We who work among the (long) dead

Historians, when you meet them, often have an other-wordly air about them. They’re not much fun at parties, as they appear to be thinking about things other than what they’re doing. Few move through the world with grace. There are exceptions, of course. But friendships are made now in the awareness that most of the interesting people have already passed through.

Historians live among the dead. Not just the personal dead that everyone lives among, but a much larger community. There are, as I’ve said before, networks of dead people. All of us are inheritors of the knowledge of the past. Its errors and victories are ours. So many different narratives of the past, and so much historical evidence, is now so easily available to us. The historian’s confusion is in wondering why everyone doesn’t realize this, why people do not bother to access the wisdom that is already there.

I discovered a wonderful poem recently, one I can’t believe I didn’t know, by Romantic poet Robert Southey.

My days among the Dead are past;
    Around me I behold,
Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
    The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.
With them I take delight in weal,
    And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
    How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew’d
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.
My thoughts are with the Dead, with them
    I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
    Partake their hopes and fears,
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.
My hopes are with the Dead, anon
    My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
    Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.

I was recently turned down, for the third time, for a grant by the National Endowment of the Humanities. I am still working unfunded on my very large research project on the young H. G. Wells. None of the three reviewers liked my proposal for editing and reprinting his early works on science education. The publisher who had initially indicated interest in the book has also declined for now.

Rejection hurts, of course, but what grieves me is that one of the NEH reviewers said my work was “antiquarian”. Antiquarians are lay people fascinated with something particular in the past. They are not trained historians. (Despite lacking the laurel of a PhD, I am a trained historian. My MA included a dissertation-length thesis under supervision, and took three years.)

Ettore Forti (b. 1893), The Antiquarian

Antiquarians do not live among the dead — they scour the past like an antique shop for the things that interest them. They may select one “friend” from history, but do not see the larger scope of humanity embedded within it. They eschew frameworks of understanding, and focus on the material. Historians study the networks.

In times of strife, it’s the historians who know we’ve been here before. Sometimes the journalists ask them about it. Looking for that second spike? It’s in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, in the fall. Wondering how people can march in the streets when there’s a pandemic going on? Ask the suffragettes in that same flu epidemic, the soldiers in the Anglo-Dutch war that took place during the 1666 plague in London, or the merchant families fighting each other in the street (and the promulgators of the Hundred Years War) during the 1347-48 Black Death. War, protest, tyranny — these flourish in times of confusion and disaster.

All these dead people provide perspective. Indeed, it becomes their purpose, the reason we seek them. So let’s be sure to listen, even if our own names will perish in the dust.

2 comments to We who work among the (long) dead

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Maybe it would help historians’ reputation if they were known as necromancers. Different paradigm, I realize, but no less true for that.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Ah, but that’s for the purpose of divination. Historians are simply awful at telling the future.