The Trouble with History

young Irv Paul HermanMy father was passionately interested in politics and history and was an avid lifelong reader of the New York Times (which he read daily in its entirety) and many other publications.  Against all odds, the “dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill” wound up, a few years after World War Two, in the doctoral program at Columbia University where he was mentored, unhappily, as it turned out, by Richard Hofstadter and Henry Steele Commager (my sister reminds me– I’d forgotten about Commager), two titantic twentieth century historians.  One of them was his thesis adviser (I believe it was Hofstadter) and threw successive pails of cold, dirty water on his dream of becoming a professional historian.  

My father wanted to write his thesis on a theme from the Revolutionary War but Hofstadter was writing a book (one of thirty five influential volumes he’d publish in his illustrious career) on something else, maybe the Civil War, and needed research done for that.  The titan overruled my father’s wishes and assigned him to basically write a chapter for that book.  

He pecked away at it for a while and, newly married and working full-time,  eventually put it aside for lack of appetite, settling for a Masters Degree in History, instead of his doctorate.  His adventure with his famous thesis adviser had made him realize an unsettling truth about poison academia and he was not ready to swallow it.   If he was bitter about it, he said nothing except that one time he explained it to me.  On the other hand, if he was bitter about being whipped in the face daily as an infant, he never said anything about that either, not even once.    

But one thing I learned from him, in addition to a love of history, or a morbid fascination with it, anyway, is the importance of primary sources.  It is one thing to reconstruct events relying on memory alone, but it’s a far better thing to have the actual building materials at hand, materials prepared contemporaneously with the events they describe that refresh your recollection, as they say to witnesses.  Knowing the answer the lawyer asks: “will this help refresh your recollection?” as she hands the memo book to the witness.  And the cop looking up from his notes is a much more credible witness, or is shown to be that much more of a liar, as the case may be, because he’s actually looking at what he wrote the day the guy was allegedly choked to death by his former colleague.

Compare the impact of these two paragraphs, the one I wrote before I realized I had the actual quote from my father, transcribed, and the words of my father himself on the same subject.  You will immediately recognize the power of primary sources.  

My paragraph:

Destined, by the successful, brilliant son and daughter of his Uncle Aren who “ran the family”, to go to trade school with his brother, he escaped into the World War, part two.  “Nehama and Dave ran the family, and they had decided that my brother and I were too dumb to do anything but menial work, so we were going to trade school to be trained as rude mechanicals.”  

What he actually said, eighteen hours before his last breath:

 My life was preordained by my uncle and my aunt, Nechama and Cousin Dave.  If I got through High School my ultimate aim as far as the family was concerned: learn how to write and read and they’d sign you up for the NYA, Sheet Metal School, cause we were too dumb to think about going beyond trade.  All of us had to have a trade, it’s not like, well, you have a brain, we’ll help develop it.   You try to avoid the ultimate fate that life has dealt to us and inside you there’s something that says “there’s got to be a better world than this” but we weren’t permitted to dream beyond making a living.  

Poignant shit to be thinking about as you lay dying.  It actually chokes me up a little, still, because reading it I can hear his voice straining to say it that last night of his life, between gulps of water to soothe his aching throat.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could listen to his words in his own voice right now.  He had the foresight to ask, as soon as I arrived in his hospital room that last night, if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him.  He was a historian to the end.

But the larger point is, each of us only remembers so much.  What we remember is colored by everything else that has happened to us.  Even immediately after an event that two people were present for, their memories will diverge.  Each will notice different things.  

“Did you see his shoes?” one will say in disbelief about the maniac who just streaked past.  The other will have no idea what kind of shoes the naked maniac was wearing.  But to the first person, the fact that on one foot the guy was wearing a blue sneaker, and on the other an over-sized red, sequined pump, will be the most strikingly weird part of the whole picture.  The other one, staring at the maniac’s face, twitching arms and swinging genitalia, will have no idea how the other even had time to take in the shoes, much less what the shoes looked like.  The first will have a hard time believing anyone could have missed those shoes.

How much more difficult is it to write a full, nuanced history of anything?   Immediately after the Civil War historians generally told the story from the victors’ point of view, as is the general practice in writing history.  Reconstruction-era historians were unanimous:  slavery was evil, had to be stopped, its practitioners violently stood up for their right to continue this evil, we took up arms to stop the wicked insurrectionsts.  We amended the Constitution to ensure the rights of the newly liberated.  Bravo for us, we took the side of the angels and kicked their genteel, slave-holding Johnny Rebel asses!  

Would you be surprised to learn that within a short time there arose an influential school of historians who would swing the pendulum back, write from the point of view of those aggrieved Southerners unfairly deprived of their wealth, their personal property?  Sirs, have you no shame?   I don’t remember  at the moment what this once-famous school of history was called, I discovered these rascals during my research for a long, heavily footnoted article I wrote during law school, but their version of history held sway for several generations.  

Then the pendulum swung back, fair is fair, and another school of historians debunked that revisionist school of thought, quite thoroughly, to my mind.  But then, I am prejudiced.  We are all prejudiced, which is part of the trouble with history.  

And with biography, especially hagiography.  Gandhi, almost always held up as a saintly exemplar of the power of moral force focused through non-violent collective action, had another side to him.  You will look at him slightly differently when you recall what he told the Jews of Europe as Hitler was rounding us up. 

“You must not become like them, you must not become violent.  You must show, through your moral courage, that you are as fully human as they are.  Your moral force will stop them, force them to reckon with you as humans with souls the equal of their’s, they will not be able to keep killing you.”  I’m paraphrasing, as I picture the generally humorless Heinrich Himmler cracking up to read this sage Gandhian advice translated into German.

“Yes, the Great Gandhi is right: show us your moral force, Jews, you will become irresistibly human to us.  Then we’ll have a look at your naked, moral asses as you walk in a quiet, orderly line into the showers.  Nothing to fear, Jews, we get it, believe us.  Just clean up a bit after your long ride, and then we’ll all have appetizers and a good laugh about the whole thing, over drinks while we wait for the waiters to bring us a sumptuous dinner.”

There’s nothing funny about this, you might say.  My father would disagree, though he wouldn’t be guffawing about Himmler’s imagined speech either.  The only defense we always have against unspeakable horror, an admittedly limited one, is speaking of it satirically.   My father the historian taught me that.


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