Schama ponders the role of a historian

Much has been said already on the blog about two particular topics: the insertion of Schama into the story and the merits of the documentary.

On Schama as a character in the novel: already we’ve seen some (if not most) in class dislike the level of insertion the author used to place himself in the story. It strikes me as mostly a matter of taste, or perhaps (deservedly) a push back against his ego. But, is there an academic merit behind such an inclusion? Or should we reject such a style of writing as a distraction from his argument? It’s interesting that we debate such a style when, in academic texts, historians are often guilty of the same type of insertion when they take time to explain why certain topics were ignored, or why certain sources were left aside, or defend controversial choices.

On the benefits of the documentary: I find myself in the growing minority of those who preferred the book over the documentary (which was well done). Why? I was actually surprised at this since I am much more of a visual learner. But, the book presented questions I didn’t think about during the documentary. Reading print gave me time to reflect on the blurring of history and fiction that Schama employs, it gave me time to think about what we do as historians, and whether Schama is at least being blunt about the “hypothesizing” that scholars often use to fill in holes.

So, should we consider Schama’s work history or fiction? I think that was his point. The more I read about Dead Certainties and reactions from diverse people, the more I am inclined to believe that Schama intended to shake things up and make people question our discipline. We should be critically asking “What is history?” We should be questioning the methods, traditions, and ingrained perceptions academic historians before us have long accepted as the norm.

Schama created controversy; he also created discussion which, if structured well, could be a healthy re-assessment of history as a field. He states that all history work is like grasping at straws , bungling and fumbling your way around. When historians today are still producing new insights into figures like Napoleon and Lincoln, it shows that one interpretation of the past is simply that: an interpretation. Historians by trait expect us to follow them along as they present their case. Our gender, race, economic background, nationality, training…are all part of what lie beneath our methodologies and approach. So why should Schama’s approach be less valid? Because he doesn’t follow conventions? Are we so tied to conventions that we can’t accept alternate approaches?

I am not sure of the answers to these questions myself. But I do agree with Eric Strange when he asks: “But where is that line [between history and fiction], exactly? And more to the point, does it ever serve the purposes of historical inquiry to blur it–perhaps even to cross it altogether? Can it ever be both? I hope more can follow Schama’s lead and blur the lines of academic history. It may lead to a vindication of tried-and-true methods, or it may lead to an exciting new approach to history, but the conversations to be had will be the richest of results.

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