Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Retrospective Self

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Retrospective Self

Article excerpt

Caveat lectori

Analyzing the conversion stories of the apostle Paul and Augustine, Paula Fredriksen argued that these narratives constituted an act of self-fashioning: Paul and Augustine created selves in retrospect. Moreover, the retrospective experience, she added, serves as "the origin of (and justification for) one's present," as an explanation both to one's self and to others. Fredriksen concluded, "The conversion account, never disinterested, is a condensed, or disguised, description of the convert's present, which he legitimates through his retrospective creation of a past and a self."1 This realization unsettles any attempt to write an intellectual autobiography: the present shapes the constmction of one's past. Is not autobiography, like much history-writing of yore, Whiggish? Reader, beware!

Becoming a Historian

How did I become a historian, if a student of early Christian texts can be so designated?2 In my education at a small country high school in Delhi, New York, the teaching of history was dismal. Class sessions were spent copying the teacher's notes from the blackboard. The most memorable information I gleaned from a world history class concerned the kings of Israel. Notes about the second king began:

"I. David.

A. He lived in a tent."

I was saved only by the prospect of having to take the New York State Regents examinations at year's end. The world history examination, for example, would cover subjects we never reached in class, such as nineteenthand early-twentieth-century Russia. Fortunately the textbook, however inadequate, served those of us who could read well and learn on our own. Reading, as for many young students raised in circumstances similar to mine, was a great outlet. I always had my nose in a book. Now, in retirement, the last hour or two of the day is customarily spent with a novel (preferably the big, nineteenth-century variety, spiced with a bit of contemporary fiction).

With this abysmal education in history, I entered Vassar as a freshman in 1956. It was my mother who urged this "better" college education for my sister and me, rather than the teachers' college that many in Delhi thought was "good enough." Since we both would receive scholarships from New York State, our college of choice had to be in that state: hence, Vassar. Vassar had been established in the 1860s to give women an education comparable to that which young men received at the Ivies, then closed to women. I have never regretted attending a same-sex college, as Vassar then was. Even in the dismal 1950s, a terrible decade for women in the United States, I was taken seriously as a budding scholar with dreams of my own.

Choosing my first-year program, I opted for a course on "Periods of English History," one of (only) two history courses offered to freshmen. I was terrified. Every class period, the professor distributed lists of books and articles to be found on the reserve shelf in the library-this was pre-photocopying, let alone pre-scanning-that we were to read for the following class. After several days I discovered that students were not expected to read everything on the lists (as the professor gently told a bleary-eyed me). We were, however, to read with lined notecards in hand on which we were to record bibliographical data, along with samples of the author's thesis. What was a "thesis?," I wondered. We were to compare one author's thesis with another's-but they didn't agree! What was the tmth of the matter? What were "primary sources" and "secondary sources"? Class sessions were devoted not to copying notes, but to interrogation of the sources we had read and the arguments the authors advanced. After fumbling efforts to learn to read critically, I became an ardent enthusiast of history courses, eventually choosing that subject as one of my minors.

The training I received in the Vassar History Department was the most valuable form of study, overall, in which I engaged as an undergraduate. …

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