When Is It OK to Just Know? (Omohundro Conference Part II)

I attended a plenary on creative writing at the Omohundro Annual Conference (if you missed part I of my recap, read it here). In theory, the panel was about history writing in other contexts: narrative, historical fiction, poetry. It was so fantastic and everyone simply buzzed about the conversation for the next few days. But the part of the event that stayed with me centered around evidence and just *knowing.*

creative writing image

As professionals, we are bound by rules and regulations that require footnoting and ample evidence to support our claims. 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. Let me give you an example from my own work. I believe in my heart of hearts, the deepest part of my gut, and with every fiber of brain power that George Washington and the department secretaries were wary of comparison to the British cabinet. But I just can’t directly prove it. They never wrote it down, or if they did, that letter 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.

So I’m wondering if we can trust our readers a bit more and break down the wall between us. What if we said, “this is what I believe happened and here’s why.” We must acknowledge that we can’t make these claims with complete certainty and acknowledge the limitations, but can we still offer our best guess? It’s obviously a slippery slope because evidence is a crucial part of the field, but I can’t help but feeling our work would be better for it and our audiences would appreciate the insight.


3 thoughts on “When Is It OK to Just Know? (Omohundro Conference Part II)

  1. Lindsay,
    I am a few days late to this, but I read your post on Friday and it really stuck with me. I have heard nothing but good things about that Omohundro panel, and I am sad that I missed it. But I have also been lucky to work with Heather Cox Richardson at Boston College these last few years, who has made her living bridging the academic vs narrative historical divide in her own work. One big lesson I have learned from listening to her talk about her process is that we as historians tend to downplay our role as interpreters of the data we spend years accumulating. In laymen’s terms, we pretend like we don’t have a right to comment on what we are presenting, even as the act of presenting it betrays what we really think. I would never say that the work of Richardson – or other historians who have thrived in the narrative world like Annette Gordon-Reed or Jill Lepore – was polemical, but I do think they are more honest about their role as historical interpreters who present information to make a case for something.
    Our graduate training burdens us with the pressure of making sure we value historical fidelity, and rightly so. But I think it also trains us to be storytellers who root our vision of the past in the evidence that allows us to build our case. In short, I think we already break down the differences between what the sources actually say and what we are saying in our work, but we pretend we do not. Not out of malice, but out of a belief that we do not have the right to speak for our sources. Yet how many of us survive the editing process with multiple block quotes from our sources still in the text? It is a tricky needle to thread and I appreciate that you took the time to link it to the kind of history that people find digestible and interesting here. I feel smarter for having read your thoughts on this topic.

    1. Craig, thanks so much for your comment. Heather is brilliant and so right that our job is to interpret. So glad you enjoyed the post and I appreciate you reading it!

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