Skip to main content
 

This essay was originally presented by Marla Miller as part of a panel discussion at the Symposium and Celebration in Honor of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall on September 20th, 2014.

09202014_JaquelynDowdHall_retirement007Those of you whose work engages the world of public history may know that a conversation has unfolded in recent years over the nature of that enterprise. Is public history a field? A discipline?  A subfield?  A methodology?   For a long time, my answer to that question has been that public history is essentially a demeanor, a way of orienting oneself and one’s scholarship to the world at large.  And as I contemplated ways that my work as a public historian today intersects with the training I received from Jacquelyn, I realized how fundamentally my own scholarly demeanor was shaped by my studies here.

I could talk about what it meant to witness a history practice that seamlessly combined activism and analysis.  I could talk about the public debate on the “relevance” of the humanities, and what I learned here about putting history into action to make sense of—and change—the world.  But in the end, like many of the contributors to this conversation today, I found myself coming back again and again to the craft of writing.  So I want to talk about writing itself as constitutive of the best public history practice, and a fundamental part of what I have learned from Jacquelyn.

In many ways these remarks circle back to points made at the start of the day by Jennifer Donnelly, and Anna Krome-Lukens’ comments about Jacquelyn’s prose as models of storytelling and narrative arc.  That so many of us today have wanted to underscore the importance for us of Jacquelyn’s inspiring prose is really moving to me; she sets the bar high—and just think of the multiplier effect here, all of this quality literature launched into the world as a result.  But good writing isn’t just effective communication; our best writing helps us think the big thoughts.  In her 1998 article “You must remember this,” which others have quoted from today, Jacquelyn quoted the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, who said that “historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living constantly remake.”  As she encouraged her readers to see the poetry in and of history, Jacquelyn urged us to embrace “writing that emphasizes not our expertise but our common condition, writing that troubles the boundaries between poetics and politics, memory and history, witnessing and writing, acting and research.”

For me, this isn’t advice only for history-writing. Instead, it resonates with the specific values that infuse public history practice.  In the Feminist Studies article from which this panel’s title is drawn, her essay “Second Thoughts,” and other places too, Jacquelyn writes about writing itself: how we craft beginnings and endings; how we piece stories together, leaping across evidentiary islands to build what looks like a coherent picture, if only in retrospect; how we learn, re-learn and unlearn.  That’s exactly the sort of “reflective practice” that public historians have been talking about lately in the pages of our own blogs and journals—the need to foreground the processes by which we work, throwing open doors and drawing back curtains so that that our audiences can’t help but see inside the practice of our craft.   This is new to conversations among public historians, but it occurs to me that Jacquelyn has been modeling this sort of scholarly transparency for a long time (another way she’s been “pioneering,” a word we’ve heard again and again today), and I’ve come to see it as part of the way she has trained generations of public historians.

I can hardly articulate what a revelation her essay on “second thoughts” was to me. We’ve talked a good deal today about the many ways Jacquelyn’s deeply humane approach to the men and women of the past has inspired us, but I’m grateful for how she helped me think about our own humanity as scholars.  Scholars, it turns out, are people, too—people who think and evolve, circle back to old questions with fresh perspective, continue to grapple with ideas after the seeming finality of publication, even change their minds.  This is to second Jen Ritterhouse’s observation earlier today about the ways Jacquelyn has modeled the “scholar in process;” that transparency is a quality that has meant a lot to me, at Chapel Hill and in the years since, and has become a fundamental part of my own scholarly practice.

“Writing that emphasizes not our expertise but our common condition” also says something about genre.  It means traditional scholarship, yes, but other forms as well.  Getting historians to publish in a range of venues is critically important to maintaining the activist stance we need to confront the ongoing challenge to the value of the humanities.  We must think much more broadly about the genres in which we write, and embrace ALL of them, not just the strangely narrow range that defines much of academic practice.  At dinner last night, Jacquelyn was simply beaming as she told me about Katy Simpson Smith’s historical novel Story of Land and Sea.  Not all advisors, I think, would be as elated to see a student translate their expertise into fiction, but I’m not at all surprised that Jacquelyn is.  I didn’t think twice about pursuing a trade biography of Betsy Ross when that felt like the right thing to do, and others of Jacquelyn’s students—and Jacquelyn herself—have made important contributions and interventions in the form of op-eds, grey literature, and fiction.  The pride that was evident on Jacquelyn’s face as she described Katy’s work is a testimony to how she has made her students feel like all these forms of expression are not only legitimate, but essential for historians to pursue.   I’ve been thinking about a course on the history of the historical novel as public history practice for a while and now feel re-energized about that—so already this event is catalyzing new relationships and new enterprises.

I also remember (Anna talked about this this morning, and Bryant Simon a bit too) that Jacquelyn taught me to notice words, recommending that I keep a notebook of words I encounter that resonate for me.  I still do that today: flip to the back of any book I’m reading and in the endpapers you’ll find lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives that struck me as useful. In recent years I’ve begun reading a lot of poetry, which is especially productive for word-hunters.  It seems telling to me that both Kathy Nasstrom and I would see poetry as relevant to our conversation today, because I believe there’s a fairly direct relationship between my training here and my interest in poetry now.   There is another little course I’ve been contemplating for some time now—and maybe someday a little book, too—called “Poetry for Historians.”  When it happens, I now realize that its roots, too, will be found here in Chapel Hill.

Toward that end, over a recent vacation I was reading Jay Parini’s Why Poetry Matters. On poetry, historians & metaphor, and the importance of the reading of poetry to the craft of history, he points out the deep need to understand the strengths and limits of metaphor & analogy. (We “might, for example examine the phrase ‘war on terror’ as an implicit metaphor in need of serious deconstruction.”)  One of my favorite passages in Jacquelyn’s writing, and one that offers its own powerful metaphor, comes from the essay “Open Secrets,” which reflects on the nature of the biographical enterprise, an interest Jacquelyn and I share.  Her grappling with her responsibility to the Lumpkins of the past and of the present certainly helped prepare me to engage both the historical figure of Betsy Ross and her many modern-day descendants. As I struggled to balance my desire to set Ross’s record straight with my deep respect for those who steward her memory, and wrestled with my own relationship to a woman who was necessarily to some extent a product of my own historical imagination, I found myself thinking about similar strains in Jacquelyn’s work.  As she writes, “What is so tantalizing and poignant about biography…are the feelings of love and responsibility it generates, the intimacy it simultaneously frustrates and invites, the tension it produces between respect for privacy and lust for knowledge, and the way it can position even the most respectful author as an intruder, a thief in the houses of the living and the dead.”

“A thief in the houses of the living and the dead.” That’s as close as prose gets to poetry.  And those emotions and tensions—it’s hard to think of a more eloquent expression of the demeanor that underpins core public history concepts like “shared authority” than that.  And so I’d like to suggest that thinking about Jacquelyn as a writer helps explain all the public historians in the room today, and among Jacquelyn’s students.  Anna’s remarks about becoming less cynical and more empathetic, Bryant’s remarks about the deep humanity of her work—I too recognize that this has all been part of my training as a public historian.  When I was a student here in the 1990s, I might have said that my training in public history was coming from places off campus:  a summer at the Southern Historical Collection, or the internship at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.  But I’d have been wrong.   At the foundation of my practice as a public historian—the most important part—are the values, priorities and scholarly demeanor that Jacquelyn modeled for me, and for other public historians who took their first steps into the field here.

 

Comments are closed.