Like watching paint dry…or why I don’t get invited to too many parties

24 03 2008

Okay, maybe it’s not that boring. However, I’d bet most people wouldn’t give a hoot about the study of the study of history. As much as I like studying Lincoln and the Civil War, reading about those who have written about them ranks a close second. Truth be told, sometimes I find it more interesting. Trying to get inside the minds of those who interpret the past, and hopefully appropriating some of their skill in relation to my own work, brings me as much joy as just about anything I do (hence the title of this post).

I think it goes back to a time when I was always interested in how things were done or how they worked. An old electrician, who worked on my mother’s house, recalled several years later how I followed him around enthralled at what he was doing. When my paternal grandfather died just a few years after his son–my father–did, during the visitation the funeral home director showed me where he embalmed bodies (the room was empty, of course). While satisfying my curiosity, I now realize he was trying to make death seem less frightening to a 10-year-old boy who had been hit hard by it twice in his short life.

Studying historiography has given me a better perspective of just how historians of all stripes work, what they’re required to do and what they go through in their attempts to make sense of the past. While an undergraduate, it also gave me an inkling of just where I wanted my professional life to go.

After I graduated from college in 1985 I had planned to begin work on my master’s degree and then get my doctorate. I assumed that by the time I was where I am now, I would be teaching history at a small college or university somewhere and writing narrative history while wisps of smoke circled my head from the ever-present pipe I was convinced that real historians had to smoke in order to join the brotherhood.

Watching historians at work only added to Clio’s alluring siren song. Three historians, in ways they would never have imagined, pushed me toward that path, although I later rejected the journey, at least along the academic road.

The first was Robert H. Ferrell, who was teaching at Indiana University and was guest-lecturing at Eastern one evening in 1984. Already well known to me as a scholar of the life of Harry Truman, meeting Ferrell was, to this historical nerd, akin to meeting a rock star. Hanging around Coleman Hall waiting for the lecture to begin, I walked by and saw Ferrell in an empty classroom, doing some last-minute polishing on his talk.

Knocking hesitantly on the door, he waved me in with a broad smile. I nervously introduced myself and said I was planning on attending his lecture that evening. He stopped working and shook my hand. “And what do you plan to do with your life?” he asked.

“I want to be a historian,” I replied. “Do you have any advice?”

“Well Mr. Wick, the first thing I would advise is to sell your television. You’ll never write history as long as you have one of those. Other than that, just read, read, read.”

With that, he went back to his lecture.

After a less-than-auspicious start in my first graduate seminar, I realized that more school wasn’t in the cards. I had to work, earn money, clear my mind and then return to school.

I accomplished one out of the four. I did work but the only thing clear was my bank account since small town journalism rarely resulted in more than little money, long hours and…well let’s say that going back to school died a quick but merciful death.

Three years later I was again thinking about graduate school, or getting a high school teaching certificate. Constantly arguing with myself over what path to take, I chanced upon a wild scheme sure to fail. I had just read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, part of the Oxford History of the United States, edited at the time by C. Vann Woodward. I decided I would write both Woodward and McPherson, asking them their opinion.

One day in August, I received a yellow envelope from Yale University with the name “Woodward” typed on top of the return address. My heartbeat quickened as I tore open the envelope (carefully) and took out the letter. On a full page, typed by himself (there were uncorrected typos throughout), came his advice. My hands trembled.

“Dear Mr. Wick:

My standard reply to questions like yours was for a long time: Don’t do it unless you feel you have to. Yet I think I might not have passed that test myself. I did it as a means to an end, in large part, to finish a book I was writing. Still it is not a decision to make lightly. One must reckon the costs, not only in terms of debt, but also the feasible alternatives.”

Admitting that some might not think it too practical to accumulate debt for a degree, Woodward demurred and then added a piquant comment. “[T]he passion for the subject should outweigh jobs as incentive. Motivation has to be reward other than monetary. And in my opinion motives should include desire to write as well as teach.”

Woodward wasn’t that optimistic that the field of southern history, which I had planned to enter, would have a great demand in the future, although he said (in my favorite comment in the letter) that “it is my arrogant opinion that any historian who can’t make southern history create a demand should give up.”

In September I got another envelope. This time, it was from Princeton University. In it was a more formal, although just as personal letter from McPherson.

You ask about the advisability of pursuing graduate study in history. I think this would be a good time to do so. The job market for historians is in the process of turning around, and by the early 1990s I expect it to be very good. Beginning historians have gone through some lean years for the last 1½ decades, but I am fairly confident that this is coming to an end and the next decade, at least, will see a strong demand for trained historians entering college teaching. Thus I would like to encourage you to apply to graduate schools. “

McPherson believed that the strong fields would be social history and economic history, which he warned would require some mathematical and quantitative skills, which I had never had.

“There are important questions that need pursuing in all fields, and I think that choice of a field of concentration would depend on your own tastes and abilities,” he wrote.

Despite their encouragement, I decided to get my teaching certificate. It was a simple matter of economics, although I never did teach high school history.

But the lessons I learned from those three men helped to deepen the love I already felt for studying the past, and in a way is responsible for my continued interest in historiography. Much of the purpose of historiography, as I see it, is to glean what we can from the work of historians past and present in an attempt to better understand their work, how it originated, and what meaning we can take from it. In some ways, I think there could be no better lesson on how to study the past than to study those who already have. While maybe not a perfect roadmap, it remains just as educational and meaningful as three men’s words of encouragement did to a wet-behind-the-ears kid in the 1980s.

 

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