On Becoming a Primary Source And Acquiring Historical Truths

“I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.” Photo Credit: BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/victorian_britain/children_in_coal_mines/

Yesterday Vox published an essay from scholar Sarah A. Chrisman about her and her husband’s ongoing effort to live their everyday lives in the Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s. Literally. They live in a house built in 1888, exclusively use historical technologies like iceboxes and mechanical clocks (although I guess the internet is fair game?), wear Victorian-style clothing in and out of the house, and bathe with a bowl and pitcher every morning. They are going full-out with this experiment.

While these two clearly love Victorian culture and use it as a way of bonding with each other, I think this project is wacky. I saw the original article through a tweet from Slate writer Rebecca Onion. Several people commented on that tweet that the project was not historically accurate and that it was “pure caucasity,” an experiment undertaken by a well-to-do white couple who consciously chose to live their lives as wealthy Victorian elites and not, say, poor working-class immigrants who might die at age 40 of dysentery or consumption. I jokingly remarked on Facebook that it was the apotheosis of hipster divinity, by which I meant that the hipster ideal of bringing back historical aesthetics, fashion sensibilities, and technologies into the counterculture of modern society was taken to a new level by Chrisman and her husband. There is also an irony in forgoing modern technologies and lamenting the excesses of free market capitalism today while celebrating a period in which capitalism was arguably its harshest and most unregulated, all while using Victorian technologies that would have been cutting edge at the time.

Onion was quick to write a must-read, brilliant critique of this Victorian living experiment. I don’t propose to completely repeat that critique here, but I want to focus on what I believe is Chrisman’s very naive understanding of the relationship between the past (what actually happened), history (what we say about what happened in the past and the narratives we form to tell those stories), and the role of interpretation in shaping our understanding of the past.

Chrisman suggests that secondary sources (documents created about a historical event after the fact) can lead to misunderstanding and confusion about the past. That’s certainly true, but she goes even further by relying exclusively on primary source materials written during the Victorian Era to determine the accuracy of her living experiment. She states this argument in the following paragraph:

The artifacts in our home represent what historians call “primary source materials,” items directly from the period of study.  Anything can be a primary source, although the term usually refers to texts. The books and magazines the Victorians themselves wrote and read constitute the vast bulk of our reading materials — and since reading is our favorite pastime, they fill a large percentage of our days. There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game “telephone”: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.

There are a few problems here. One is that no matter how many historical artifacts a person possesses from any given time period, that person is not living her life within the social, political, and economic conditions of that period. Victorian women, for example, did not have the right to vote and were often relegated to a life of domestic home making (believed at the time to be their “natural” sphere in life). Many also had limited opportunities to obtain a quality education. These are challenges that Chrisman does not have to deal with today. An idealized and imagined past of iceboxes and mechanical clocks can only take you so far in accomplishing an accurate, “real” past.

There is also an assumption in this passage that only secondary sources are prone to misinterpretation, exaggeration, and agenda-filled commentaries. On the contrary, primary sources are just as prone to the same issues as secondary sources and can do much to distort “the truth.” Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War perfectly demonstrates how easy it is for primary sources to lead readers into the wrong direction. Varon points out that in the aftermath of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant there was much confusion among contemporaries about the meaning of the Appomattox surrender terms. Abolitionists and African Americans believed that Grant’s terms vindicated the cause of emancipation and laid the foundations for black citizenship, voting rights, and even racial equality in the postwar years. Conservative Northern Unionists and former Confederates, however, viewed Grant’s generous terms as a call for a more cautious approach to reconstructing the nation that would place prewar Southern political elites back into power and maintain the underpinnings of white supremacy. Added to the challenge of understanding Appomattox are the rampant misinterpretations and exaggerations of some contemporary newspapers and letter writers. Some people sympathetic to the Confederacy stated that U.S. forces outnumbered Confederate forces ten to one at the time of Lee’s surrender. That interpretation in many cases served a larger twisted agenda arguing that Grant’s victory came about solely because he had more troops and superior resources than Lee. Grant’s men and the causes they fought for were supposedly tainted because they had won an unfair fight, a war of “might over right” instead of “right over might.”

But hey, these are all primary sources, right? We just need to look at what people said at the time–no matter how disparate their views were–and get back to the actual surrender terms instead of these tainted secondary sources to uncover their meaning and find the truth, eh?

Historians are trained to research primary and secondary sources, develop interpretations of these sources using the best available evidence and theories, and construct narratives that best reflect the realities of the past. The best historical scholarship pushes us to new understandings of both past and present, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the ability to literally time travel into the past either through historical research or “period living.”

The historian Robin Collingwood argued in the 1940s that historians, through hard work and intense research, could “know” Julius Caesar and put themselves in his mind, understanding “the situation in which Caesar stood, and thinking for himself what Caesar thought about the situation and the possible ways of dealing with it.” Implicit in this argument, as Sam Wineburg points out, is the assumption that “human ways of thought, in some deep and essential way, transcend time and space.”

I’m not as confident as Collingwood that we can completely get into the mindset of any historical person or time period. I actually believe the opposite is true: that the combination of limited primary sources and our distance in both time and space prevents us from truly grasping the full truth of the past in most instances. We are just trying to make sense of the past to the best of our abilities and then somehow use that knowledge to inform society as we move rapidly into an unknowable future.

I hope Chrisman and her husband enjoy their Victorian lifestyles, but please don’t lecture the rest of us about your adventure getting you closer to some ubiquitous “truth” of the past that the rest of us miss by not living the life of a bourgeois Victorian elite like you.