Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Blogging and the craft of history

Anybody who has been seriously involved in historical study at whatever level will know that the work begins in confusion, uncertainty. Sometimes it just seems impossible to link things together. We drown in information. Things are disconnected.

Then, if we persevere, patterns start to emerge. We see connections between things. Now we are pointing and counterplotting between the general ideas we have been forming and the further evidence. Some things we put aside, others come into stronger focus. Now life has become interesting!

If we continue beyond this point, a new process emerges. Now we are both broadening and deepening our knowledge. Everything we read links back in some way to something we have looked at before. You would think that life would suddenly become boring, but no, for now we have just so many directions we can go that choice becomes an issue. In an interconnected world, we can follow threads in whatever direction we like.

You can see this process in one of my favourite history blogs, Janine Rizzetti's The Resident Judge of Port Phillip. I suspect that Janine had no idea that her study of one person at Port Phillip would take her deep into the world of Upper Canada.

I explored a little of this in a post on my personal blog, Greece, history & the on-line world. Here you can see how things link and cross-link.

One of the difficulties for all historians and especially those who work isolated from the profession, and that is in fact most people studying history, lies in the inability to share. We go to our families or friends with a very interesting if somewhat arcane piece of information and they just roll their eyes!

This is where blogging comes in. We can write the stuff and put it out there for all to see. Often, of course, no-one notices. They behave just like our family or friends. Even then, we have at least written it down, and the act of writing refines thought.

Beyond that, and if we keep at it, we do get some feedback. We find one or two people who are actually interested in that otherwise arcane piece of information. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough to be of value.   

All this may seem to be at some remove from my present main topic on this blog, social change in New England 1950-2000. In fact, it's quite germane.

In 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside, I provided a small snapshot of one small part of New England life in 1923, one far removed from normal historical discussion relating to the area. This drew a comment from KVD providing a link to a Sydney Morning Herald notice on the material I was talking about. I am already in front!

The post in question was triggered by some work that I was doing investigating New England's Ogilvie family for the next post in the culture change series. So now you have two of the things that I have been talking about in play.

The first is the new directions effect. Who could or would have thought that a search on a New England pastoral dynasty would take me to a Greek play performed in the original Greek?

The second is the deepening effect. I have added another small tile to my growing New England mosaic. 

Now all this is really very satisfying. Remember, the thesis on which my writing is based is that the history of New England is more than just a variation at the margin to the broader Australian story. It is a story in its own right.

I am sure now that I can show this if only I can complete the work. I think that I can write a story that will explain New England to New Englanders, but also challenge the simplistic theme based structures on which so much of Australian history writing is based.

What I really want to do, and it's a huge challenge that may be beyond my skills, is to recreate worlds now vanished that simply hang together. If I can do this, I pose a fundamental challenge to those who deny the existence and validity of those worlds.


Adam said...

I just found your blog googling for New England history – of the North American variety – and this post stopped me dead in my tracks. Thanks for articulating exactly my experience as a digger/explorer/inventor/world validator. I've been writing a book about my home town in the northeastern US (1600-1700, 1850-1890, 1960-present), and the parallel is fascinating.

I'm curious what our findings might have in common, beside our processes. You've got a new reader, for sure.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning Australian time, Adam, and thanks. I have added your blog to the list of history blogs. Interesting that you are writing in slices.

Also interesting to see what commonalities emerge. I would expect some - the first part of your book deals with Indians, for example, while mine deals with the Aborigines. Two very different societies, but both responding to contact experiences.

Adam said...

Ah, I knew I should have clarified. The book moves backward in time, and not a little strangely, the first section (1960-present) draws a lot of its underpinnings from Aboriginal spiritual traditions. Aboriginal ideas about the world have long made a huge and profound sense to me. The correlations between our books may be deeper than we thought.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, Adam, that you are starting from present and then moving back.

This actually poses very special writing challenges because you then have to narrow rather than starting narrow to build to the broad. How are you handling this?

We will have to debate the issue of the importance of Aboriginal sprituality. Depending on what you mean, I am not sure that I agree with you!

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

Okay, big reply! Pt. 1:

First, let me clarify something huge: it's a book of poems, and I take a LOT of liberties. It started as a questioning of the nonexistent priority local history takes in my hometown. Over time it's grown, asking a number of other big questions, a lot of them cultural and spiritual. I think you're missing a lot of important areas of history by investigating only the facts. That is, the facts (such that we can verify them) are a critical foundation, and sometimes counterpoint, for the human questions that underly the actions that created them.

Time is a huge component of the book, in some respects behaving as a character (matchmaker, obscurer/revealer, etc). The European preoccupation with linear time is really interesting to me. Quantum mechanics and String Theory (as well as I understand them) are making that linearity increasingly problematic, and I think there's a ton of magic in there worth of exploring. It shouldn't then be a surprise that the Aboriginal contention of simultaneity grabs me, as well. Each section of the book is sequenced by memory/emotional association, so the narrative arc moves through a very squiggly chronology.

Adam said...

Pt. 2:

If I'm understanding you right, I don't think the importance of Aboriginal spirituality needs debating. It's a compelling, utterly un-European, time-tested spiritual framework. I'm drawn to it personally, intellectually, and as a remedy for a culture obsessed with erasing its past.

To answer your question directly, I'm exploring, revising, exploring again, revising again, and formalizing, in that order. I've found the same process that drives the research – the dialectics and deepening dances you describe in this post – is driving the action in the poems, which in turn drive the themes. Basically, it's a big soup. I'm starting with the present because I think it provides the strongest, most relevant foothold for the average reader. Especially because I'm writing about the particular history of a particular place, I want to get my hooks in with nostalgia and that ghostly familiarity of the near present. Right now I'm beginning my big push into the 17th century, which I'll research until I'm comfortable enough with it to pursue the 19th.

My book is fundamentally more about questions (and problematizing assumptions) than facts. Again, the facts are cornerstones of those questions. But because what I'm after is something archetypal, I have to drive past them, and into the much murkier, more experimental, and I think much richer, territory of cultural friction. And poetry gives me room to do it all.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting again, Adam. I described the difference between the Australian Aboriginal and European sense of time in this way. To the Aborigines, the present was part of a living past. To the Europeans, the present was a step towards a still to be defined future.

I don't know enough about the North American Indians to be able to compare them properly to the Aborigines, especialy when it comes to issues of sprituality. They were very different peoples.

You write as a poet, I am writing as an historian. This gives you far greater freedom to explore beyond the bounds set by evidence. I can speculate, put forward hypotheses, but they have to be directly linked to the evidence.

The past is always a far country. Our perceptions of it are bound in often subtle and unseen ways by the way we see things now. Whether writing as a poet or historian, the challenge is to break through the bounds to the way people were then.

To illustrate, the Australian Aborigines were defined at one point as a timeless people in a timeless land, an ancient people occupying an ancient continent. Clearly this isn't right, for we know that the Aborigines did change over time. Further, there were considerable local and regional variations. Yet the idea of timelessness has been very powerful in binding the way we think about the Australian Aboriginal past.

The very idea of the "Australian Aborigines" is a European construct, as is the use of the word tribes. The Aborigines did not think of themselves as a defined entity, while the idea of tribes - defined entities ocuupying defined space - was introduced by the British settlers based on North American experience. There were no such thing as tribes.

It is remarkably hard to break through the conditioning of langauge and thought. In a paper I gave in Armidale this year talking about the project - http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com/2010/06/unrecognised-and-now-almost-unknown.html - I was still using the word tribe, if in a limted way.

In July, I gave another paper, this time on New England's Aboriginal languages. The paper's not on line because I am revising it for publication. In that paper I had to explicitly reject the concept of tribes except in the context of European thought and of Aboriginal responses to that thought.

But how, then, do you write of the Aborigines for an audience conditioned to think in terms of hard lines, straight lines, simpler social definitions? How do you even understand this yourself?

Poets and historians are both story tellers, if operating in different frames. A very special challenge from my viewpoint lies in making the long story accessible to people who know nothing about it or, worse, know bits about it that are (as I see it) wrong because they are so present conditioned. This is a considerable writing challenge, one that you would face too.

Adam said...

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for your long response to my long response, let me say simply, "Mostly agreed," and for the moment leave it at that. Thank you especially for the link to your paper, which I'll make time to read this weekend.

Merry Xmas, Merry End of December, Happy Post-Solstice, or whatever you're up to.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Adam. A happy Christmas to you and yours.