Connecting

Allen Mikaelian, October 2013

Years ago, I was following a research trail that led me to a house in Camden, New Jersey, where I interviewed three women, all sisters, all in their 90s, about their memories of their great-grandfather, who had been a highly decorated sailor in the US Civil War.

The trip and the interview were a bust. I obtained a highly questionable but colorful anecdote about my research subject. I learned something about his hair color and his gait. I gleaned some family mythology that was impossible to confirm. But there was no hidden box of historical treasures, the clouds didn't part, and the sun didn't shine through to illuminate my elusive sailor. My subject remained as obscured as ever.

Except that while I was interviewing them, the simple fact of what I was doing felt, suddenly, like a revelation. I am talking to someone who knew someone who fought in the Civil War. The vast distance between me and my subject collapsed, telescoped, down into a space the size of that room.

This feeling was wrong. I wasn't any closer to any real understanding. My subject was still dead and the trail was still cold. The past was still a very foreign country and I couldn't even think of myself as a tourist, much less a resident. I knew all this, but the sense of a connection refused to dissipate.

This sense of connection, often so stubborn, is rarely reflected in the products of historians' work. As William Cronon pointed out in his AHA presidential address, historians generally don't do first person—the research seldom becomes part of the story, as it does so naturally for journalists who do long­form feature articles. So we don't hear about what historians experience, what connections they form to their subjects, how their work affects them personally, and how it is either subtly incorporated or deliberately excluded from the books and articles they write.

In this issue, Keith David Watenpaugh describes waking up from nightmares he can't remember after immersing himself in the worlds of child victims of genocide. Heather Ann Thompson discusses how she caused an interview subject to relive an old trauma, how the past is still very much alive in her subjects, and how her training had left her unprepared for the sense of connection and responsibility that arose from her determined research.

Instead of pushing these connections aside, these historians deliberately chose to put them to use. Watenpaugh sees "empathic imagination" as a tool for historians, one that bridges the terror experienced by individual victims to genocide's enormous scale. Thompson's connections helped her see that she had a responsibility to the public and her living­yet-historical subjects, forcing upon her a set of ethical questions with which historians seldom grapple.

Historians can put these connections to use in teaching as well as in research. Mark Carnes, writing in this issue about Reacting to the Past, describes students immersed in a historical interpretation to the point where they can confidently take on the role of a historical figure. In their contribution to this issue, Kathryn Ciancia and Edith Sheffer describe an assignment that had students create fictional historical characters—­characters to whom the students naturally became attached.

These teachers, it's important to emphasize, use students' connections to the past for much more than mere inspiration. Their approaches aren't simply about drawing students in with fun assignments, so as to deliver the weighty stuff to a more pliable audience—­these assignments teach historical thinking. The connections experienced by Watenpaugh and Thompson, similarly, came to be incorporated into their work—­not serving merely as motivation to continue the work.

This can be dangerous ground, with the potential for students to think they know the past with a degree of certainty that trained historians would question, or with the potential for the researcher to believe that the most emotionally evocative interpretation is the one that must be correct. Each of the authors mentioned above built in safeguards to keep imagination from taking over—Watenpaugh knew he had to return to "the number," the impersonal, faceless aspect of genocide. Thompson had to return to the documents. Reacting to the Past is built around strict rules and Ciancia and Sheffer's assignments included written analysis that had to justify the fictional character's actions. These are acknowledgments that historical imagination can run wild, that empathy can cloud judgment.

But the authors above suggest to me, directly and indirectly, that once the imaginative feeling of connection to the past is balanced (not dampened) by analytical distance, what can emerge is not something fanciful, but critical: a need to ask oneself hard ethical questions, an imperative to understand why people we disagree with did what they did, and an obligation to enter, as Watenpaugh asks, "into broader conversations about justice, acknowledgement, and reconciliation."

In other words, what emerges is a sense of obligation and responsibly, an acknowledgement that our work involves people and is done best when we approach our topics and subjects from an assumption of common humanity. I may not have gotten any closer to a critical understanding of my subject by taking a train to Camden to meet his great­granddaughters, but I got a better idea of the ways in which he was understandable, and that I owed him my fullest possible understanding.

—Allen Mikaelian is editor of Perspectives on History.