The Telling Detail and the Facts of Life

This just in: 71 registrants as of this morning. I am really looking forward to this year’s Mass History Conference (June 7). I am starting to get to know people. My third conference will be, again, a little bit more about seeing people I like and respect, and about putting faces to people I have hitherto only phoned or emailed, or even ‘facebooked’ with, but worked with nonetheless, and meeting people who do all that excellent history work in Massachusetts.

This kind of personal contact is of course important for a meeting dedicated to strengthening the network of local history practitioners and organizations in Massachusetts. More importantly, however, local history itself is in so many essential ways about the personal. And for that very reason alone this year’s topic, Imagining Lives: Preserving and Interpreting Personal Stories, is exciting: it matches the essential purposes of the participants.

Academic history has traditionally had a slightly uncomfortable relationship with the personal, the individual. “The personal is the political,” I learned in my women’s history classes, was the great insight of the second wave of feminism. But academic historians are often afraid that personal history, life writing as it is currently known, is apt to be less political than antiquarian or, conversely, hagiographic—uncritical admiration of famous or otherwise important persons such as oneself.

Historical societi es were called into being for the purpose of “preserving the history” (often part of the mission statement) of a particular location.** In Massachusetts, the actual historical record of the town—that is birth, marriage and death records, tax records, town meeting, fence viewer, and other records and reports of officials, are properly kept by the town. Thus, aside from items that were created or used in the town, historical societies mainly gather records on paper: letters, photographs, papers, ledgers, journals, notebooks. Add oral histories and you have the stuff of personal history!

The stories historical socie ties traditionally told, however, relied greatly on those records kept by the town or the church: who was here first, who stayed longest, who was most important or richest, and who founded and ran industry. These were progressive histories: the history of the progress of a town. Thus, Charles N. Dyer’s History of Plainfield (1891 — a very thorough inventory of the landscape, industry, and building of the town) culminates with the origins and history of early and prominent settling families: the families whose names dominate the cemeteries.

The focus of historical societies remained on the “how did we get where we are,” until the great sweep of 1960’s and ‘70’s social history started to seep from the academy into public history. Historical societies were (and still are) motivated as well as encouraged to pay attention to those who were less prominent, less visible in the record: women, working class families, African Americans, immigrants. The stories of the First Families, along with their Fine Furniture, were relegated to attics and archives.

Yet personal history is popular and respectable among general public: no historical writing sells better than popular biography (unsubstantiated assertion), with the blockbuster biography of founding fathers leading the pack, and “memoirs” dominating the field. How often have we not heard Terry Gross say, “… and author of the new memoir …?” (Which always elicits a muttered, “was there an old memoir?” from me.)

Personal history is back with a vengeance: as I speak to public history professionals and historical society curators I hear again and again that telling a personal story, an individual tale, is the most effective way of reaching visitors. They delight, as I do, in finding an evocative or moving personal story. So are we back where we started, even if the First Families are complemented by representatives of less prominent or visible groups? Should Fine Furniture be moved back into exhibition space alongside folk furniture and other cultural artifacts?

I think not. In some sense, academic history is catching up with public history. We now know we can “read” the larger history from the personal story and not just by way of example (as in: the life of this little girl is a good example of the life of an immigrant girl in this town in the early 1900’s). Carol Kammen, author of On Doing Local History, wrote a wonderful essay in a recent issue of History News, entitled, “Just the Facts, Ma’am, Just Not All the Facts,” in which she examines the use of “synecdoche” – the evocative story that tells the larger whole. The word “evocative” is key in the approach to personal history that is gaining ground. The personal story allows us to tell the larger story, it gives a glimpse into the larger world, it allows us to compare this story to another. It provides, if you will, a “hook,” not only reeling in the visitor with an Approved Madison Avenue Technique, but also providing a useful resting place for all sorts of yarns and garments made thereof.

To investigate the creation of those yarns and garments, we have invited the authors of the delightfully naughty and romping novel Blindspot, who artfully mix historical research with fiction to create convincing and fun personal stories, but at the same time manage to draw attention to some of the issues that we ever and always work to get across to our audiences. As historians, we are sometimes leery of fiction, but do we not always fictionalize when we create narrative? What is narrative license for a historian, and where lies the boundary between history and story? How can we best learn from looking closely at lives lived under very different social, political, and material circumstances than our own? And how do we teach using universal patterns of human life across time? In their keynote lecture, “Heads or Tales? History and the Art of Story,” Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore will start us off on exploring some of these ever-tickly issues.

Presenters will tell us about their use of personal correspondence in creating exhibits, veterans’ histories, doing oral histories to get the good stuff, and using those you have (on tape), diaries and journals on the Web, national events though a local (and personal) lens, using and interpreting photographs, getting and using community and house histories, and using lives in the classroom.

As a confirmed nerd, I can’t wait to see all the technology we can now use to publish and use these great materials to energize visitors. But in going to the conference I am reminded, as I am so often in my wonderful job, that all those letters, diaries, journals, ledgers, and interviews don’t mean a thing unless they are professionally and imaginatively packaged and presented. Thank you all, for all the work you do. See you in June.

**I’m always a little bit confused by that, since I understand “history” to mean the story told about the past, rather than the past itself, but I think that is another one of those academic v. popular understanding dichotomies that public historians have to let go of. Poofffff! I just let go of it.

Author: Pleun Clara Bouricius

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