Friday, November 30, 2012

What Is History? Letting the Market Decide

Randall Stephens

How do we determine what is worth our attention when it comes to the past?  What events, people, and movements matter most?  What should we pay attention to?
"Caesar Crossing the Rubicon," attributed to Jean Fouquet, ca. 1475

When it comes to questions like these I always think back to E. H. Carr's classic What Is History?. It's a slim book, ideal for an intro to historical methods.  It's Carr's G. M. Trevelyan lectures from 1961 at Cambridge University.  At the outset he quotes C. P. Scott (1846-1932) the famous British journalist, publisher, and politician.  "Facts are sacred, opinion is free," said Scott.  Yet, writes Carr, despite Scott's confident motto:

every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context. It was, I think, one of Pirandello's characters who said that a fact is like a sack—it won't stand up till you've put something in it. The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all (9).

Not surprisingly, Carr also pitched his tent with Benedetto Croce (1866-1952). He quotes Croce approvingly: "All history is contemporary history." (Of course, not everyone agrees with this kind of relativism.*)  

From an undated letter written by George Washington
Here's one crass answer to the question of what matters: let the market decide.  What do people treasure most?  What history books tend to fly off the shelves?  What kinds of history programs do people watch?  (A: Anything about Hitler or ancient aliens.  Or, preferably, a combination of the two.)  

The Washington Post reports on the "auction of over 300 historical documents [that] includes rare letters written by Vincent van Gogh, George Washington, John Lennon and other iconic figures."  By the dictates of the market, these documents matter a great deal. "Other luminaries whose papers will be sold include Lou Gehrig, Louis Pasteur, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Giuseppe Verdi, Peter Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, King Henry II and Napoleon I."  Call it the Antiques Roadshow principle.  Letters from George Washington and Vincent van Gogh are expected to fetch a whopping $200,000 to $300,000.

A high-dollar answer to the question of "What is History."


* For a counter view, see G. R. Elton's The Practice of History (1967), a serious defense of history as a quest for objective truth. For a third view, see Richard Evans, In Defense of History (2000): "Nothing has outdated the views not only of Elton, but even of Carr, more than the arrival in the 1980s of postmodernist theory, which has called into question many, if not most of the arguments put forward by both of them" (3).  See also, Donald Yerxa's 2003 interview with Evans in Historically Speaking.


Unknown said...

Sure, Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is an iconic image and every other crossing isn't. But isn't that partly because it stands for something? After all, Caesar crossed the river and then something big happened. So it works, in terms of narrative.

It's interesting how Carr leans on Pirandello and Croce (Bouvard and Pécuchet come to mind, too). A reminder that postmodernism has deep roots, and didn't just spring up full-formed in the historical moment where we now recognize it?

Randall said...

Carr's point about "what is a fact" plays nicely in the classroom.

That's a good point about postmodernism and it's longer development.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

This short posting is incredibly rich--I may share it in our intro classes for history majors. Both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Thanks for putting all this together.

To illustrate your point about Hitler and aliens, my husband said at his work recently people were discussing the recent Lincoln movie and one woman said "I preferred the one with vampires--I mean it was historically accurate, they just added the vampires."

Well, what can you say to that? The market wants what the market wants.....

Randall said...

That's a great line about the Vampire Hunter film!

Eric Schultz just passed along this story from Globe about Old South Church possibly selling two very old book MSS.

Here's a little from that:

"The Bay Psalm Book was a new translation of the Book of Psalms by a group of prominent Puritan ministers. It was an instant hit: Congregations across the Massachusetts Bay Colony were soon singing from the new psalter during worship.

This Sunday, members of Old South Church, which owns two of 11 surviving first-edition copies, are scheduled to vote on a controversial proposal to let its trustees sell one of the books, along with a valuable collection of Colonial-era silver, to help pay for repairs and assure a more financially sound future.

The psalm book alone could fetch an estimated $10 million to $20 million at auction, according to David Redden, vice chairman at Sotheby’s, who called the psalm book 'the Gutenberg Bible of America.' It would be the first opportunity for a collector to buy one since 1947."