who want to describe big patterns and large-scale processes of change. For some the fascination of the past is in ultimately in understanding how people lived, thought, coped. For others it is in answering big questions about how economies, societies change, why Empires rise and fall and so on. Of course, ideally, we do both, but it is not always easy to connect the high-resolution tangibility of studying individuals with the  low-resolution big picture. I explored some of these themes in a keynote lecture for the Life as a Lens conference organised by Charlotte Riley and Stefan Visnjevac. This is an edited version:

On Actors Great and Small: Historians and their Subjects



On 10th May, 1849, the English actor William Charles Macready stepped onto the stage of the Astor Place Opera House in New York City to play Macbeth. It was to be a memorable performance, but not for anything that Macready did. A crowd of several thousand working class New Yorkers gathered outside the theatre determined to stop him perform. The American popular press had cast Macready –Irish-born, great friend of Dickens, supporter of parliamentary reform and fan of American democracy –in the role of a moustache-twirling English aristocratic villain. It had been reported that he had sneered at Americans for their plebian ways and been rude about the great American tragedian of the age, Edwin Forrest. A professional feud between Forrest and Macready dating back several years had been played out in the popular press in America during Macready’s 1848-49 US tour. On this late spring night in New York, what had at times seemed a confected controversy whipped up to sell theatre tickets turned bloodily real. The crowd started throwing paving stones, then tried to set the theatre on fire. The panicked Mayor, fearing the brand-new city police would be overwhelmed called in the militia, who arrived brandishing muskets and a couple of cannons. You will easily guess what happened next. In the ham-fisted way seemingly typical of law enforcement authorities in crowded American urban spaces from the Boston Massacre to the riots of Ferguson, the troops opened fire. 28 people were killed — in a riot over a theatrical performance.

This story, as you may imagine, has been told many times and in many ways. Shakespeare scholars love it for its dramatic implication that people died in fight over a play: the word made flesh. For the cultural historian Lawrence Levine, the riot at Astor Place was the symbolic moment in which modern culture fractured into ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ forms. For Iver Bernstein, an urban historian, the riot mattered as a dramatic manifestation of class tensions that would break out again in even bloodier form in the draft riots of 1863 in which several hundred people lost their lives. I have written about this episode from the perspective of party politics – the Mayor was a newly elected Whig as were almost all those who later defended his actions, the crowd were overtly partisan Democrats.

But what of Macready himself? He left a diary and hundreds of letters. He was rarely reticent about expressing himself either in public or in private. He had a Mr. Toad-like tendency to veer from conceited self-promotion to tear-strewn self-flagellation and, like most actors, instinctively, although in this case, not entirely unreasonably always saw himself as the star of his own story. So we know a lot about Macready. We know what he thought and how he felt – or at least we know how he wanted to present his thoughts and feelings to himself, which is perhaps as much as anyone can ever know about anyone. We know much less, of course, about the victims of the shootings.

Does this asymmetry matter? It depends on what we’re trying to explain. I think if we’re trying to explain why it happened, then I would suggest it doesn’t matter at all. We need to beware of the methodological fallacy which assumes that by explaining what an event ‘reveals’, we have thereby explained its causation. For that, maybe we do need to understand the personality of Macready, who, by the testimony of his own diary, had an extraordinary knack for making enemies and then, having got into a feud, somehow managing to make it worse. So too, however, does the decision of the Mayor, a character called Caleb S. Woodhull, to send in the troops. That, after all, was the decision that turned what would otherwise have been yet another theatre riot into a confrontation between the armed force of the state and unarmed citizens. Yet Woodhull didn’t leave a diary, so far as I know, and for a man who – briefly – led New York City’s government, little more is known about him than about the victims of the shooting. Woodhull’s peccadillos, preoccupations and preconceptions can only be a matter of speculation. It is all too easy, then, to make him simply an avatar for impersonal forces – for his social class, his party, his moment in time.

Just eight years before the riot at Astor Place, Thomas Carlyle was penning his famous essays about heroism and the elevating effects of studying the great men of history. Even in his own time, however, the Great Man Theory of history never gained much traction, other than in children’s books. From Herbert Spencer, Macaulay and Marx to Namier, Annales and onwards, the professionalization of historical study went hand in hand with the analysis of structures – temporal, divine, cyclical, predictable, inexorable or intractable as they may be. Historians have always studied individuals, but only rarely have they made a virtue of doing so, or offered extensive methodological exegeses of how they do so.

Of course there is biography – and an accompanying corpus of reflections on biographical writing. But if biography and history are assumed to be closely related by booksellers and the great book-reading public, historians have tended to regard biography as, at best, a flashy second cousin who probably lives in California. Hardly history at all, but thinly disguised hagiography.

In her influential essay in the Journal of American History, “Historians who love too much”,  Jill Lepore is at pains to vindicate micohistory by contrasting it with mere biography. Microhistory was a zeitgeist phrase for academic historians in the 90s. Everyone wanted to find their own great cat massacre. As cultural history came into vogue in a post-Cold War, post-post-structuralist moment, the big picture stuff – ideology, economic change, social conflict — came to seem removed from the tangibility of human experience that it was now historians’ job to uncover. We are all nowadays, consciously or otherwise, influenced as historians by this assumption – one core to the valorization of microhistory by Lepore and others – that the past can effectively be described by small stories writ large.

Lepore thinks that biographers are the ones who love too much – they are the ones who get famously intimate with their subjects — whereas microhistorians study a person for what they can exemplify about the culture or moment. There are indeed some examples of very bad biographies that are so invested in their subject they end up losing all sense of perspective. One example: Michael Burlingame’s adoration of his subject — Abraham Lincoln — does, demonstrably, affect his analysis. His mammoth, 2-volume biography (published 2009) argues that “Lincoln’s personality was the North’s secret weapon in the Civil War, the key variable that spelled the difference between victory and defeat.” This level of biographical solipsism suggests the wisdom of CLR James’ famous line: what does he know of cricket, who only cricket knows? Similarly, what does he know of Lincoln, who only Lincoln knows?

I would suggest, though, that the problem here is not with biography as a genre, but with this particular biography – although admittedly it is hardly alone. The best biographies do exactly what Lepore says microhistory does – use their subjects to investigate wider issues – just as CLR James used cricket, which he knew very well and described with astonishing insight, to talk about imperialism and race.

The issue of whether it matters that historians fall in love with their subject matter is a subset of a larger question about the self and historical writing. Most of us were trained at school and as undergraduates to avoid the first person. I now tell my students not to be afraid of it. You make judgments all the time in your historical writing, so why not acknowledge the way in which the self shapes your history? Rhetorically it can be very effective to take the reader on a journey through the researcher’s story (who they are, how they shaped their decisions about what matters) as well as the story the researcher wants then to tell.

But at the same time, I would also insist that there is a solid reason why historians should not follow Anthropologists in making the presentation of the self – including one’s love for one’s subject — too overt. It has the appearance of transparency (‘I love Lincoln so you need to know that’) but in itself tells us very little. What you need to know, as the reader, is whether I’m conforming to reasonable and testable scholarly norms. Yes of course we all select our own evidence and construct our own narratives. But we shouldn’t slip from that admission to the self-defeating conclusion that the author is the self that really matters. It is disorientating to feel that the mere historian – generally a rather timid academic type of either gender engaged in a perfectly respectable but hardly life-changing job – is being privileged over the vast sweep of history she or he is trying to describe and explain.

The key to handling the stories of individuals well, as a historian, it seems to me, is humility in the face of our own near-omnipotence. As historians, we are in a powerful position. We can read private correspondence and secret diaries. We know what happened next. Our subjects, mostly being dead, cannot talk back at us. So it is incumbent upon us to try and engage some sympathy with our subjects, even if they are unsympathetic figures. I do not mean excuse them, or like them. I just mean try and understand them from their own point of view. We can use various theoretical frameworks — pschychological theories for example — to interpret what we read, and it is helpful both to us as writers and polite to our readers if, when we do so, we are explicit about how we’re coming to judgements. But I think historians are right to be genteel and circumspect in their judgements, not to rush in to praise or condemn.

There are two main methodological justifications for dwelling on individuals, neither of them remotely Carlylian, nor indulgently solipsistic.

The first is about tangibility. I am currently writing a book about how Americans coped with the revolutionary changes of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. One of the things I’m very interested in is the use of the term conservative, and conservatism, to describe values and viewpoints. As you might expect there was little consensus on what a relative term like this meant in practice, but that’s not a problem for me because what I want to do is to understand what people intended when they invoked this particular concept – and also other key political terms like radical, progressive, nationalist. What I’m finding – no shock here – is that these concepts that historians use regularly as shorthands to summarise viewpoints are simply inadequate to describe the variety and variability of an individuals’ experience. Only by bringing down abstractions onto the level of the individual can we then build back outwards to make general claims about political culture. And to do justice to that individual perspective it is necessary to have access to plenty of data about one person – in my case, I confess, always men, mostly bearded, and entirely dead, though not all white. Who I have concentrated on is not really related to their ‘importance’. Most of my subjects were ministers, editors, politicians or authors – people who not only had views but could shape those of others. But the ones I’m writing about are simply those whose papers are most complete, and whose materials I’ve been able to access, though chance as much as anything else. I can make no robust claims to representativeness in my book (though I may try) and in only a few cases can I claim that my people were leading actors in the drama taking place around them. But I can say that because I’ve come to know these guys, I can talk with more plausibility and conviction than I otherwise would about how politics actually worked. These individuals enable me to understand not political thought – the abstract articulation of ideas – but what my Medievalist colleagues are used to calling political thinking – the articulation of political ideas in practice, in everyday useage, with all the nuance, inconsistency and double-talk that implies.

The second reason why, methodologically, we should embrace the study of individuals, is because of the importance of contingency and judgment. This brings us back to Macready, and indeed Lincoln. What we’re now seeing in historical writing is a trend towards a reassertion of the importance of individuals, not as Carlylian heroes, nor because of how, in Jill Lepore’s sense, they shed light on a historical moment, but because of how individual judgements have mattered. Chris Clark’s outstanding book on the coming of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers, is about how that war came rather than about why. The how question is not a popular one, even now, with A Level examiners. School history assessment regimes formally and rigidly distinguish between analysis (good) and narrative (bad).

But in fact by asking the question how something happened, we are compelled not just to invoke big impersonal –ism forces (imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, militarism), but to explain exactly, precisely how those forces manifested themselves in the real-life decisions made by actual people in real time. This requires sequencing and narrative, in the sense that we have to put events and decisions in chronological order, and to try and reconstruct what information was available to decision-makers at any one time. People make history, but not in circumstances of their own making – who can disagree. But I think I see a trend for stressing the first clause in that now clichéd sentence to a greater extent than was once fashionable.

In my book on Lincoln I am very clear that the American Civil War was a war that was pretty hard to avoid. Chris Clark’s book makes clear the ways in which contingent events, from the precise routing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s parade, to the dynamics of court politics in the Ottoman Empire, made war happen in 1914. There was, he argues, nothing inevitable about that conflict; nothing in the DNA of Europe in 1914 that made war the only option. I’d be less confident about making a similar claim for America in 1861. I can see other options, and certainly I can envisage how the resort to arms, once it had happened, could have led to a different kind of conflict. But the underlying problem – the collision of a slave-based and a free-labor society — was as structurally embedded as any problem in modern history and the wiggle room for a peaceful resolution painfully limited. Even so, that war, like all wars, was chosen. At some point, consciously or not, Abraham Lincoln chose to use state violence to resolve a problem. But not just Lincoln. So too did the millions of ordinary people in North and South who rallied to the banner just as their counterparts in Europe were to do in 1914. Of course they were blinded by nationalism, only able to see the problem as a partisan press presented it to them. Of course they didn’t go to war to fight the war that actually occurred, but the war of their fantasy projections, one that would be over by Christmas. And yet, they chose war.

We need to understand why in order to understand how it happened, and often – if not always – we can only do that by understanding individuals. It’s one thing to say grandly that nationalism animated popular militarism in America in 1861 or Britain in 1914, but unless we know exactly what that looked like person by person, to a father, postal worker, miner, wife, grocery-shop owner, we cannot really understand the driving force of history, since history is the story of people in all their complexity.

In a theatrical metaphor, historical writing is like analyzing a play with a vast cast. Viewed from the Gods they may appear to move in sync and to say lines with perfect timing, but seen up close from the prompters’ box, the variety, the mess-ups, the ad-libs become visible. It’s spotting those, as well as the big picture, that is our job as historians.

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