This year, I dealt with Christmas by reading. I checked out a tall stack of Charles Todd’s mysteries featuring Ian Rutledge, the haunted WWI vet, and started working through them a couple of days before the dreaded 25th. For a change, after Christmas, I moved up to WWII, thanks to a gift of Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear. Yeah, despite my being a medievalist, somehow my fun reading list seems to come from the History Channel; the American Civil War is all that’s missing.

Willis’s two recent books have the same background, and pretty much the same plot, as The Doomsday Book: “historian” from mid-twenty-first century Oxford gets stuck in a harrowing period of history while things go wrong in 2054 or 2060; eventually the complications on both ends of the story get sorted out, although, history being what it is, some people die. I enjoyed these books. In fact, I found them riveting, and recommend them if you like stories about time travel (physicists probably should steer clear). But the academic in me looks for elements that are not there. The time-traveling historians not only don’t spend any time writing up their research, most of them don’t even have clear questions they’re trying to answer about the past. OK, Mike in the recent pair does have a clearly stated topic, and even thinks about how to write it up: he’s interested in what makes a hero, why an apparently ordinary person can perform heroic acts at a crisis point. However, this strikes me more as a question for psychology or philosophy than for history (a historian friend of mine says this topic would never get approved for dissertation research). As for Polly and Eileen, they observe people (shopgirls in the Blitz, evacuated children), but it’s not at all clear what the results of their observations are, or what questions they’re trying to answer. Are they at the “reading-around” stage of research, where you know you want to work on, say, Anglo-Saxon legal history, but not what your specific topic is? But since time-travelers can’t go back to a period they’ve already been in, it seems to me that “reading around” should still be reading, with fieldwork done after they have determined a hypothesis to test.

The same friend says that Willis engages in real history: she is interested in how the past affects the present, and simply avoids the academic politics that don’t make for a good story. As a literary scholar, I appreciate the need to develop a good plot and avoid bogging down in the sort of academic controversies that drive us professors crazy. And yet it disturbs me that Willis’s “historians” never get past “what was it like?” (which my friend assures me is a reasonable starting question, especially for social history) to “what does it mean?” which is what I think of as a required question, or questioning attitude, for those of us who study the past.

It’s true that I am the sort of reader who likes character-driven stories with lots of atmosphere, and I’m willing to sacrifice rapid plot development in exchange. Sir John is the other sort of reader; the atmospheric, character-driven novels I love make him crazy. So I know there are other ways of looking at this. Nonetheless, in the interests of verisimilitude, I would like more background on the way historians work in the mid-twenty-first century. In The Doomsday Book, we do see some turf wars between modern and medieval, “academic,” document-driven (or linguistics-driven) scholars vs. “practical,” time-traveling historians; but these focus on rivalries within Oxford colleges and faculties, not the larger scholarly conversation. The scholars with whom Jim Dunworthy engages, in Blackout and To Say Nothing of the Dog, are Japanese theoreticians concerned with the possible paradoxes and problems of time-travel: they seem to be closer to physicists than to historians. And, of course, it seems obvious that the Japanese would not be able to do fieldwork studies of medieval England.

To Say Nothing of the Dog makes a couple of references to race: it would be risky to send Badri Chaudhuri to WWII because he might be taken for a Japanese spy (WTF? Why couldn’t Badri be a soldier in the Indian Army?), and the entire past is a 10 (most dangerous ranking) for blacks. So Willis is aware that most of her historians are white, and for certain times and places, could only be white: otherwise they either couldn’t get to the place and time they were studying (the continuum will not allow disruptions to history as it has happened), or they would need a damned good legend to account for their presence. The corollary, which she does not explore, is that for other times and places, only historians of the appropriate race and sex could manage to observe the past.

Only someone of Asian descent would be able to study most of Chinese history, for example. Bill Jordan would not be able to visit medieval England. Meso-American history could be observed only by people with the appropriate features and skin color. Female scholars interested in the history of the Catholic Church could study only convents and lay people, not monasteries and the institutional Church. The identity politics that already shape our departments, fields of study, and scholarly discussion would become even more central, and even more virulent, as the study of history would divide between field-work historians and archival historians. I can imagine the fights: “My observations show X about attitudes toward taxation; you only know the archives.” “On the contrary, you have observed attitudes in one village, whereas I have read all the documents relating to the central administration’s collection of taxes; your study is woefully incomplete.” It would degenerate from there.

To be sure, students are usually less aware of the scholarly controversies and politics than are practicing scholars. But drawing graduate students’ attention to these is part of the job of teaching graduate classes, and making students read quantities of historiography (or literary criticism, for some of us) is another crucial component. What are the supervisors of Polly, Eileen, and Mike thinking? In preparing to go to the past, the time-travelers wind up focusing on grade-school “history,” memorizing dates and places (for example, when Tube stations were bombed). There is obvious practical application for this information, of course, if you’re actually going to be in the Blitz. But it is ironic that a writer whose central question is “how does the past influence the present” forces her “historians” to commit facts to memory, rather than asking searching questions about the significance of those facts.

I am curious to know what some historians think: ADM? John Jarrett? Anybody? Comments very welcome.

4 thoughts on “Blacking out

  1. I've enjoyed all of Willis's time-travel novels, but yeah, these historians do not work as historians are trained today. I have explained this to myself by deciding that the development of time travel warped the discipline of history away from the kind of analysis that historians do currently and toward a model that's more interested in direct observation of the past, and recording of forgotten experiences. Probably in order to use the sexy new technology and also get grant funding. I found it interesting that, in order to solve the major plot problem of Blackout/All Clear, Colin is forced to actually do nitty-gritty archival research and interviews and such–much more like what historians actually do.

  2. I personally haven't had a problem with how the historians in Willis's books work, mostly because I just enjoy the books so much, but also because the central question that drove me as a historian was always "what was it like?" I think, too, that I envisioned these historians as being in a sort of stereotypical anthropologists – out "collecting data" which they would then "write up" on their return (but showing that part really isn't part of the point of the books). That's a bit unfair to anthropologists, of course, whose work is much more complex. But I think that history in these books has moved much more into the social sciences in its focus on empiricism. I'll confess, too, that I chalked some of the approach up to it being set in England, because of the whole local-study strain of English scholarship, which often seems to lean more toward the accumulation of facts over addressing bigger questions. (Unfair to many English historians, too, I realize.)

  3. I'm not a historian, but what New Kid and Clio's Disciple say sounds right to me. I was also going to say the characters sound like they're working a little more like anthropologists than historians.But what I really wanted to say was: thanks for the reading recommendations! These sound great!

  4. I love this post. And am now re-committing to reading Willis, because I just haven't. And I love time-travel stories, so I don't know why I haven't read Willis. But yes, to pretty much all of what you say. If the idea is that time travel provides the actual research, then you would think there would be more of a "why" to the questions that people were going back to study. And from the sf point of view, I think you would definitely have to limit the students to people who could blend in — and that might be very difficult in many situations: rural society, even, seems to me to be a place where a stranger might not be able to observe easily without some sort of entree that could likely only be provided by pretending to be a representative of government or church. And that would probably skew any interactions. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence of at least occasional travelers from other areas, like people of African descent in Britain during the Roman occupation AND the 13th C. So that might be fun to play with.But I also think that the idea could work well, and probably *would* work well in a world where time-travel is possible, because the idea of oral history being brought in as just one more facet to be explored seems to me to be very much in the Annaliste tradition. Here's where there might be a real difficulty, though, and it's something you refer to:What we do is hard. It requires an awful lot of skills and reading, and the mastery languages and of a sort of primary source canon (this goes for Classicists, too). Where I see the tension is that time travel might lead some people to think that they could adequately study the MA or in fact any part of the pre-Modern world without having done all of the work that we use to contextualize our scholarship. It may well be that we misunderstand those sources — and that would be truly wonderful to see! Imagine going back and seeing whether or understanding of Gregory or Gildas makes sense! But you'd have to have the background knowledge first.

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