Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Real" History

A colleague recently challenged me to read a Utah history book not written by a Utahan. What does that even mean? The implication is that Utahans who write history books get their facts wrong or gloss over the "real" history of Utah.

It got my ire up in a big kind of way, but also in a good kind of way. If I were to attempt a research paper, I think I'd like to analyze who writes history books.

For example, are the best history books written by people inside a given state, country, region, group, etc., or are they best written by an outsider? If I want to learn more about Mississippi, for example, should I make sure to read a book written by an Alabaman about Mississippi? Or would an Alabaman also have an "axe to grind" and trump up all of Mississippi's dark history as part of a grudge the two states have endured over land parcels? (I don't know if they actually have a grudge between the two states; I'm just speculating.)

If the theory holds true that history books are best written by outsiders, it would have to be a WAY outsider, like from someone clear across the state. But then, how accurate can they get? I remember reading our family's World Book Encyclopedia's entry about the state of Utah, and it said that Joseph Smith had led the Latter-day Saint people west to Utah. In reality, it was Brigham Young. The set was published in 1980. Hopefully the editors have caught THAT error by now, but it makes me wonder how many other historical facts they got wrong.

And it surely makes me wonder what historical facts would be included in a History of America book written by that neutral country Sweden. It would probably play up the HUGE anti-war movement of World War II in this country. Haven't heard about it? Well, you're just reading history books from people BORN in America. Free your minds, people.


Erin said...

I love this post.

Anonymous said...


During law school I met a clerk for a Judge on the 7th Circuit who told me that she had earned a masters degree in US History before attending law school. I asked her why the switch from History to Law. She quipped that she wanted to switch to an honest profession. She then explained that most historian pretend, and sometimes sincerely believe, that they approached history from an objective unbiased position and just report the facts as they happened. When she realized that human being are inherently biased, even when they try to be objective, she had to admit that there is no such thing as an "objective" writing of history. When she tried to discuss this idea with other historians, she was largly dismissed. She concluded, therefore, that historians who refuse to acknowledge that everything they write is biased by their own ideas and experiences (which most refuse to acknowledge) are dishonest. She compared this to lawyers who in most instances openly admit that they are biased for one side of an issue or the other and (other than judges) don't pretend or believe they are unbiased. Long comment, but I thought this conversation matches some of your sentiments.

- John

MarySquare said...

That's just silly. There are going to be good histories and bad histories written from all types of perspectives and persons. That's why you should read several different books from all different perspectives about an event or place, etc. You'll never get to the "truth" or whatever that means but you'll have enough information and perspective to make your best guess.

And did this person mean "mormon" when he said Utah? Some of the best books about Mormon history are written by Mormons, and Utah or intermountain Mormons -- Juanita Brooks, Leonard Arrington.

Every person has a bias so of course he'll approach his profession with a bias. Any body who thinks otherwise is kidding himself.