Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The art of history

I don't get a chance to look through the great British periodical History often enough. When I do, I am often impressed with the articles dealing with meta-topics. The latest to catch my eye is "How Historians Begin: Openings in Historical Discourse," by the great medievalist/legal historian Trevor Dean (not to be confused with the Coronation Street character of the same name). The article, which appeared in the October 2010 issue, is unusual in looking at the structure of history writing as a literary form which has interesting things in common with fiction.

The abstract:
Why is the problem of beginning – much discussed in literary scholarship – not dealt with in similar depth by historians? This article attempts an answer to this question, and does so in three ways. First, it examines literary scholarship on textual openings, showing the various ways in which the beginning is given significance. Then, it examines and challenges the common presentation of historical discourse as distinct from fiction. Finally, it examines two sets of data: the openings of 100 historical monographs are analysed for their ‘fictionality’, and the openings of 200 research articles are analysed for their rhetorical structures
Dean answers the question he poses somewhat provocatively:

...[H]istorians succeed in concealing the elements of their writing that they share with the writers of fiction: they conceal them from themselves and they conceal them from their readers. Hence the absence of reflection on this issue. (p. 417)
I hope senior honours history undergraduate and graduate history courses in Canada pick up on this article. There is an admirable amount of attention paid to methodology and research design in post-secondary history pedagogy nowdays, but (as far as I am aware) not much paid to the form in which this research is presented. Not only would Dean's six tropes for beginnings be useful to newbie historians, but his analysis of the reasons for these choices and the reasons for non-discussion would be sure to fire up a seminar.
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