Rachel writes: . . . much about “history”

Yesterday I attended one of the most affecting events I have ever attended, bar none: the “Writing History Now” symposium at the Lowell Lecture Hall. An event of the Extension School’s centennial, the panel featured five of the most compelling “history” writers working today–I enclose “history” in quotes, because the range of content covered by these five warm, charming, and generally remarkable individuals is so broad, so deep,  and so genre-busting that some re-focusing and re-thinking of the meaning of the term is required.

Panelists (see www.extension.harvard.edu/centennial/events/ for all of the names and bios) talked about their research, their writing–which spans all sorts of “histories,” including biography, cultural history, legal history, environmental history, visual records–and their work in the context of new technologies, as well as the vagaries of contemporary publishing.

What really struck me most deeply was the role that simple intellectual curiosity plays in the development of a major research and writing project: for example, John Stilgoe talked about the chance discovery of a serial number on an old boat he was painting, the investigation of which led to his book, Lifeboat: A History of Courage, Cravenness, and Survival at Sea (University of Virginia Press, 2003), a social history of the lifeboat and its metaphorical meaning in our culture.

Equally striking,  Megan Marshall (author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (HMH, 2005), told us about the delight and importance of chance discovery while conducting archival research among primary-source materials in a library or archive, as opposed to relying on the convenience of digitized materials on the Internet. Nancy Kollman, a history professor at Stanford, talked about the need to make writing evoke the visual when supporting visual materials are scarce; I was also very moved by her advocacy for the shaping of history texts to elicit empathy in the reader.

The “Writing History Now” panel also addressed the issue of tone and writing with one’s audience in mind, an important notion for academic writers–this thought, and in fact every detail  discussed last evening I am certain will help me not only shape the mechanics of my future writing, but also, I hope, free me to conceptualize beyond the rigid boundaries of academic specialization.

The event was video-taped and should be posted hereabouts soon. I will add the link here when I can.

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