Being There: Intimacy and Distance in History

Let’s start a blog post about history with a bunch of questions about the present.

I’ve had a couple of conversations with a respected local historian recently–we’ll leave names out of it–about a recent book addressing a historical site in Florida. The local historian is unimpressed. The author’s “never been there!” he told me this summer back in June. And again, August, he said the other historian’s “never even visited the site,” as though this indicates a self-evident and basic flaw in the work which bears repeating. I have no idea whether the author has ever visited the site, but the sharpness of this dismissal–and its seeming self-evidence–raises the question: does it matter?

In Swampwalker’s Journal, his meditation on wetlands, David M. Carroll writes, “The foundation of my writing and drawing is personal experience, my ‘being there,’ and what I have learned from having been there through so many epochs of my life.” Though indebted to scholars and other observers, he maintains: “Moments outside of the human world in the shallows of a marsh. with red-winged blackbirds calling and the wind rustling in cattails or reedgrass, or a solitary spell at the edge of a swamp on the edge of winter—these will bring intimations of the spirit that moves with the water, the light, and the life of the marsh.”

The aggrieved local historian seems to think that “being there” is an essential part of doing history—that significant sites somehow convey “intimations of the spirit[s]” of the long dead who once walked the soil long trod beneath that on which we walk today. He may be right. I have seldom met a historian who was not pushed toward the craft by a moving childhood experience at some historical site. Right or wrong, he forces us consider: do the dead inhabit the land, even today, or do their “spirits” live in the archives? Are we enriched more by the dust of the earth or the dust of documents?

He raises a couple of interlocking questions, really, that I can’t hope to answer in a single blog post:

  • Francis Parkman walked the battlefield trod by Montcalme and Wolfe, interpreting their steps, their sights and sounds, with his own senses. Writing in the nineteenth century, though, he looked out over a less complicated palimpsest. (Parkman died in 1893, in fact, just as Turner was proclaiming the death of the frontier he had so lovingly rendered.) For historians of the near past, Parkman’s sensory investigation may still be an option. But what about those who write of the far-gone early American past? What about the literally buried or submerged world of the ancients?
  • In “Historians who Love Too Much,” Jill Lepore describes stroking a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in the archives. That lock of hair, she writes, “made me feel as though I knew him—and, even lee logically liked him—just a bit better.” It is necessary to balance “intimacy” with “distance.” But what is the correct balance? Can I know someone without meeting them?

I am working on an environmental history of the Seminoles, the Seminole Wars, and the Florida we think we know. Like my friend the aggrieved local historian I do not believe that I can tell the history of this munificent Eden without “being there.” But like Jill Lepore I am a little troubled by a sentimental attachment to the things of the past. I must balance “moments outside of the human world,” like David Carroll, against moments outside of the present. This blog is not the place to find the answer to these deep methodological questions, but to lay down the blue lines of my thought. I will begin by challenging myself to breathe deeply: once to taste the dust of the earth, twice to choke on the dust of the archives

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