Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America

By James Axtell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
History as Imagination

EXCEPT IN THE PRIVACY OF THEIR OWN CLASSROOMS, HIStorians seldom have an opportunity to declaim upon their disciplinary practices and credos. If they write history as well as teach it, they spend the vast majority of their time and effort on the past, not their own present. This is as it should be. But disciplines are protean, living things which constantly change, and their practitioners should from time to time take stock of how and why they do what they do. One way is to follow the philosophical and methodological debates that pepper their professional journals and conferences. Another is to put pen (or word processor) to paper to summarize their own beliefs and practices.

On an icy evening in January 1987, after twenty years of historical practice, I was given the pleasant opportunity to talk about how and why I spent my waking hours as an historian. The previous spring three other William and Mary professors and I had been given endowed chairs, and the university, in a fit of ritual exuberance, asked us to deliver inaugural lectures. Despite the inclement weather, a kind and curious audience of townspeople and collegians filled a large lecture hall to hear the new William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities sing for his supper. With the exception of the first three paragraphs, which were rewritten for publication in The Historian in August 1987, the following medley was presented to that audience.

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