Writing History in the First-Person

Nearly a decade ago, in one of Steve Nolt’s classes at Goshen College, I read Hasia Diner’s essay “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.”1 In just a few pages, Diner succinctly sums up the historian’s complicated relationship with the concept of objectivity and then makes a coherent argument for the relative strengths and weaknesses of approaching a historical project as, first, an insider, and, then, as an outsider.

The piece might be a graduate student’s first-semester essay on the question of objectivity and bias, except for one thing: Diner uses the first-person voice throughout. She illustrates her points with her experiences writing about Jewish history, a subject to which she is an insider, and Irish history, which she has written about an outsider.

It is an instructive essay for the history student, in that it renders the challenge of a scholar’s position to their subject not only in a digestible fashion but in a detailed, compelling, and memorable one. Diner’s name and the title of her essay had long faded from my memory, yet the effect of her words remained and I periodically remembered the general outlines of the piece.

I thought of the essay in the last few weeks and went looking for it. Due to the sadly limited quantity of essay collections about and by Mennonite women with a historical lens (and the relative rarity of overlap between Jewish and Mennonite scholarship), I was able to find it. Diner’s essay came to mind because I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the first-person in preparation for a course I’m teaching: “First Person America.

This class, a general education requirement listed under American Studies in the Temple University course catalog, has been taught in a variety of ways. Typically it involves readings ranging from diaries and recollections of American colonists to late twentieth-century coming-of-age stories. I decided to think about the first-person more broadly and I am assigning texts ranging from visual art to music videos to podcasts. Ultimately I see the course as a primer on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and identity.

In my class, my students and I are exploring the lived experiences of people and how they claim identities based on their place in the world, or in spite of it. We are finding common ground with people whose lives are very different from ours. Perhaps more importantly, we’re trying to understand the limits of our own experiences, the places where our fellow humans face challenges and find motivations that we don’t know. We are looking for the structures which are often invisible to us and oppressive to others, but also learning how responses to those structures vary from person to person. I hope to give my students a window into other people’s realities and a skill set that will help them examine their own existence.

I am choosing to assign a variety of media rather than “breaking”2 historical monographs in part because it will allow us to fit in more people’s views and in part because while first-person writing does find its way into historical monographs, it is typically resigned to the introduction and (occasionally) the conclusion, like a frame narrative. The transition from the introduction, in which the author is present, to the main text, where they are not, is a bit like Sean Connery’s first scene in The Hunt for Red October, where he and his interlocutor switch from Russian to English in the midst of a Bible passage and the audience spends the rest of the movie suspending their disbelief on that particular point. Readers of a history book know that the author’s voice is in there somewhere but it is discreetly hiding. While not every history needs to be a memoir, an author has already inserted themselves into the story by conducting research. Why not acknowledge it?

The historical monograph, as we know it today, came from an era when history was a young profession and its practitioners believed they were working toward a common, universal, truth. They might have understood the folly of this endeavor sooner had they not had so much in common with each other: they were predominantly white men educated in the finest schools in the nation. The identity of any given historical writer could, for decades, be assumed to be something of a cookie-cutter academic. These historians were divided by politics, perhaps, but sought to build their arguments with the illusion of dispassionate facts.

The occlusion of the authorial voice is not only a pitfall of the academy. Public history spaces such as museums have long bolstered their authority in the eyes of visitors by adopting a third-person omniscient perspective to signage and interpretation. The artifacts or images are presented as though they are part of some organic collection, discovered en masse by the visitors, rather than a curated set of available artifacts.

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In historical work as in art, sometimes it is useful to see the artist’s hand. Painting by Dennis Maust.

Our scholarship is much better when we acknowledge our own position in society, our own foibles and petty preferences, and our own deepest-held beliefs, not only in the introduction but throughout our arguments. In museum contexts, labels should come with an author photo and curators should give regular talks about why and how they do their work. I advocate these practices not simply to make history consumers better informed, but in the hopes that historians continue rigorous self-exploration and understand something of the field they work in.

For those of us working from personal histories in the Anabaptist tradition, Diner’s arguments about the relative merits of the insider/outsider dichotomy should linger in our minds. Whether we are tackling subjects of church history or the broader world, we need to acknowledge the tradition from which we come. When I claim Anabaptist roots, I must wrestle with the tendency toward exceptionalism that I absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence, from my church, my teachers, and my peers. I find this more difficult to reckon with than the history of racial inequality in the denomination as well as the ongoing denial of queer humanity. The more deeply-embedded the assumption, the harder it is to confront in one’s work.

In class tomorrow, I will lead my class in analyzing texts and discussing our own identities. I hope our discussions equip them to recognize their role as historical actors and the forces that have shaped their view of the world. We will talk about ourselves and learn about ourselves, and that is a good thing.


  1. “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.” in Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History,  ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 21-38. 
  2. If you have not heard the term “book breaking,” here is a good summary of the practice: Douglas Hunter, “Book Breaking and Book Mending,” Slate, 15 July 2018: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/07/academic-publishing-and-book-breaking-why-scholars-write-books-that-arent-meant-to-be-read.html 

One thought on “Writing History in the First-Person

  1. Excellent piece, Ted! I also thoroughly enjoyed the article you linked by Douglas Hunter…it reminded me so much of my grad school experience and the not always good ways it taught me to read and write history. I think what Hunter has to say about the divide between “academic” and “public” history is right on. I’m thankful for at least one excellent mentor who modeled a way to bridge those gaps.

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