Howdy, friends: today’s post is a transparent cry for help! I’m teaching historiography again to our incoming graduate students. (“Historiography” is the obscurantist term we use for a course that’s meant to be something like “introduction to historical practice.” I think we should just change the name to the latter term and stop intimidating our graduate students.) I’ve organized the course around an exploration of various scandals or ethical controversies in the practice of history recently, and I need your advice before I submit my book orders for the fall semester.
First, I’d like your suggestions for a memoir or reflexive book by a historian. In the fall of 2011, the last time I taught the course, I used Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: A History of Stories (1998; 2003), a book about White’s attempts to research the stories his mother told about her family and girlhood in Ireland. It was very good, but almost too subtle for my purposes. We also read the following week Debra Gray White’s Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008), which I will keep on the syllabus this time around because I found it incredibly effective and moving series of essays written from the margins rather than the center of the profession.
One book I’m considering in place of the White book is Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Historians’ Paradox (2008), which I haven’t read. We will also be reading his Past Imperfect: Facts, Fiction, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004) which I used last time and thought was an incredibly readable and clear history of the American historical profession (unlike, say, Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream of 1988, which I found incredibly dated almost upon publication as well as a turgid doorstop of a book.) I’m just starting The Historians’ Paradox now, and I wonder if there might not be too much overlap between it and Past Imperfect. However, I really like Hoffer’s lively and frank voice as a writer, and find that my students really appreciate it, too. Your thoughts?
I could also perhaps instead follow the family history and/or the biography elements of White’s book by assigning Julie Wheelwright’s Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright (2011), which is about both Esther Wheelwright and the way the legend of Esther was remembered by the Wheelwright family into the twenty-first century. (Julie is an indirect descendant of Esther, who lived from 1696 to 1780. She was born an Anglo-American child in Maine, abducted in war by the Wabanaki and likely adopted by them from ages 7 to 12, and then became a student and eventually a choir nun in the Ursuline convent in Quebec, where she remained the rest of her life. Regular readers here will remember that she is also the subject of the book I’m working to finish, and Julie and I were longtime collaborators on our Esther projects.) Then again, I’ve been meaning to read Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (2012), and she has written very perceptively on the relationship of biographer and subject as well. What do you think?
Second, I’d like to assign another book on public history. Jennifer Fish Kashay, one of the public historians in my department, suggested last time around that I use Shelley Ruth Butler’s Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa (1999; 2007), which is a fascinating exploration of the total $hitstorm that resulted from an exhibition on colonialism in Africa mounted by the Royal Ontario Museum in 1989-90. The exhibition’s postmodern take on the subject was interpreted by many community members and museum stakeholders (many of whom were people of color) as patronizing towards Africans, rather than critical of the colonial enterprize, which is what the (white) curator intended. I will assign that book again, but in a M.A. program populated by public history concentrators, I think another book on public history issues or controversies is important. (I’ve considered all of the stuff on the Enola Gay-Smithsonian controversy of 1994-95, but most of our students are already familiar with it–I’d like to find something new.) Do you have any ideas for me?
Here’s the rest of the reading list I think I’ll use, excluding individual book chapters or journal articles, FYI. Although most of the history scandals we covered last time around involved U.S. historians writing American history (with the exception of the ROM controversy described above), I am eager to hear any ideas you have outside of U.S. or European history. (Unfortunately, most of the non-U.S. history is in a unit I called “Tools of the Trade: Footnotes, Seminars, and Archives,” in which we read the books by Grafton, Smith, and Burton described below).
- Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000), either the Knopf original hardcover or paper editions or the 2003 Soft Skull Press edition.
- Antoinette Burton, Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (2006)
- Shelley Ruth Butler, Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa (1999; 2007)
- Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (1997)
- Peter Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fiction, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004)
- Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, & Historical Practice, 2nd edition (2000)
- Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Politics, and Fraud in the Ivory Tower (2005)
- Deborah Gray White, Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008)
- Your suggestions welcome here!