Thursday, 3 March 2016

An historical blogger's predicament: part one

Writing about the distant past is easier than writing about the recent past. Now you might think that this makes little sense, after all, the further back you go the more fragmented is the evidence. But history is not what happened, history is a textual account of what happened from a specific perspective. The historian becomes as much a part of the history as the events and people within it.When little primary evidence exists, the good historian attempts to frame what there is within its peripheral aspects of time, place, and cultural awareness. The bad historian merely projects a modern viewpoint upon the past.

Recent history is more demanding: the evidence is not restricted to a just a few contemporary, or close to contemporary texts, it also exists in letters, diaries, government records, newspaper clippings and more. If the history is about a person instead of general events, this list extends to associates, friends and relatives of the person as well. Yet with all of this, the viewpoint of the historian will always be present. It is the historian who selects what is important and that is framed within the historian's own personality, belief and style. Sometimes, unfortunately, political pressures of many varieties can influence what a historian writes and the results move more toward propaganda than history. With the ancient historians, it is just as important to understand them as it is to understand what they wrote about. With modern, contemporary, historians, we can at least share a common time, and sometimes, a common place.

Blogging about history adds a new complexity because of its immediacy. There can be a dilemma whereby while it is simple enough to do a "Reader's Digest" abridgement of a Wikipedia article, the value of such a thing would be minimal. Original content is paramount on the web and people expect to see a fresh perspective; they like to become engaged in thought. Merely commenting on things already reported is best done in the comments of that report and as people's styles of doing so are legion, the comments field of an online article at least gives the reader a variety of such. The problem, of course, in doing something of greater quality is that a blog entry is mostly written alla prima without much time allowed for extensive research. I sometimes get around this by writing about things that have previously been the subject of much personal thought. Often, though, I start out with only the bare bones of an idea and try to flesh it out as best I can as I write. It becomes a constant interplay of thinking and working.  This very entry is an example of such, and I realized, a few lines ago that what I thought would be a single post must become a series. How many parts? I have no idea.

The discovery of a newly discovered historical document presents a gigantic problem for the blogger who wishes to bring it to public attention and that problem is amplified when the document is about one of the most famous people of the twentieth century and about a period of his life for which we have very little information. Unsatisfied with the idea of merely providing photographs and a transcript, I have been spending much of my recent time researching the surrounding history reading as much as is possible about the person; what they wrote; and what others have written about them. This has meant ordering books, even old first editions that were subsequently abridged. Some books are almost impossible to obtain: costing thousands of dollars, they are absent from the vast majority of world libraries and would not be available through an inter-library loan. A historian writing a book who can devote much time and money to travel and research is in a much better position than a blogger. I am aiming to have my research completed and the series started later this month or early next month

Obviously, such a famous person has been the subject of many biographies and just taking excerpts from these is little better than a Wikipedia abridgement. A newly discovered document deserves a new and original treatment, even on a blog. You will have to wait until tomorrow to hear about what that will be. "Who is this person", you ask? I might reveal that in this series, or I might not and, instead, choose to go for greater impact by leaving that question unanswered until the historical series actually starts. Blogging is an immediate activity.

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1 comment:

  1. No preliminary guesses, educated or not, will be published here.


    John (man of mystery)