History--Quick or Dead?


A CRITIC, reviewing my biography of Cavour, said in substance: The author plunges us back into the very life of the period he describes. He makes us feel the passions of the persons great and small who played in the drama of the Risorgimento. We are infected by their prejudices; we take sides; we almost forget ourselves and become, temporarily, a part of the titanic conflict. This is not History.

Such a frank assertion forces us to ask, What is History?

The streets of Naples are paved with slabs of lava, quarried at the foot of Vesuvius. If you wished to write an account of an eruption of the volcano, would you visit the Chiaja, notebook in hand, measure the lava pavingstones, analyze them with a microscope, and make any other examination you thought proper; or would you assemble all the reports of witnesses of the eruption; climb Vesuvius itself; trace the streams of lava; look into the crater; observe the changes caused by explosions and by the caving-in of walls; and so saturate yourself with the records and the setting of the event that it became real and living and visible to you? Only on these terms can you make it real and living and visible to your readers.

But my critic declares that history must be dead, and there can be no question that a great part, perhaps four fifths, of the history written up to the present time has been dead.

Still, may there not possibly be need, and perhaps an opening, for a minimum of live history? May we not, by accepting too narrow a definition, shut out one branch of history which not only has a right to exist but does exist, and may bear under favorable conditions the finest fruit on the tree? The penalty of exclusiveness is deprivation. We ought to recognize that the writing of history embraces work of many kinds, some higher, some lower, all honorable, all necessary. But this recognition must not blind us to the fact that there is a distinction between the lower and the higher. The architect who designs a cathedral is held, deservedly, in far different esteem from the masons who lay the physical foundations, or the hodmen who carry the mortar to bind stone on stone.

Speaking broadly, historical workers may be divided into two great classes — first, the men whose interest lies chiefly in facts; and next, the men who, having ascertained the facts, cannot rest until they have attempted to interpret them. These two aims — information and interpretation — should not be regarded as mutually hostile, but as mutually complementary.

The worship of Fact, which must not be confounded with Truth, does not lead us far. To know that Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492, or that the Declaration of Independence was made on July 4, 1776, or that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, is interesting; but unless these statements are reinforced by much matter of a different kind, they are hardly more important for us than it would be to know the number of leaves on a tree. And this is true though the facts be indefinitely multiplied. I have read, for instance, an account of the American Revolution in which the uncontroverted facts followed each other in as impeccably correct a sequence as the telegraph poles which carry the wires over the eight hundred and fifty miles of the Desert of Gobi. The paramount interest in this case is not the number of poles but the purport of the telegrams flashed along the wires.

That may symbolize the difference between the historian of Information and the historian of Interpretation. Not for a moment, of course, does anyone deny the usefulness of the former. But we shall not be able to penetrate far into Man’s historic past by the method of counting telegraph poles or of measuring the distance between them. The message borne by the telegram, the meaning of the sequent or scattered events in any historic movement, be it of long duration or merely a fleeting episode — that alone can have significance for us.

Viewed thus, history is a resurrection. The dead actors in remote dramas come to life; the plot, the meaning emerge, as when an electric current is turned on and lights up the pieces of fireworks set in many patterns. In one sense history resembles an autopsy, for it usually deals with cadavers; but whereas the physician makes his postmortem to see what the patient died of, the historian examines, or should examine, to discover how his subjects lived. Life, evermore Life, is the imperial theme for those who live; Life, in which Death is the inevitable incident, often tragic, sometimes pathetic, but never so significant as Life. The maladies of nations and of institutions, and even the diseases of which they died, form much of the material of history; but you cannot isolate them from the large living organism in which they appeared. Gibbon followed through thirteen hundred years the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; and yet each symptom of imperial decay which he described coincided with signs of the growth of new forces, new states, new ideals; so that you may read his monumental and matchless work either as a funeral oration over the grandeur that was Rome, or as a chronicle of the springing into life of the world of Christendom which replaced Rome.

Without a sense for transformation we shall not come far, either as students or as critics of history. Gibbon possessed that sense in a superlative degree, although he emphasized the negative transformation of dissolution, instead of its positive counterpart, which traces all the stages from birth to prime. There will be no more Gibbons, because the accumulation of material would crush any daring persons who should attempt to survey history by the millennium, as he did; but no one deserves to be called a historian who lacks this sense.

In the world of nature outside us, vast processes are continuously going on — an endless dance of atoms; a passing out of one thing into another, and from that to a third; a hide-and-seek of phenomena; night chasing day; the fruit replacing the flower; the stalk, yellow with full-eared corn one week, stubble the next; fruition only another name for beginning, for a new seedtime; and so on forever with this cosmic transformation, in which the sun also and the stars take their turn, on a scale beyond our human comprehension. And in this protean masquerade, forces do not act singly, but several may work through the same body simultaneously, each toward a different end.

Until you perceive that mankind, like inanimate matter, is the medium through which a similar array of intellectual and moral forces shuttles, perpetually, you will get nothing from history except the foam and bubbles that float on its surface. It is because these forces, which are often mutually repellent or seem to neutralize each other, pursuing their way at different rates of speed, and apparently capable of unnumbered transformations, never stop, that Life, manifold and complex Life, is the substance of human history: and the representation which the historian makes of any fragment or series of this boundless evolution must possess, first of all, life, the stuff out of which the original flows.

We need have no fear, therefore, that a history can ever be too lifelike. Compared with the actual which he wishes to portray, the utmost the historian can compass is like an eight-by-ten-inch painting of Niagara to the Falls themselves. He must use the devices which Art supplies, in order to represent his subject on such a scale and in such a manner that it will make on the mind of his readers an impression equivalent to that made by the original. The art which the historian must employ is Literature—the art of conveying by words, in the best way, human facts, ideas, and emotions.

Whoever uses speech, written or oral, must obey the laws of speech; he cannot claim exemption on the ground that he is a ‘scientific historian,’amenable only to the laws of science. For every man of science, if he treat his special subject by writing, and not by technical symbols and diagrams, is bound by literary laws. It makes no difference whether you put out to sea in a dory or in an ocean liner, the laws of flotation will inexorably govern you. Protesting that you are a landsman and not a mariner — a devotee of Science and not of Literature — will not save you from capsizing. That the large concerns of science may be treated with literary excellence without losing their scientific quality, the works of Buffon, Faraday, Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall show.

The war which once raged over the question whether History is a science seems to have reached a truce — the truce of indifference, in which each side is attending to its business as if peace were restored. Like the ancient feud of the Classicists and the Romanticists, this also tends to reduce itself to a matter of terms. If you mean that history is a science like chemistry or optics or algebra, you mistake. The algebraic formulas were as true in B.C. 5000 as they will be in A.D. 5000. You can predict that the molecules of hydrogen and oxygen, combined in the same ratio, will always form water. But you can predict nothing about the action of human ingredients. On the afternoon of April 14, 1865, nobody foresaw that within the next twelve hours Abraham Lincoln would die by assassination; nor could the effect of his death be foretold. None of us knows what will happen next week, much less next month or next year. This ignorance is not science: it renders science impossible.

So we must abandon the delusion that history can be a science: for science deals with elements which are constant and verifiable, while history deals with human motives and will, and the atoms — that is the individuals — which compose society. These can never be completely measured, nor do they combine with or react on each other in precisely the same way. Even if it were possible to get a formula for an individual in his normal state, we should still be unable to guess what he would do if he suddenly went crazy. Molecules of oxygen never go crazy: the chemist knows how they will behave under any given conditions. This liability to insanity is only one of a thousand facts which prove that human beings cannot be ‘ explained ’ by the laws which govern material atoms.


But though history can never be an exact science, the historical student will follow the scientific method in his investigations. He will search for his materials as patiently, analyze them as carefully, and draw his conclusions from them as candidly as the chemist docs his materials. He has no instruments of fixed capacity to work with. His insight and judgment must serve him instead of microscope or burette, blow-pipe or acid test.

We must not forget that the partisans of history as a science are inspired by the noblest motive—the sense of justice. Except duty, no other attribute is so august as justice, no other demarks so clearly the difference between man and animals. The beasts of the field share with us, according to their kind, love and hate, courage and fear; they are sly and mean, they are cruel; but, so far as appears, they are unmoved by any desire for justice for themselves; nor do they question the Universe. Even among men, this desire developed late, and the cheeriest optimist would hardly claim that it has yet dominated the dealings either of individuals or of nations with each other.

Under one aspect, justice is at the heart of every modern religion. From Job to Milton, and so on down to today, thinkers and moralists — and how many perplexed nameless souls besides? — have busied themselves trying to justify the ways of God to men! The entrance of morality into human affairs brought with it the recognition of justice. When lightning sets fire to a house, or earthquake destroys thousands of human beings; when a tiger leaps upon and slays a huntsman, or a pernicious microbe spreads an epidemic over a whole city, the man of science, unless he be unscientifically eager to prove a pet theory, will record the happening without bias. It is unmoral, — even the legal fiction which regards unpreventable natural calamities as acts of God does not give a moral complexion to them, — and he remains dispassionate. But suppose an incendiary started the fire, or that an anarchist set off the bomb which killed a crowd, or that a highwayman garrotted a passer-by, or that a German poisoned the milk-supply—the case would be altered completely. The act would be human; we should examine it under its moral aspects; and Justice, seeking to appraise it, would go behind the legal fact, to determine, if possible, the motive.

So we are brought back to my earlier remark, that motives constitute the ultimate stuff of history. Motives, of course, presuppose a moral standard. The scientific historian sets up the judge as his model because he reverences fairness, impartiality: but perhaps he fails to see that the judge himself is already biased, being bound to investigate each case and to interpret it according to existing statutes. In this respect the man of science does not differ from the judge.

Is not the chemist also bound rigidly by laws? Does he not try, by every device, to lessen the possibility of error which may lie in his personal equation? And yet what are his laws, or the judge’s, or those of moralists and of priests, but conclusions reached and demonstrated by their forerunners and accepted by their fellows?

The ‘personal equation’! Is it not just that, if it be of the proper kind, which makes the great discoveries? How many million apples had dropped meaningless to the ground before the one which fell within sight of Newton? And what except Newton’s personal equation made that the most significant apple in history? And what makes an opinion handed down by John Marshall a law which will bind men as long as they acknowledge its force — what but his personal equation?

If this personal equation plays such a part in matters as positive as the physical sciences or the law, how much more must it influence the work of those who deal directly with human nature — that elusive, erratic, volatile, protean substance, which is, notwithstanding, the most enduring of all? When we come to the arts, — to music, poetry, painting, — the personal equation is the artist. And how often is this true in medicine, where the master of diagnosis perceives, as if by divination, the cause of a disease, which his colleagues, equally learned as he in medical laws and practices, had been blind to?

By this road, too, the road of science, we arrive at Interpretation as the highest office of the historian. And how could it be otherwise, since Historymost nearly concerns the motives and deeds of men? What the scientific historian means is that historians should aim at the fairness and impartiality of a judge, and should employ the scientific methods of investigation which promote the highest accuracy. To this, we all say Amen. The ideal was not invented by Ranke or any other modern: it has inspired every true historian since Herodotus. Do you suppose that Thucydides was not immensely concerned to know and state the truth? Do you suppose that the contemporary professor of scientific history, who, in his effort to depersonalize and dehumanize himself to the level of a material instrument, puts on an asbestos shirt, to keep enthusiasm from leaking out or in; who stuffs his ears with cotton, wears goggles of a neutral tint, and has non-conducting glass castors to his chair; who dips his pen in colorless ink, subjects his papers to a formaldehyde bath, and keeps a carbolic spray playing in his study — do you suppose that he succeeds in eluding his personal equation? Far from it: all his attempts to depersonalize himself simply record the limitations of his personality.

In our daily life, if anybody adopted these methods toward us, do you think that he would get within recognizing distance of your heart or mine? Does such a nature inspire confidences? You smile. And yet there are doctrinaires who suppose that the people of history

— who were at least as human as we — can be understood, measured, explained (if you will) by men and methods before whom you and I would remain unresponsive and dumb.

The other day I read the report of a lecture by a professor who said that it was not the business of the historian to be interesting, all that he has to do is to describe events as they really happened. Remarks like this shake our faith in the mental capacity of the scientific historians. Translate the professor’s saying into the terms of another art, if you would see their absurdity. Imagine a painter telling his pupils, ‘Color doesn’t matter, perspective does n’t matter, drawing does n’t matter; your whole business is to paint the portrait or landscape just as it is.’ I decline to use the epithet which his brother artists would deservedly apply to one who should utter such nonsense; and yet I regret to say that the warning

— ‘ Don’t be interesting ’ — stands high up among the articles of the creed of the scientific historians. The humor — or the pathos — of it is that seldom has a warning been so little needed.

What conception of human nature must a professor have who warns his pupils against being ‘interesting’? Does he suppose that Thucydides, or any other historian, murmured to himself before sitting down to write: ‘Go to! I will be interesting’? Can those who have it not, simulate charm, or those who have it, hide it? Can November’s stubble fields and stripped branches simulate the bloom of May or the exuberant leafage of June?

‘Just describe events as they really happened ’ — could anything be more naïf? That is the tantalizing task of the historian as it is of the portraitist. But no two persons see an event or a face from exactly the same angle, with identical eyes, much less with identical preparation. One sees color, the other sees form; one divines character, the other trusts to documents. Rembrandt and Van Dyck paint the same person: which portrait is right? In truth, half a dozen might be right, if they were painted by masters of equal, though varying glories.


So no history is final. How can there be finality to anything that touches us mortals who, like amphibia, move in two worlds — the Finite and the Infinite? The Stream of Time bears us onward, like the first voyagers on the River of Doubt. We know not what lies ahead. We are absorbed by the country on either bank. We have survived rapids, cataracts, falls; and as we look back, the receding landscape takes other shapes. What seemed yesterday a mountain range has melted away; cliffs that we thought an impassable barrier before we came to them, divided and let the stream and us through. Mankind sweeps on, and with each advance its perspective changes and shows historic personages and events in different size.

Perspective! that is the historian’s compass. Without it, he will magnify the trivial and slight the significant. I am not sure that it can be taught. For lack of it, Kinglake, who possessed many rare qualities as a historian, devoted eight volumes to the Crimean War and four hundred and fifty pages to the battle of Inkerman. An American who should summarize our War of 1812 and the Battle of Lundy’s Lane on that scale would be laughed at; and yet, war for war and battle for battle, the American was at least as important as the European.

Perspective implies election, to make which will call on every native or acquired trait you have. But instead of drawing up a list of the qualifications of a historian, I will read you one made long ago, and apparently forgotten.

He is requir’d to be a Man born with all the Felicities of a lively penetrating Wit, and unbounded Genius: Formed by great Study, Experience and Practice in the World; one that is both a Scholar and a Man of Business; a good Geographer, Chronologist, Antiquary, Linguist; conversant in Courts, Councils, Treaties, in Affairs Military as well as Civil, and in short in every thing that is the Subject of History; furnish’d with all proper Materials and Records, and a perfect Master of all the Graces of the Language he writes in. This is a great deal, but not enough; for what is yet more extraordinary, he must have no Passions or Prejudices, but be a kind of Deity that from a Superior Orb looks unmov’d on Parties, Changes of State, and Grand Revolutions. And yet you are to suppose him bless’d with Health, Leisure, and Easie Fortune, and a steadfast Application to his subject. After which, the Perfections requisite in his Performance are almost innumerable; a judicious Proportion of all the Parts of his Story; a beautiful Simplicity of Narration; a noble, yet unaffected Stile; few and significant Epithets; Descriptions lively, but not Poetical; Reflections short and proper; and lastly, besides a multitude of Particulars which cannot be mentioned here, a good Conduct thro’ the whole, and an animating Spirit that may engage the Header in every action as if personally concerned, and give him the firm assurance that he sees things in their own Light and Colours, and not in those which the Art or the Mistake of the Writer has brought upon ’em.

That was not written recently — as the firm yet rich texture of the language and the continuous robustness of the thought reveal; but could any teacher of history to-day define better what a historian should be? Our contemporary would probably leave out ’the lively and penetrating Wit,’ and the training which included ‘Experience and Practice in the World’; as well as those preparations which form the masterly writer. For even in the literary courses our universities teach much about the art of fiction and the trick of writing short stories, but little about the fundamental art of expression; and in the history courses, the shovel and pitchfork have usurped the place of a ‘penetrating Wit,’ and of ‘a noble yet unaffected Stile.’

The distinguished professor mentioned above warns his pupils against being interesting. Bishop Kennett, whose great passage I have just quoted, published his Compleat History of England, to which it serves as a preface, in 1706, when he was about forty-six years old. If we were to judge him and the contemporary professor by their expressed ideals, we should conclude that the Queen Anne man had vision, while our contemporary, steeped in Germanizing erudition, has none.

Happily, we are not always as bad as the doctrines we profess. Some ‘scientific’ historians who shudder at the thought of being ‘interesting’ are read because, in spite of themselves they have literary aptitude; some ‘literary’ historians are welcomed even in the ranks of the Philistines. The greatest surprise of all awaits the American who is taught to go to the German for models of scientific objectivity. He goes, and finds them anything but objective: he finds Treitschke a glorified partisan pamphleteer, Von Sybel a subsidized eulogist of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and even Ranke and Mommsen taking little pains to disguise their prejudices. All of which means that the instrument, being human, will more or less affect the work it produces. Were it otherwise, it might be possible to degrade man to the level of a machine, as soulless and as correct as a cash-register.

Contemporary verdicts and statements are proverbially incomplete, if not inaccurate or downright false. Therefore, argue the advocates of dead history, history must be written after the evidence is all in, as a lifeless chronicle which is as irrevocable as the entries in the Book of Judgment. To this the believer in quick history replies: all that the accumulation of evidence has done has been to put us — years, or, it may be, centuries after an event — into the position of an omniscient contemporary observer. We know both sides, all sides, better than the actors themselves could know them. Our increased knowledge enables us to see a living picture of the event, to appraise the motives of the men and women, to see how the episode fits into the larger sequence of history. Until a historian looks upon his testimony as alive, he cannot present it truly — for life is the fundamental truth underlying human facts. To suppose that by regarding his material as dead the historian will be more likely to tell the truth is a delusion. The quality of truthfulness is in the man — not in the material.

Turn over the pages of any life of Mary Stuart if you would disabuse yourself of the idea that even the advocates of dead history are out of danger of being galvanized into a simulation of life. To come at any decision of your own in regard to a still vaster subject — Napoleon — you must read not only the documents, but his chief defenders and his chief detractors. His manners had their bearing on his career: does Madame de Rémusat or Alfred Lévy tell the truth about them, or do both?

If you are really bent on getting to the source of a man’s life, or of an historic episode, you will very soon discover serious gaps in the evidence, and then you will be surprised to find that a historian as rigidly ‘scientific’ as Freeman takes you comfortably over the chasm of ignorance on a bridge of conjecture. This too is a tribute to history as an art: for Freeman’s conjectures, coming from his wide erudition, and fused in his passionate mind, are often worth more than other men’s facts. He conjectures valiantly, and scorns to prefix to his statements the specious ‘perhaps,’ by which nowadays timid historical writers hope to preserve their reputation for impartiality.

After all, if a man write honestly, his personal bias will never deceive his readers. Only those — and they are wretches, indeed — who falsify or omit or garble the evidence, do harm, and they are perjurers, not historians. I do not believe that anybody was ever misled by Macaulay’s Whiggism, or by Gibbon’s skepticism, or by Carlyle’s hero-worship, or by Treitschke’s magnification of Prussian absolutism. And why should we not wish to hear the opinions of masterful men in regard to important historical events? In literature, we set the highest value on what Sainte-Beuve thinks of a book or of an author. The masters of literature stand each for some unborrowed point of view. Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, Meredith — we would not have them alike; each sees Life originally, and tries to describe it honestly, and so adds to our knowledge of it.

In its more recent manifestation fiction seems to be so closely engaged in a competition with the kodak that it matters little who writes it: for the personality of the man who holds the camera counts for little. But some of us still prefer a painting to a photograph or a snapshot: not only because a painting has color, but because it has the personality of the painter behind it. We know that Rembrandt or Turner put on his canvas something that the photographic plate could not see.

I say this, not to urge that the historian should make a purely subjective figment of his material, but to remind you that the personal equation may — nay, must — determine the value of the completed book. Whatever be our theories which our practices may improve on, no man fit to be called a historian ever finished his work without feeling the inadequacy of his own powers, or of any conceivable human means, to reproduce the little fragment of history which he has chosen. And no historian can work far or deep without being conscious that he is reporting from the heart of human life matters too sacred to be twisted in the narration to suit his private opinion. He is conscious of the manifestation of mighty forces — of forces mightier than those which drive the Mississippi from Minnesota to the Gulf or which swing the oceans to and fro in their tidal pendulation. He feels, though he cannot see, Presences which lead the actors of the everlasting human drama on and off the stage; Spirits which teach them their parts and prompt them when they falter; Furies which pursue, punish, and avenge; Fates which accomplish their tasks as dispassionately as heat, or cold.

In the calendar of nature four seasons fill the measure of each year: each merges in the next; and though there may be slight annual variations, no year passes without completing its circuit of spring, summer, autumn, winter. In human evolution there is no such sequence. If there be seasons, they are of such vast duration that we have not yet observed them. There is no recurrent return to the startingpoint. Each race passes through the order allotted for all living creatures: first birth, then growth, prime, decrepitude, and death; but no race, in expiring, bequeaths its hoard to another. Generally, there is the slow obliteration through blending: and where a race grows strong by conquest, its strength is often sapped by the process of merger with the weaker conquered. The Roman Empire was in no sense the heir of Athens; nor Catholic Spain of the Saracens; nor England of the Northmen who, as Normans from France, conquered the Saxon kingdom. Doubtless the new combinations are conditioned by the remains of the old elements, but there is no lineal descent. In races which at different epochs occupy the same region, there is rather such a law of succession as we find among our forests: when the primeval pines go, oaks shoot up; and after the oaks, beeches and birches follow.

What determines the handing on of the torch from race to race? We assume, because we men are incorrigible optimists, that every transmission means advance; but this is not true. Often a race lower in everything except brute force subdues a higher. There is a deeper principle at work. Sometimes the baffled historian concludes that our human life, and that consecutive essence of it which is History, can be explained only by physical reactions. A drought in Central Asia causes the raid of Tartar hordes into Europe, with all that follows; the Venetian Republic languishes and dies because the discovery of a new ocean route diverts the commerce of the world away from her.

But even as he acknowledges these facts, which seem to reduce man to the level of an automaton, the sport of purely material agents, the historian remembers the saints and heroes before whose spiritual potency Matter is as yielding as glass is to sunshine.

This is the high mission of the Historian. He starts out to narrate a section of history, aiming only at describing what he sees, without plea or prejudice. Narration is his chief concern, but through it he will reveal, unconsciously it may be, the forces which impel the flow of events, the deeps from which human acts emerge and into which they return and dissolve. He must have no specialty except truth; and yet, though he must write neither as poet nor as dramatist, neither as philosopher nor as man of science, he will need at times the skill of each of them; they will all find in his history, as in life itself, the substance of their Specialty. For he is always aware of the Presences — invisible and immaterial — ceaselessly passing, shaping, completing, and renewing: not merely weavers at the loom of Destiny, but Destiny itself — and he seeks in human motives to discover the Transcendent Motive, the Living Will, which causes and sustains the world.