Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Smudgy Window of History

Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns

It is sunny, cold, and quiet here in Hartford. No one is out. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for the big storm that will roll through this afternoon. It seemed a good opportunity to sit down with Laura Waterman’s book, Losing the Garden, a memoir about Waterman marriage to Guy Waterman and the events leading up to his suicide on Mt Lafayette in 2000.  I didn’t even make it to the first page, though, because I was rather struck by Stephen Dobyns’ epigraph:

It is hard for me to say what is precisely true. Memory distorts. Psychology, emotions, good health or bad — all drag their feet across events. The details that I might remember one day are not those that I might remember on another day. And certainly my memory has its own agenda — to show me off this way or that. My subjectivity is the smudgy window through which I squint. [Stephen Dobyns, quoted in Laura Waterman’s Losing the Garden]

In this simple, elegant paragraph, Dobyns expresses an idea that is at the core of academic history: the perils of subjective experience.

For historians, there are two parts to this.

The first: beware the recollections of your subject. People remember events in ways that are selective and distorted. Often these distortions of memory increase over time. Oral historians often find that subjects interviewed forty or fifty years after a particular event remember it in ways largely at odds with the records they kept at the time.

The second: beware the distortions of the storyteller. Many of my students think of history as a fixed series of events that have been culled from the documents, dutifully analyzed, and then set down in stone (or in their case, textbook) for the ages to admire.

Historians, however, are much more aware of history as a living thing, something in continual motion, pushed, pulled, or turned upside-down by scholars of the present. These changes do not emerge from the discovery of new historical data (although this happens too), rather because historians cannot help but bring their own interests, beliefs, and preoccupations to the subjects they study. As culture changes, so do historians and the histories they write.

George Washington

George Washington

One sees the dangers here. If one carries too much of ones beliefs back into the past, it will dominate one’s thinking. We could write a factual, empirically rigorous book  called George Washington: Our Racist, Sexist, Non-vegan Founding Father.

But such a book would be of limited value  because these labels tell us little about Washington as a unique figure. Washington’s ideas about race, sex, vegetables, etc  were broadly shared in the 18th century, enough to be seen as social norms in his society.

Focused on the chasm of difference between Washington and modern society, such a book would miss the subtle textures of past itself, the differences that mattered to people of the day. In the profession, we even have a name for this sin of modern bias which is called “Whig History.”

Yet the historian cannot leave modern influences at the outer door of the archive. Nor should she. As much as a historian’s  ideas and beliefs are a hazard, they are  also the engine of historical creativity, the force which keeps history fresh and ever-changing, even when the events we hope to understand are long ended.

To offer one example: until the 1950s, historians tended to emphasize politics and economics events, focusing on the roles of kings, ministers, and generals.

Yet the social revolutions of the 1960s made a deep impression on historians (and other academics) who became aware of the way that certain groups — women, minorities, colonial subjects — had been excluded from public discourse. Many historians took this revolution to heart, asking questions about these groups in the past.

The result was a proliferation of new kinds of histories, of peoples who had largely been ignored by earlier generations of historians. If my hypothetical book about George Washington is an example of the present’s influence on history at its worst, Lauren Thatcher Ulrich’s  book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard is an example of it at its best.


Working on the project in the 1980s at a time when women’s history had come into its own, Ulrich saw the potential of Ballard’s story to change the way we thought about gender, culture, and economics in colonial America. But to offer this story, Ulrich faced a difficult choice, one she writes about the  in her own diary of 1982:

The trick would be to write something more accessible than the diary itself. Is this midwifery or bastardy– to borrow a metaphor from Mrs. Ballard’s world? Am I giving her life to the world or substituting an “illegitimate” book for a real book–hers.


Ulrich thought her book would be more valuable if she – and not Ballard – served as the ultimate storyteller. And an amazing story it is, one that illustrates Ballard’s industry and Ulrich’s genius. Yet it is also a book of its day, made possible by changes in the culture of the late 20th century. It is an example of the beauty of the present in history, of history’s undeniable subjectivity. It is the force that makes history art, not science, ever fallible, never finished, always new.

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