New models ‘reshaping how historians write’

Fragmentary, first-person accounts are challenging the staid traditions of the monograph, event hears

May 11, 2019
Bart van Es with Lien de Jong, whose story he tells in his award-winning book The Cut Out Girl

A number of “striking and highly imaginative” studies are “breaking new ground in how history is being written”, an event heard.

Philip Carter, senior lecturer in digital history at the Institute of Historical Research, made the comment as the IHR hosted a panel discussion on “New approaches to writing history” in partnership with the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

One good example, the event heard, was the award-winning book by Bart van Es, professor of English literature at the University of OxfordThe Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found. This explores how and why his paternal grandparents in the Netherlands sheltered Jewish children during the Second World War and even adopted a girl called Lien, yet in 1988 decided to cut off all contact with her.

When he came to write it, Professor van Es explained, he was influenced by the way that his own discipline of English had become “narrowly historicised”, a place “where the literary had died away”. After spending “an intense month” interviewing Lien and visiting the nine different places she had been hidden during the war, therefore, he produced a highly personal account, not striving for traditional historical detachment but writing from “a compromised position as narrator and a member of the van Es family”.

An even more radical example of “matching form and content” was described by Sarah Knott, associate professor in history at Indiana University Bloomington, and the author of a new book called Mother: An Unconventional History.

The “conventional protocols”, she pointed out, required historians “to seek change over time, to tell narrative, and to write in the third person. Conventional history writing is particularly adept at identifying overarching chronologies, offering a convincing narrative, and adopting a clear distance from the investigation.”

When she decided to embark on “a history of maternity” in the UK and North America, however, she soon realised that she would have to adopt a different approach. Part of the problem was “the fragmentary, piecemeal nature of archival traces of mothering, both hands typically having been needed to hold the baby…A small child continually breaks into maternal speech.” Equally significant was her own “sleep-deprived, interruptive state, with one baby and then another on hand, which made sustained thinking and long-form writing into temporary impossibilities”.

“Infuriated by the way that history in bookshops means kings and queens,” Dr Knott was determined to “dignify the domestic and the visceral with a sustained curiosity” and to pay attention to neglected topics such as “the sound of an infant cry” (interpreted in different ways at different times) and “the experience of being continually interrupted”. The only way to do justice to all this was to abandon standard models and produce “an unconventional history” that was “verb-led, based in anecdote, and composed in the form of a first-person essay”.

Academics needed to “escape a culture of productivity and churning out ‘outputs’”, said Professor van Es, Instead, we ought to “give people more time to produce things they actually believe in”.

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