Friday, January 29, 2010

History is the Study of Dead People

The title of this post is a seven-word definition of history formulated by Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and regular New Yorker contributor. In the January 25 issue of The New Yorker, Lepore turns her attention to someone who wishes to conquer death—and thus has “an argument with history”—the founder of the cryonics movement (“The Iceman”).

Our earliest repositories were for seeds (or they may have been wine libraries). At the Cryonics Institute, Lepore was reminded of a library “or, more, of an archive, a place where people deposit their papers—the contents of their heads—when they’re dead, so that someone, some future historian, can find them and bring them back to life.” Near the end of the article, she observes the neglected paper-based library and archives at this place of cryopreservation (“Someone should have put labels on these things,” the founder mutters.).

Lepore’s 24-second “complete technical description” of history includes records and archives, and her work uses these in interesting ways.

In Blindspot (2008), a novel Lepore wrote with historian Jane Kamensky, the main text is followed by a note in which the authors write:
while the names, characters, places, and incidents related herein are the fruits of our imagination, or have been used by us fictitiously, a great deal of our story is taken from eighteenth-century letters, newspapers, account books, diaries, sermons, novels, poems, riddles, portraits, philosophical treatises, and legal records; in sum, from the delightful miscellany of ancient documents housed in the libraries, archives, and museums of Cambridge, Boston, Edinburgh, and London.  Novelists seek truth in the Book of Life, but there is scarce a character, action, or painting in these pages which we have not also taken from the Book of History.
In The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), Lepore considers the “literall advantage” of record-creating Europeans in the New World; in Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents (1999), she presents a selection of primary sources—“the raw material of history”—from the age of encounters; in A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), she explores the role of literacy and communication technologies (from alphabets to transmitting instruments) in the early republic; and in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005), she discusses the asymmetry of evidence regarding a largely undocumented slave rebellion.