Does the Past Have a Future?

It turns out h-i-s-t-o-r-y can be spelled many different ways.

The past is everywhere today, or so it seems. For Canadians in the 1990s it started in miniature—the Heritage Minutes, sponsored by a private philanthropic foundation—and continued in 2000 in the large economy size—Canada: A People’s History, the mammoth multi-part series underwritten by the CBC. An entire television network is devoted to it, the History Channel (The Real Pirates of the Caribbean), while, over on PBS, Ken Burns’s immensely popular and instructive trilogy of American history (The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz) has been followed by Prohibition, turning it into a tetralogy. And that is just the documentary approach. Mining the past for lurid entertainment, television has brought us The Tudors and The Borgias (hot history) and, currently on HBO giving Ken Burns a run for his money, Boardwalk Empire about prohibition in Atlantic City.

The past is also at the local Cineplex—from Gladiator to Amazing Grace to The King’s Speech and J. Edgar—and on the World Wide Web. Historical fiction, it seems, has enjoyed a comeback, if the popularity of Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth in Britain, or Tracy Chevalier and Dan Brown in the United States, or Annabel Lyon, Peter Behrens and Guy Vanderhaeghe in Canada, is any indication. A few shelves over, in the non-fiction section, popular histories abound—by the likes of Charlotte Gray (on the Klondike gold rush), Mark Kurlansky (on salt, cod and baseball), Simon Winchester (on just about everything) and (still, in new editions) Pierre Berton. Starting with Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, we are seeing graphic novels used to explore Canadian history as well (Two Generals by Scott Chantler, for example, or Zach Worton’s The Klondike).

Meanwhile, professional historians, inside the academy and out, address themselves to a wide reading audience—Natalie Zemon Davis, Simon Schama, Daniel Francis, Margaret MacMillan—while others involve themselves in legal disputes of public importance demanding their historical expertise—the Canadian historian John Reid in aboriginal treaty rights, or the British historian Richard Evans in the lawfulness of Holocaust denial. The past is also a popular tourist destination (in the form of living history museums), a pastime (in the form of clubs and societies devoted to historical re-enactments—about to go right over the top this year with the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812) and an instrument of cultural accommodation (in forms such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada). On top of all this, never have so many people sought to discover their family roots.

At the same time, anxiety about the future of history is widespread. Historians, especially those in universities, agonize over the loss of their public audience and worry about the divided state of their discipline. In his widely read Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, Eric Hobsbawm decried the “destruction of the past” in his own time: “Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times in which they live.” Shortly before that book was published in 1994, Michael Bliss had suggested that academic historians were partly responsible for this condition when he accused them of “privatizing” the past, partly by turning their attention from public affairs to “social and personal” relations, and partly by addressing their histories to each other, instead of to a wider public, although Bliss’s concerns were more narrowly political than Hobsbawm’s. More recently, a former president of the Canadian Historical Association, Blair Neatby, wondered if the past itself had not been relegated to “the dustbin of history”: “Modern technology makes even the recent past seem outdated and so of little relevance. The emphasis is on what is new, what is innovative, what is different. Who will care about a past in a world in which past experience seems to offer no precedents for dealing with future problems?”

More specific concerns add to the general anxiety. Eminent scholars—Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob in the United States, or Richard Evans in Great Britain—feel the need to defend the truth-telling capacities of history and, in doing so, suggest that history may be in “crisis.” Others, outside the academy, like the Historica-Dominion Institute in Canada, lament the woeful ignorance of the past among young people, as evidenced by their scores on simple factual tests about their own country’s history. Cash-strapped museums find it difficult to maintain curatorial staff and undertake research in their collections, while responding to the demand for more populist exhibition practices. Moreover, among those who write about the past, relations are frequently strained. Journalists and academics regard each other with caution, at best, or mutual disdain, at worst. The boundaries between genres of historical writing have blurred, while a divide between the quality of representation, measured by a history’s literary merit and its accessibility to a wide audience, and the quality of scholarship, measured by a history’s research and its truthfulness to the past, has opened up, or so it often seems.

So: is history in flower, or is it in crisis?

The question of the future of the past is not new. Forty years ago, British historian J.H. Plumb put forward the arresting proposition (in The Death of the Past) that the past was then already dying. He was not so crude as to suggest that anyone in particular was killing it, but he wrote that, under the influence of science and industrialization, the past as a living thing that held human beings in its grasp and dictated their actions in the present was dissolving, and that history as “an intellectual process” was taking its place. He welcomed the death of the past, conceived in terms of customary bonds, mythical attachments, moral lessons and ancestral roots, which served to legitimize established social, political and religious authority. History, by contrast, was liberating, or potentially so, and Plumb encouraged professional historians to assist in completing the cultural transformation he thought he was witnessing, a transformation of which they were themselves a product.

Is the problem, perhaps, that Plumb was wrong, and that, in fact, history is dying and the past is very much alive? David Lowenthal thinks so: the current popularity of heritage, he thinks, represents a return of the past (in Plumb’s negative sense) in a new guise. Heritage is self-affirming and identity making, both individually and collectively, and has achieved a cult status in the present day: “heritage [has] become a self-conscious creed,” Lowenthal writes in Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, “whose shrines and icons daily multiply and whose praise suffuses public discourse.” Heritage is something very different from history, in his view (as in Plumb’s); it invites acquiescence, celebration and surrender, rather than criticism, analysis and active engagement in change. The popularity of historical fiction and film, as well as that of the museum site and commemorative events that one normally associates with the term “heritage,” may be evidence of the past’s advance and history’s retreat. Corporate promotion and sponsorship of heritage and its preservation suggest that legitimacy may be found in the past today, just as it was when crown and aristocracy rested their authority partly on genealogy and emblems of ancestry.

Alternatively, the various forms in which the past is presented today—to readers, viewers, web surfers, students, scholars, tourists and consumers—might better be thought of as a reordering of relations between past and present, rather than as the end of any one particular relationship. In the early 19th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay found in the new historical novels of Sir Walter Scott a challenge to the historiographic practice of his day. How might historians, he wondered, tied as they were to the evidence of the past, emulate the evocative power of novelists, free to imagine the past bound only by the limits of their imagination and a certain credibility of setting? Could historians touch the emotions of their readers, in the manner of contemporary Romantic poetry, as well as instructing their rational minds?

Carleton University historian Mark Phillips argues that Macaulay’s response to Scott illustrates the way in which historical writing adapts to changes in culture and society. He sees history as “a family of genres,” including antiquarian history, autobiography, memoirs, film and even fiction, and calls attention to the ways that academic history—“high” history—can interact with them. He also suggests that historians have certain “norms of distance,” self-imposed rules about how much detachment or immediacy is appropriate in approaching their subjects, which can change over time depending on the cultural context within which they are working. The proliferation of historical genres today and their evident popularity, says Phillips, could be regarded as a sign of change in those “norms of distance,” rather than “the end of history.”

In the 1960s, around the time when Plumb was predicting the death of the past, others foresaw the end of history of all kinds—a loss of cultural memory. In response to this gloominess, Elizabeth Eisenstein, an eminent historian of the printed word, suggested that, on the contrary, the problem of the present is information overload due to the proliferation of new media, making it more and more difficult to derive order and coherence from the multiplying remains of past societies. She proposed that one way of responding to the problem was to gain a fuller grasp of the history and development of the medium responsible for the proliferation—print.

Applying Phillips to Eisenstein, we might also think that what she saw as the “problem” of deriving order and coherence from the remains of the past might instead represent a shifting sensibility. We are less compelled today by the kind of grand, integrating theory that once drew readers to Hegel, Marx, Arnold Toynbee or even Fernand Braudel. We seem attracted to small, intimate stories—microhistory, to use the term that came into currency a quarter-century ago to describe books like Natalie Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre; we prefer these to big, overarching analyses. It seems that many readers want to experience the past, rather than to assess competing interpretations of it.

The desire for experience is especially evident in the medium of film, and even more especially in “the movies.” Ensconced in our seats in the darkened cinema, peering (it seems) into the past, we are invited to suspend, or at least to subordinate, our critical faculties in favour of opening up our senses and emotions to what is depicted on the screen. The experience of watching a movie relieves our “loneliness and alienation,” according to one historian. This is surely true of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it is a classic naval yarn, drawing us in by its narrative structure and moderating the suspense of the chase by interweaving the story of the evolving friendship between the two main characters—the commander, played by Russell Crowe, and the ship’s surgeon, played by the English actor Paul Bettany—especially in segments showing the pleasure they take in playing violin and cello duets. While these segments distance us from the action, they draw us closer to the protagonists.

Film is effective at achieving other kinds of closeness as well: for example, we can relate to the ideological commitment of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, a brutal story of the Algerian war of independence, or Burn!, which was loosely based on the Caribbean slave revolts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and which starred Marlon Brando as a ruthless mercenary (albeit touched with human sympathies) who served first the government, then the plantation owners.

Still, you might say, these are not really histories, are they? Most historical movies, in fact, are akin to historical novels, even those based on true stories. We do not expect to find arguments about evidence or interpretation in historical novels, nor does a judgement of their quality rest primarily on their truthfulness—only on their verisimilitude. What about documentaries, then, in which historians (or participants) might offer conflicting views of a subject in the familiar “talking heads” mode of documentary presentation? It is true that the devices of documentary film offer distancing and analytical opportunities, but the striking feature of contemporary documentary films is that they seldom seize them. The most famous documentary filmmaker in North America today is surely Michael Moore, whose films (such as Bowling for Columbine, Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story) achieve closeness to their viewers by their political engagement and their refusal to sit back and be objective. The same might be said of the most famous non-Moore documentary of our time, An Inconvenient Truth, whose star, Al Gore, is far better known than its maker, Davis Guggenheim.

In the case of Canada: A People’s History, producer Mark Starowicz deliberately avoided talking heads. Instead, he combined often stunning imagery with a portentous voice-over narrative—described by Robert Fulford as being rather like looking at a painting by Matisse accompanied by a descriptive label written by Tom Clancy—and equally portentous music, to which he added re-enactments of battles and brief interludes in which actors played characters from the past, in full costume, and read from their diaries, letters or other writings. These interludes—monologues in dramatic terms—functioned as quotations in the narrative structure and achieved a “you are there” effect designed to engage viewers.

Where Moore’s invited engagement is ideological, Starowicz’s was nationalist, an inspirational narrative seeking to demonstrate to its audience that old and elusive wish—that Canada’s past could be made both interesting and unifying. Indeed, his documentary series answered Bliss’s call for a national history more fully and effectively than any written history I know of, popular or academic. Although many historians were consulted for the series, onscreen interviews with them were rejected precisely because they were distancing. They interrupted the flow; they took viewers out of the story and made them stand back and consider. The chief historical advisor to the series called this “the academic approach.” It was rejected, he said, because “it distances you from the narrative and the drama of the event.”

The intimacy and drama of these films contrast with the sobriety—even dullness—of Canadian historical films, both documentary and dramatic, of the 1950s, suggesting that film making and film watching have shared in Mark Phillips’s shifting sensibility that gave rise to microhistory. Is film, then, the modern counterpart of Romantic poetry and the emerging historical novel that Macaulay presented as a challenge to historians? One response to this challenge might be found in ego-histoire, a marriage of the personal and the historical urged, even orchestrated, by the French historian Pierre Nora. Ego-histoire (or “self-history”) is not memoir, strictly speaking, but memoiristic essays seeking to connect the subject’s personal history with his historical scholarship.

The American historian Robert Rosenstone ventured into this new genre in 2004 in the journal of which he was a founding editor, Rethinking History, where he described, among other things, how he had come to write a personally inflected account of three American travellers to Japan in the late 19th century, who had attracted his interest after he had his own Japanese encounter as a visiting professor in the 1970s. Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan had taken its particular form not because he was seeking to imitate his French predecessors—Rosenstone was then unaware of them—but because he found that his own experience of Japan so deeply affected his understanding of the earlier travellers that he had to incorporate it into his study; indeed, his experiences ultimately framed his account of theirs. Another example is Modris Eksteins’s Walking since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century, which combines a history of Latvia in the 20th century and Eksteins’s autobiography.

The emergence of ego-histoire, I think, is part of a wider phenomenon, the blurring of the boundaries of historical genres that I referred to earlier, here especially those separating autobiography, memoir and history that had also been permeable in the 19th century, but that hardened in the 20th, partly under the influence of the professionalization of academic history. A similar, and perhaps related, blurring of genres has occurred in fiction in recent years, with the marriage of biography and fiction in such novels as Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author, coincidentally about the same man, Henry James, in which the worlds of fact and imagination come together with the effect of bringing us closer to their subject. Even more recently, the master of “high” historical fiction, Umberto Eco, has written The Prague Cemetery, a genre-bending historical/fictional account of the writing of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was itself based on an intricate series of forgeries, fakes, hoaxes and plagiarisms but was widely accepted as true, from the court of Nicholas II of Russia to the Germany of Adolf Hitler (and to parts of Alberta when I was growing up in the 1950s). Described by reviewers as a blend of Arthur Conan Doyle, George MacDonald Fraser and Jorge Luis Borges, Eco’s “novel” is populated by characters almost all of whom are real historical figures, while the story recounted is so fantastic that the reader finds it hard to believe it was not invented.

For our purposes here, ego-histoire represents an explicit departure from the ideal of objectivity and an embrace of what its adherents believe to be an inescapable subjectivity, which alters the relationship of writer and reader, just as it alters the posture a writer assumes toward his or her subject. In doing so, it draws in the reader as a kind of co-investigator: “I will tell you how I came to this subject,” it says, “and how my own life might have affected what I found—and even what I looked for—so that you, dear reader, may draw your conclusions informed by what I have told you about how I came to mine.” In this way, writer and reader participate together in a kind of methodological intimacy so foreign to the historiography of a half-century ago that it would not have been accepted as history at all. I recall wondering, in the 1970s, how I might possibly use one of my favourite books about Western Canada, Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, in a history class. The book, subtitled A History, a Story and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, was just that, a bringing together of three genres with the common purpose of communicating Stegner’s understanding of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan—the region of the Cypress Hills, in particular. I did not know how to deal with the differences in a way that satisfied my idea of a suitable historical text. The idea passed, whereas today I might consider offering them as alternative representations of the past.

I cannot explain why this change has occurred, but I am persuaded by Phillips’s advice that we think in terms of shifting sensibilities—of readers as well as writers—and varieties of representation, rather than of crises and endings, or prescriptive hierarchies, such as those implicit (or explicit) in comparisons of “popular” and “serious” history, or “journalistic” and “academic” history, when we study historiography. We might then be better positioned to wonder, for example, if the return of Big History, in the form of books such as those by Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright seeking to encompass all of humankind at all times—a genre common in the 19th century—might signal another shift in sensibility.

If there is one thing all readers of history might be prepared to accept, it is that the representation of the past is itself subject to mutation, depending on the social, cultural and economic needs and circumstances of its producers, both individually and collectively. My question, then—is history in flower or is it in crisis?—poses a false dichotomy. If, instead, we accustom ourselves to thinking about the multiplicity of historiographic representations, we will become more aware of the distinctive qualities of the books we read (or write), and perhaps become better able to reflect on their relationship to their various audiences.