Sunday, September 30, 2012

How History Should Be Told

A few days ago I was flipping through the channels when I came to a live broadcast of the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. There speaking to a group of hundreds of admirers was Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson.

As of 2012, Caro has now completed four of a projected five volumes covering the years of LBJ. Caro had a lot of interesting things to say about Johnson the man. But what I found most interesting was his reflection on how he conceives of his project. He told the crowd:

I don't think of these books as being about Lyndon Johnson. . . .  I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a famous man. From the moment I first thought of doing books, I thought of biographies as a way of examining the great forces that shaped the times that they lived in.

Caro's words reminded me of something I had read in the original preface to Fernand Braudel's 600,000-word history of the Mediterranean world during the second half of the sixteenth century. A father of modern historiography, Braudel relates that when he began his research on what would eventually become such a massive work, he meant only to write a diplomatic history of the reign of the Spanish king Philip II. But the further he explored the man and his times, the more the historian realized that whether he was studying the king of Spain or Don John of Austria, "despite their illusions" such leaders of the time were "more acted upon than actors" (19).

More acted upon than actors. Such an interesting phrase, it suggests that although it would be foolish to say that human leaders such as Alexander the Great or Martin Luther or Adolf Hitler made no real difference, historical contexts like geography, political states, and economies are also "participants" in the story that is history.

So, whatever I eventually publish in the field of history, I want it to be about people. I also want it to be about "the great forces that shaped the times they lived in." That seems to me the right way.

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