My previous blog commented on Delores Hayden, Roy Rosenzwig and David Thelen’s articles regarding how all history is personal. The two articles made excellent points about how regardless of an individual’s perspective, how they interact with history is fundamentally personal. Either you are an individual who experienced an event (you stormed the beaches at Normandy), you have some cultural or familial tie (your uncle stormed the beaches at Normandy) or you relate the event to some other personal experience (your cousin was in Khe Sanh or Irag, etc). Or it could be more visual or audial, the older gentleman providing the interview of his World War II experience reminds you of your grandfather. This can be encouraging if he served in the US Army, or discouraging if he served in a Nazi SS battalion (no one can picture their kind grandfather working in a death camp). My point with all of this rambling is that the consumer of history instinctively make the story personal, but what about the historian, should they make it personal or should they remain detached?
Our reading last week included and article by Dr. Fosl about her book on the late Ann Braden. She discusses the long process of researching the book, of her long and sometimes arduous evolving relationship with Ann herself. Initially Ann was very reluctant to help, however over time their professional relationship evolved into a friendship, even to the point the Dr. Fosl was concerned about Ann’s ‘voice’ dominating the book, but not enough that Dr. Fosl did not allow Ann to proof read the book before the final submission to the editor.
As a historian, we hear the mantra of ‘being objective’; however, no one can be a purely logical robot, we all have life experiences that shape the prism through which we view the world. And after working with someone over a decade it is hard not to become friends. The risk that any historian runs, where does the relationship and the book cross the line from biography to autobiography with a ghostwriter. That is the line that Dr. Fosl danced around. While my reading is limited to her essay, I cannot venture an opinion regarding the book. Based on the essay, she was aware of the risk and tried to keep it on the biography side.
Some of the book’s reviews complained about Dr. Fosl lack of critical analysis regarding some of Ann’s more sensitive subjects such as her membership in the communist party (she was), but did this make the book ‘bad history’? I do not think so, our class discussion made an excellent point that the close friendship allowed for a deeper revelation of Ann herself. Information that may not have been discovered without the close friendship between Ann and Dr. Fosl; however, the cost of that revelation is the avoidance of the sensitive subjects.
There will be other books that present a critical analysis of Ann’s life and that address her membership in the communist party, but any future historian should not limit their research to one book, they should take the whole spectrum of books to paint a full picture of Ann, they just need to also ‘do diligence’ regarding the sources to understand the context that the historian presented the information.
This diligence is no different that reading a newspaper, not all articles are equal; there is a difference between reporters, columnist and editorial writers. Knowing who wrote the article and why helps the reader better digest what is written to be able to sift through facts and opinions. One article is not more valuable that another, they all are valid articles but they serve different purposes and have different goals.