Private eyes, public mysteries

October 1, 1999

As Britain's amateur historians puzzle over the identity of Jack the Ripper and theauthorship of Shakespeare's plays, William Rubinstein asks why academics pretend this isn't history.

For every academic historian in Britain, there are ten "amateurs" - academically untrained persons - interested in history, often family history and genealogy. Many of them produce one book after another.

The topics on which they write constitute a vast historical underground of which most academic historians know nothing.

What are they saying? Should academic historians be listening? Can it be that they are dealing with topics more interesting, and perhaps more important, than the normal subject-matter of the academic?

I am researching, and hope to write a book about, how amateurs have handled three familiar topics that have been all but ignored by academics - the identity of "Jack the Ripper", the debate over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The popularity of such topics points to a central paradox about academic and amateur history that many academic historians would do well to heed. Whether or not the "amateur historian" produces accurate history, it is the amateurs' very conception of history - not academic notions of postmodern historiography - that is still what most people mean by history. Can it be that they are right and that we can learn from them?

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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