Michael O’Brien, in “Of Cats, Historians, and Gardeners,” part of a roundtable discussion on “Self and Subject” in the June, 2002 Journal of American History, writes of the congenital bourgeois politesse of the historical profession in our era:
Historians seem to bungle the self-reflective moment and, on the whole, live dull, inconspicuous lives. Compared to novelists and poets, they tend to be genteel, unwilling to narrate their own jagged hatreds, betrayals, sexual passions, and ugly experience, though happy enough to narrate those of others. Rather, historians like to show themselves as virtuous and competent, the prudent guardians of reform and hope, the users of inoffensive language. (The skeptical historian, contemplating the matter of Sally Hemings, may venture of Thomas Jefferson that he might have been a hypocrite, not that he was a fucking son-of-a-bitch.) This primness offers thin encouragement that the cultivation of self will yield much of literary range, comparable to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, though we might hope for a peer of Vladmir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.
I have to say that his description of the historian’s personality and temperament cuts pretty darned close to the bone. Dull and inconspicuous? Check. Genteel and unwilling to reveal much of the self but willing to dish about others? Check check. Pretends to be virtuous, competent, and the prudent guardian of reform, and a user of inoffensive language (online anyway)? Checkitycheckcheck and check. Have a cuppa tea? When I read this earlier this week in preparation for my graduate seminar, I was reminded of this from The Onion last week, Historians Politely Remind Nation to Check What’s Happened in Past Before Making Any Big Decisions:
According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.
“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”
“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”
. . . . . . . .
While the new strategy, known as “Look Back Before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.
Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.
We are a profession of polite and pretty comfortable Cassandras. (At least those of us with tenure, anyway. We made it into the last lifeboats before the ship went down!)
Finally, all of this reminds me of an old joke I once heard about the American Historical Association annual conference–and stop me if you’ve heard a version of this old saw before too. Here goes: (supposedly overheard from one housekeeper to another in a quiet hallway): “I’ve never seen a convention with so much drinking and so little f^(king!”
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