Writing between the Past and the Present

Laura F. Edwards, January 2011

Many of my undergraduates find history to be somewhat esoteric. They are a practical bunch, looking for knowledge with current applications. The past is gone, they tell me, and of no particular use any more. Even students who are fascinated by history often see it as something of an indulgence, a luxury course that they squeeze into a schedule packed with preparation for well-paying jobs and busy lives. Naturally, I do not share their skepticism, and have searched for ways to explain why I think history is so important. Many of the standard explanations have failed me. I have reservations about the well-worn quote from George Santayana—that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it—because I am certain that those of us now living are condemned to make our own mistakes, from which knowledge of the past will not save us. Even so, I am too much of an optimist to accept William Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The present will always contain elements of the past, but I am also certain that it is possible to overcome the problems that have plagued us. Instead, I begin most of my undergraduate courses by asking students to think of history as a dialog between the past and the present. Through the study of history, we make the past usable, turning handfuls of raw facts into meaningful narratives. History not only tells us where we came from, but also who we are; it is about how we see ourselves, our world, and our future. Only after I finished my most recent book did I realize that this standard undergraduate lecture describes the process of historical writing. Historical writing is that dialog, rendered in its most intimate form, with each of us, as historians, writing our way between the past and present.

I do not know of any historian who has not struggled with writing. On this issue, the scholarly literature falls uncharacteristically silent, although it is a common topic of informal conversation and considerable commiseration. The challenges vary from person to person. For individuals, they can change from day to day, as technical aspects of grammar and organization shade imperceptibly into larger, more ill-defined matters of interpretation and style. In fact, writing is difficult because it is more than simply describing historical evidence. Writing is the process through which we make sense of those materials. The mechanics resist analysis, although most of us have experienced their workings in those moments of searing clarity or intense frustration when it becomes difficult to ignore the insight that writing itself creates meaning. When the process works, the evidence begins to take on new shapes through our prose, allowing us to see elements of the past that we had not recognized before. Then there are those times when writing reveals only the distance between us and the past. What we thought we knew suddenly disappears when we sit down to write, leaving us only with a muddle of meaningless words. At some basic level, the challenges of writing are about this elusive relationship between the historian and the past. We work through it from the moment we step into the archives. But it is the act of writing, itself, that places us in a direct conversation with the past.

Thinking about my relationship to my work, even my writing, does not come easily for me. Like most academic historians, I was trained to remove myself from my scholarship. The object of study is the past, not me. That does not mean that I think of history as a truly objective project. It is difficult to do so, given the propositions and legacies of postmodernism and poststructuralism as well as recent scholarship on the development of academic disciplines. In their most extreme form, the implications of this work challenge History’s raison d’etre by questioning the possibility of constructing any narrative that could capture and represent the past. The resulting debate has been productive, in the sense that it has resulted in a collective examination of the discipline and our relationship, as historians, to our scholarship. It is now commonplace to acknowledge that a complete separation between ourselves and our work is impossible because we are products of the time and place in which we live.

We approach historiography attentive to how social context shaped other historians’ approaches to their scholarship. Some of us even transgress the custom of using the impersonal third person altogether and make ourselves visible, however cautiously, in our work.

While it is possible to have a successful career without ever engaging these academic discussions, no historian can ignore the most personal of relationships between historians and the past, the one formed during the writing process. Yet we have allowed elements of objectivity to linger, unquestioned, in this aspect of the scholarly process. Too often, we see ourselves as the academic version of fully realized liberal subjects. That is to say, we see perceive ourselves as fully realized scholars who, like theoretical liberal subjects, are defined in terms of their capacity to determine their self-interest and to act accordingly. Fully realized scholars—or, in the case of graduate students, scholars in the making—rely on their rational, scholarly skills to produce good history, just as liberal subjects rely on their rational capacities to realize their individual self interest.  Even though their skills are acquired, rather than innate, fully realized scholars are defined through them just as theoretical liberal subjects depend on their inner faculties.  They rationally identify and collect important evidence and then, though individual agency, draw meaning from our research notes.  But the stakes are higher for fully realized scholars because they are not just theoretical constructs.  Unlike liberal subjects, whose existence is presumed, historians must prove that they possess the skills that define their position.  Writing is the ultimate demonstration, which also makes it the standard by which to measure scholarly success or failure. The importance of writing is why the model of the fully realized scholar fails.  It is problematic because it reduces writing to technique and sets us, as writers, in opposition to the past: we struggle to tame the material, bend it to our will, and subdue it through well-constructed sentences and paragraphs. At best, it is an unproductive relationship. At worst, it is completely unworkable.

I know because I have been there, hurling words at the past, hoping they stick, and calling it writing. Historical writing, however, should be the conversation between past and present through which meaning is revealed. This approach necessitates a different relationship both to the past and to our work as writers. In terms of our relationship to the past, it is more about humility than mastery; in terms of our work as writers, it is more an ongoing exchange than a defined task with a clear end point. Only in this way can we learn from the encounter. As in all conversations the issues continue to develop through engagement, and writing is the process that creates that dynamic. At the very moment when we commit the past to paper, it changes, because the moment in which we wrote has passed. But that does not make historical writing a futile endeavor. Good scholarship inspires more good scholarship from others as well as ourselves. The most successful historians are those who grow as a result of this conversation and who encourage others to participate. In this sense, historical writing can be as much about self-discovery as it is about discovery of the past. It is impossible to separate the two in good scholarship, even when historians write in the objective third person and about topics with no obvious relationship to their lives. In fact, questions about whether to make ourselves visible in our scholarship are less important than the necessity of creating this conversation with the past—the writing process is that conversation.

Laura Edwards is professor of history at Duke University. Her research focuses on women, gender, and the law in the 19th-century South. Her publications include The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009) and Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2000).