History Is Escaping Us

Note: posted on History for the Present, December 7, 2016

For twenty-five years, I have immersed myself in the nineteenth century, researching and writing about Abraham Lincoln, the antebellum Midwest, American legal history, the history of race, and women’s history. Some of my family members and friends have accused me of being a little too comfortable in the past, poking fun at me when I use the mack-reading-jury-in-lincolns-america2present tense to talk about my historical subjects. But since I have always been far more capable of making sense of the people who left the earth a long, long time ago than making sense of many of the people wandering around today, I was always happiest with my head in the past.

The loss of my daughter two years ago at first reinforced my preoccupation with the past. Yet since October 2014, the personal writing I have done in order to come to terms with my loss has altered my thinking in this regard. In writing about my grief and telling stories of my happy past with my daughter, I have learned that the exercise of putting thoughts and feelings to paper, or the computer screen as it were, is both therapeutic and instructive. The personal writing has also revealed to me previously unseen connections between my past, my present, and my future. And it recently occurred to me that I might seek to make those connections in my historical writing, as well.

Most historians are content, like I have always been, to live in the past, immersing their heads and their hearts in their particular historical contexts. But while the historical
profession succeeds on a grand scale of keeping the past alive for those who choose to engage it, it has mostly failed to make it relevant to those who do not. In this photograph, my daughter was poking fun at the inaccessibility of my first book, a revised dissertation in American legal history. But while it is a picture of a teenager striking a humorous pose at the expense of her nerdy mother, it is also illustrative of the limits of history written by historians who live only in the past and who fail to connect their work to the present and to engage wider audiences. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “we cannot escape history,” but lately I’ve come to believe that history is escaping us. In the current American political context, in an era of anti-intellectualism, and in the face of fake news and gross misinformation disseminated on social media, history matters more than ever. Historians need to get their heads out of the past, to use their historical expertise to engage the issues we face in the present, and to help prepare an increasingly fractured American electorate for the future.

There are good historians doing good work on social media, deconstructing historical myths, countering historical misinformation, and combating outright historical lies. But who is listening outside of the profession? #Twitterstorians have dynamic and inspiring conversations with each other, but are politicians, policymakers, and the general public listening? Is there a way to open the discussion to those who do not live in the past? Can we write about the past differently in order to foster greater engagement with mass audiences? Are there ways that historians can make their work more relevant in the present? How can we ensure that future policies will be grounded in historical expertise? Do historians have a responsibility to make their work more accessible? Do they have a responsibility for the present and for the future?

As I embark here on this personal journey to explore in my own work a present and future context for the history I write, I have far more questions than I have answers. But I think the questions are important and that the journey might reveal some modern “historical” truths. In the coming years, as I pursue my own historical research, writing, and editing in my professional work and here on the pages of this blog, I am going to keep one eye on the present and another eye on the future as much as keep each one on the past. And particularly in my Lincoln scholarship and in my new editing work at the Jane Addams Papers, I am going to look for the answers to some of those questions. Because in the end, Lincoln was right. We cannot escape history. And we certainly cannot afford to let it escape us.

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