History by the Letter | The Nation


History by the Letter

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Whatever else the investigations of the President have uncovered, they have yielded thousands of sources--transcripts, letters, memos, audio- and videotapes--which Americans have devoured with glee. Documents of all sorts, in fact, are more widely available than ever.

About the Author

Louis P. Masur
Louis P. Masur teaches history at the City College of New York. His book on the 1903 World Series, played between...

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As the Starr report demonstrated, the Internet increasingly serves as a distribution center for a variety of texts. It offers nearly immediate access to newly released material and features countless sites that contain unedited historical sources. The Library of Congress alone will have millions of texts and artifacts digitized and online by the year 2000. Although documents arriving at 52,000 bytes per second deprive readers of the feel and smell of coarse and musty pages, as a result of the Internet more people than ever will have access to the materials out of which we understand and interpret the American past.

There is something inviting about primary sources: Through them we establish an original relationship with the past. They allow us to hear the voices and sense the textures of another time and place. They also serve as a medium through which the past continues to resonate in the present. Examining the sources, historians glean those facts with which they begin to construct their narratives. A novelist can invent facts but a historian must find them.

Yet the documents do not speak for themselves; we make them speak. Shelby Foote, novelist and historian, often quotes John Keats's declaration that "a fact is not a truth until you love it." Turning facts into truths, moving from document toward meaning, is the essence of the historian's craft. It is what makes history so compelling. It is the reason there can never be a single "definitive" work on a subject. And it is the flashpoint for controversy. In the past decade, the most contentious public debates about the past have pivoted on the selection, interpretation and presentation of texts and artifacts in two Smithsonian exhibitions--"The West as America" and "The Enola Gay." The facts, whether westward migration or the dropping of the atomic bomb, are not at issue, but the larger truths about these events are deeply contested.

To say that we make documents speak is not to say that we can make them say whatever we like. A novelist such as Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried, can brilliantly explore the tensions between what he calls "happening truth" and "story truth" and, in pursuit of the latter, encourage us to disregard the facts as culled from the documentary record. "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth," writes O'Brien. Historians, of course, must stay true to the evidentiary record. We cannot invent or bury or twist the facts to fit our preconceived notions. The truths that we communicate must be grounded in the documents.

Too often, however, scholarly anxiety over lack of evidence and nervousness about moving beyond the surface of the text prevent historians from pursuing larger truths. As Annette Gordon-Reed has shown in her examination of historians and the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship, such evidentiary qualms can serve to mask ideological agendas. To get from known facts to historical truths leaps must be made, and the best historical writing hovers somewhere between going too far and not going far enough.

Wherever the journey leads, it begins with the documents, and the choice of them is itself part of the interpretive process. "The art of research," observes a detective in a recent movie, "is the ability to look at the details and see the passion." It will come as a surprise only to those who envision history as a neutral, objective science that when each of us looks at the same details we uncover different passions and that our passions in the first place guide us toward certain documents and away from other ones.

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