Historians Who Love Too Much

If you haven’t read it, Jill Lepore’s 2001 article “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography” reminds us of the complicated relationship we historians have with our research subjects. She says, “Finding out and writing about people, living or dead, is tricky work. It is necessary to balance intimacy with distance while at the same time being inquisitive to the point of invasiveness. Getting too close to your subject is a major danger, but not getting to know her well enough is just as likely.”

I run into these complexities often in my own work. I always have. Critical distance is a difficult tight rope to walk. And because I use a lot of oral histories, some I have even conducted myself, I become enamored with the people in my history. These women are incredible, really. Further, since I am a white woman writing on black women, I fear any sort of criticism may come across as racist.

Criticism simply for the sake of finding something wrong yields no new understanding of history, in my opinion. Think about how  you might react to the professor’s red marks accusing you of insignificant analysis but offering no suggestions, as opposed to the assistance of someone who finds holes in your argument but helps you fill them in. Offering constructive criticism of our past, then, helps us see historical stories in new light.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Academic Anecdotes, Life of the Mind

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