Wonder and Historical Knowledge: Reflections from the Omohundro Institute Annual Conference

Today’s guest post is by Lindsay Chervinsky, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis in January 2017 and her book, The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2019.

View of the sunset from Jamestown, June 16, 2018

Over the weekend of June 14-17, historians of Early America gathered in Williamsburg, Virginia to attend the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture’s annual conference and to celebrate the OI’s 75th anniversary. While I always come away from this conference feeling inspired, this year I returned home thinking about audience, historical knowledge, and wonder.

In particular, two events sparked these reflections. First, on Friday evening, I attended the brilliant plenary with Jane Kamensky, John Demos, Deborah Harkness, Chet’la Sebree, and Carly Brown. In theory, the panel was about history writing in other contexts: narrative, historical fiction, and poetry. They shared a bit about their journey, creative process, and selections from their work. Everyone in attendance buzzed about the conversation for the next few days, which is pretty remarkable considering the plenary took place after a long day of panels and stood between the audience and a well-stocked reception. But the part of the event that has stayed with me for days centered around evidence and just knowing.

As professionals, we are bound by rules and regulations that require footnoting and ample evidence to support our claims. Peer review and our colleagues hold us to these standards. History doesn’t always play along—sometimes that letter or picture or item that we so desperately want just doesn’t exist. No matter how hard, how long, or how broadly we search. Maybe it existed once and was destroyed, maybe it never existed.

But as scholars, we spend hours, days, weeks, months, years getting to know our subjects and living in their heads and their worlds. We know them. That’s what makes us good at our jobs. We offer more than a sum of the parts. We don’t just add up a bunch of letters and create a final product. We are able to see themes, draw parallels, and read between the lines.

Sometimes, that’s even a bit of a stretch. During the plenary, I couldn’t help but think of an example from my own work. My book examines the origins of the president’s cabinet in George Washington’s administration. I believe in my heart of hearts, the deepest part of my gut, and with every fiber of my brain power that Washington and the department secretaries were wary of comparison to the British cabinet. I just can’t directly prove it. They never wrote it down, or if they did, that document doesn’t exist anymore.

I can prove that Thomas Jefferson criticized the administration and that he and James Madison bemoaned what they saw as the “Anglified complexion” of the executive. I can show you how Washington and the secretaries carefully tended to their reputations and guarded their republican virtue in other aspects of their career. I can demonstrate the other ways they sought to distance themselves from the British monarchy. There is no reason to think they stopped these efforts when it came to the cabinet. But it’s all circumstantial evidence.

Yet these are the kinds of hypotheses that audiences seem to enjoy. When I give a talk, most of the questions circle around issues that don’t have a clear answer. Audiences seem to recognize the limitations of physical evidence and they want to know what I think based on my experience, not just what was written down.

The next day, the OI threw a 75th anniversary party on Jamestown Island. For better or worse, Jamestown Island represents a pivotal moment in history. It represents a place of discovery and it is the exact spot where Anglo-American society took root in the western hemisphere. Jamestown also represents centuries of violence toward Native Americans and forced dispossession of their land and resources. It is important to study the place and acknowledge both realities.

Yet as I stood on the banks of the James River in the recreation of the fort, I was struck by a sense of sheer wonder. It’s a hugely important place and I was standing there. And it was really freaking cool. I’m aware of the major issues with celebrating this place. But I got to watch the sun set and see what it would have looked like 400 years ago (albeit with dental hygiene, bug spray, vaccines, the right to wear pants, and a Ph.D., which would have been unavailable to women until quite recently).

As historians we are taught to be mindful of methodology, evidence, and theory. These responsibilities can sometimes feel overwhelming when we try to tell complicated stories to the best of our ability. But most of us probably started thinking about history when we were quite young. We weren’t considering the best way to write a footnote, but instead realized that someone had walked on the exact same spot where we were standing so many years ago. Our five-year-old selves would have been awed by all that came before us. I couldn’t help but think that maybe we should bring a little bit more of that wonder back into our scholarship.

Wouldn’t it be better to show that we are totally blown away by the awesomeness that is the history we get to experience (whether it be the good, bad, or smelly)? Wouldn’t that reach more people and help people see history as more than facts, dates, and places on a map? The more passion we can show, the better. I don’t mean telling only positive stories or outcomes that are comfortable. I know that serious scholarship demands going beyond this sense of wonder and delving into the really intense, negotiated realities of everyday life. But by sharing our passion for the subject, we go a long way to earning the reader’s trust.

What if we took that bond one step further and trusted our readers as well. What if we said, “this is what I believe happened and here’s why.” Of course, we must acknowledge that we can’t make these claims with complete certainty and acknowledge our limitations, but can we still offer our best guess?

There are a million reasons not to take these risks. Offering a hypothesis without concrete evidence starts down a slippery slope. Sharing our outright enthusiasm for the subject risks looking amateurish. Those risks are obviously magnified if you don’t have job security or aren’t established in the field. Despite all the reasons not to, I can’t help but feeling our work would be better if we shared more of our historical knowledge and our wonder for the past. I think our audiences would agree.

3 responses

  1. “Sharing our outright enthusiasm for the subject risks looking amateurish.” If we’re not enthusiastic about our work, why are we doing it? If we’re not enthusiastic about our work, how can we expect others to be enthusiastic about it? If wonder and passion connect people to history it seems to me we need more, not less, of both. This is such a great post, Lindsay. Thank you for bringing the wonder!

  2. For consideration:
    If Historians decide to dabble too far from verifiable evidence, just to make things interesting – isn’t there a serious consequence of becoming a POP History writer?
    History is full of wonder, excitement & disappointment without having to make the plunge and lean towards popular history writing. Please!

  3. Pingback: Frogs and Cats, or, Access and Privilege « The Junto

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