As a practicing historian, academically trained no less, with thirty-four years of college teaching under my ever-expanding belt, I would be among the first to admit that the practice of history is not an exact science. I am somewhat irritated by those who keep insisting that history be included among the so-called “social sciences.” To do so implies that historical research is like conducting an experiment in a laboratory. God forbid that the image of a bent over figure in a quiet corner of a library, clad in an old, worn corduroy sport coat, should ever be replaced with that of a scientist in a lab coat.
The study of history is much more interesting and fulfilling than any of the natural sciences. Although I must admit that watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory makes it appear as though physicists have much more fun than historians.
We historians have much more power than any scientist. Scientists may plot how to destroy civilization, but we have the power to change the past. By selecting, recording, and interpreting past events, we create and give meaning to the past. When Alex Haley, author of Roots, went in search of his identity, he looked for and found it in his family history, not his genetic code.
Interpreting history is not the same as inventing the past. Interpretation of history is a quest for its meaning. All too often individuals without any training in the discipline presume to write history, but end with mythology. Examples could be cited from popular histories of the early American republic or the fairytales that Afrocentrists attempt to pass off as history.
Enough shop jargon! I do not wish to climb upon my soapbox to rant about the continuing decline of education, not to mention basic literacy. Rather, I want to address something of far greater interest than whether or not George Washington prayed at Valley Forge. (No doubt he did say grace before eating; after all, that was custom then. But did he kneel down in the snow with his cape draped over his shoulders and his hands positioned as if in an etching by Albrecht Durer? Well, if he did, it was probably under a cherry tree.)
Part of the historian’s task is to sort out fact from fiction. That does not mean, however, that history need be boring. On the contrary, history is about people, and as Art Linkletter used to say, “People are interesting.” Therefore, it follows that history must be interesting.
Even the dullest historical event can be “spiced up” with a bit of interesting, though completely irrelevant trivia, what best-selling author Barbara Tuchman called “corroborating evidence.” Ms. Tuchman said that the historian must always keep the reader in mind, and ask how to keep the reader turning the pages.
From time to time I come across an interesting historical fact that I file away in the back of my mind, intending to use it someday in a lecture, article, or book. Take for example this little noticed event from the past. On this day (October 15) in 2004, the National Traffic Safety Administration (NTSA) no longer required hearses to have anchors for child safety seats.
Manufacturers of hearses argued that a hearse was a “single use vehicle” that when in operation normally carried only two individuals—one driver and one passenger. The latter, they pointed out, was not likely to be injured in an accident. Therefore, anchors for child safety seats were uncalled for. The NTSA agreed. Hearses were no longer required to have anchors for child safety seats, that is, unless they had a back seat. In that event, the said anchors had to be installed.
I am not sure how I will eventually be able to use that bit of historical trivia, but someday I will be writing something and slip it in.
Not all historical events are necessarily “historical.” Sometimes fictional events become historical, as for example the wedding anniversary of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane on October 8, 1937. Lord Peter was (or should I say is) a creation of the well-known English author of mystery novels, Dorothy Sayers.
Lord Peter pursued Harriet, a stimulating and very lovely mystery writer, through the pages of several novels until finally establishing a lifelong partnership in 1937. You can find the “historical facts” regarding the event recorded in Busman’s Honeymoon.
The search for the history of such fictional characters as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane can be great fun for the trained historian, for whom it provides a welcome relief from the daily boredom of academia.
While visiting London some years ago, my own Harriet Vane and I decided to visit 221b Baker Street, where Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson rented rooms from Mrs. Hudson. Unfortunately, we got the address wrong.
Thinking that we were at the right address, and finding nothing Holmesian about the place, we entered what was perhaps a realtor’s office. As I approached a counter, a gentleman sitting at a desk asked if he might help us. I replied that we were looking for the residence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
The object of my inquiry did not respond. He merely said, in a rather loud voice, “Hey, Mable. It’s that Holmes thing again.”
A short, plump lady emerged from a back room. She walked up to the counter where we stood. She placed her hands on the counter in a prayerful manner. With a look of sympathy, as if about to comfort one who had just suffered a great loss, she said: “It’s just a story.”
I’m not sure what expression she saw on my face, but I felt as if she were about to reach across the counter and place my hand in hers.
She continued, looking as if she might shed a tear or two: “You see, the man never lived. It’s only a story.”
Not knowing what to say, and feeling just a little foolish, I thanked the lady. We turned and retreated to the street.
“Now what?” my dear wife asked.
“Let’s get on the Tube and go to Paddington Station,” I replied with a mischievous twinkle in my eye. “I want to see if I can locate the platform where Mr. and Mrs. Brown first met Paddington Bear.”
“Wonderful idea!” she said. Placing her arm in mine and smiling, we started off in search of the nearest entrance to the underground. “Do you suppose there might be little shop where we can purchase a small jar of marmalade?”
“Of course,” I replied. “After all, the English love marmalade.”