Experiments in Rethinking History

Edited by Robert Rosenstone & Alun Munslow
2004

This book is a collection of works that experiment with writing history. These include experiments with the literary form itself, and with subjects, for example, focuses on narratives and the historians’ personal experience. This is in response to the growing trends in the field of history that suggest that the notion of history as an empirical, objective study of the past as it happened is no longer adequate. As this idea has been deconstructed, the literary and narrative elements of history have been acknowledged and this book represents attempts to fully explore these elements and what they can bring to the exploration and communication of history. As Rosenstone states in his introduction, “they all grow out of a desire on the part of the historians to express something about our relationship to the past which has hitherto been inexpressible, to include in history things which have long been excluded, to share information or insights or understanding that cannot be carried by traditional historical forms” (p. 2).

This book raises some crucial points about history as representation, for instance, Munslow in his introduction argues that “History is, in and of itself, a representation of something. It is not the thing itself and cannot by the magic of empiricism be transported as it actually was onto the page or the screen” (p. 7). This echoes the arguments of scholars like Hayden White and Rosenstone himself, that written history and film are not so different as they are both attempting to represent history in their own ways but both ultimately rely on a narrative form.

The book is divided into two parts: Self-Reflexive; which collects the chapters that include a focus on the historian themselves and the authorial process, and New Voices; which includes works that attempt to explore previously unknown or unheard histories or perspectives. Each chapter is accompanied by an Afterword in which the author describes what led them to want to write in this way, which provides valuable insight into their approaches.

There are no chapters that deal with film but one chapter in particular, Bryant Simon’s “Narrating a Southern Tragedy: Historical Facts and Historical Fictions,” examines the role of fiction in exploring silences in history. Simon takes a story of he found in an archived newspaper of a lynching of two African-American men who are alluded to having sexually assaulted a white man in South Carolina in 1912. The story was vague and passed over with minimal details and so Simon used a fictional narrative from three different perspectives to explore what may have happened that day. The narrative is preceded by the evidence from the newspaper. This felt similar to the ways that a film might explore history by using individual perspectives and narratives.

 

Rosenstone, Robert, and Alun Munslow, eds. Experiments in Rethinking History. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

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