Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview


EPILOGUE

Whatever value people find in history, almost everyone in the Western world displays a keen interest in some facet of it. For most of us, to be vitally interested in something is also to be interested in its past. Note the eagerness with which small boys collect incredible amounts of information about the past performances of baseball players or about vintage automobiles, airplanes, coins, and stamps. Note the families that keep heirlooms, the widespread interest in family history (genealogy), the clubs that annually elect historians and cherish records, the towns that zealously treasure every local tradition. As much as physical nature or social relationships, the past endlessly confronts and tantalizes the human mind.

But a rigorous and successful exploration of the human past is not easy. In fact, history can be the most difficult form of inquiry, demanding greater intellectual versatility and more specific skills than any other discipline. Yet one can produce inferior history with little effort and no skill. As in the fine arts, the most critical distinction is not between historians and nonhistorians (if there are any such) but between good historians and bad ones. Good history has to be both supremely literate and rigorously true. Unlike the novelist, the historian cannot make up the story. Only laborious investigation yields an account that other scholars can check.

Even the investigation may demand almost unattainable skills. The historian's potential sources are vast and far-ranging, from a scrap of stone to archives crammed with the miscellanea of modern governments. These materials of history are both complex and unmanageable. Thomas De Quincey once described the two angels that must guide the historian: one, the genius of research; the other, that of meditation. The two qualities seldom combine in the same person. The laborious comber of archives who must “read millions of dusty parchments and pages blotted with lies” is one sort of person; the artist fired with the

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