Make Yourself a Character?

Many of the historians I most respect and those who have most influenced me have been inspired – whether explicitly or more vaguely – by the idea that the personal is historical.

From feminist, women’s, and gender historians, through historians of the body, family, masculinity, and emotions, to the detectives of selfhood and sexuality, I like my stories of our past tender, specific, and as fragile as identity itself.

But if the personal is historical, where are the personalities of the historians?

There is a whole genre of academic legend shaped solely around the facts gleaned from word of mouth, throwaway comments, book dedications, and sly footnotes, which consists in building personalities for the Great Historians.

I know NZ Davis indirectly not only as one of the greatest anthropological historians, but also as a generous and passionate supporter of the work of younger scholars. I know Philippe Ariès – somewhat romantically, perhaps – as not just a versatile and daring historian, but also a man with a day job as an accountant for a fruit company. Academics were known to ungenerously refer to him as a grocer.

I build a picture of their characters for myself out of these shreds, and no one can deny that these character sketches influence how I understand their work.

A reading reminded me of this recently. It’s chapter from a book called Writing Creative Nonfiction.

(I was, by the way, a bit disappointed to find that when the editors put together this book, designed for American creative writing courses, their conception of ‘creative nonfiction’ turned out to be broader than the practitioners represented. There is plenty of memoir, a little biography, journalism and war-reporting even, but hardly anything that most historians would recognize as historiography.)

The chapter that struck me most, however, was a piece by Phillip Lopate ‘On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character’.

(First resolution about my character: never use the word ‘oneself’.)

While it was clearly geared towards memoir writers, who sometimes neglect to pay the same attention to the way they build an image of their own motivations and identity in the way they do for other people in their writing, it occurred to me that making yourself a character is a piece of advice historians could learn from.

Many historians seem to dislike writing themselves into their work, seeing it as self-indulgent, a distraction from the ‘real’ story.

Yet how can a historian not be a character in their own research?

The question becomes, what kinds of characters do you want to be? The voice of authority, wry detachment, humility, the trusted friend, the intrepid explorer?

Lopate advocates emphasising quirks, distilling your own personality down to an essential, dramatic tension that will drive your writing. But do readers of historical non-fiction want quirky interjections? I have a mortal fear of becoming a character akin to the paperclip from Microsoft Word.

And what can be the ‘dramatic tension’ that my character expresses? The desire to find out the ‘truth’ about a historical problem seems obvious. The desire to resolve my own struggles through an historical example sounds trite.

Lopate says that above all, the ‘reader must find you amusing’. This I find easier to buy into: the point is surely to write myself into my work in a way that makes it more compelling, that shows why I care, that lays me out for the reader to make their own choices about whether they agree with me. (A model I have been reading: Seth Koven’s incredible The Match-Girl and the Heiress).

So how to put myself in?

Some historians take the approach of early anthropologists, who prefaced their books with a kind of personal scene-setting. In one of my favourite books The Life of an Unknown, for instance, Alain Corbin begins with an account of himself starting the research. But more recent anthropologists have been critical of this kind of approach, which suggests that the character of the author might frame the work, but does not ‘intrude’ into it.

So at the moment, I’m experimenting with putting myself into some of my academic writing in different ways:

  1. The personal introduction (like Corbin, or like Ruth Harris in her book Lourdes another favourite)
  2. Perhapsing (where the first-person singular is used to show the reader that the work is a result of my questions, which sometimes go unanswered. I see this kind of personal insertion as a way to deal with historiographies, theories, implications)
  3. Narrating (where the I of the historian appears in the stories I tell, as if an active participant and witness to events, to signal the fact that the scenes I depict are, after all, composites based on my work to reconstruct past events)

I don’t want to write a book about me.

I don’t even want to write a book like Carolyn Steedman’s semi-autobiographical (and absolutely breathtaking) Landscape for a Good Woman. But I do want to be present to the reader in what I write, and I am not yet at the point where I know how the character I plan to make myself into will come across to the reader.

5 thoughts on “Make Yourself a Character?

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