On Historical Imagination

“History written without sufficient imagination risks a failure of basic human empathy. We sometimes think that the historical imagination is the gift of seeing past—seeing past the surface squalors of an era to the larger truths. Really, history is all about seeing in, looking hard at things to bring them back to life as they were, while still making them part of life as it is.”

This wonderful quote from Adam Gopnik’s piece in this week’s New Yorker about books on the Spanish Inquisition captures so well what the historian ideally aims at: providing the reader with not only historical facts (what happened when and where and to whom) but more crucially with what it really was to live there and then, and live through or “inhabit” those historical “moments.”

When I read a work of history, I don’t want it to be fiction (though I do love good historical fiction, but that’s another genre). But I do want to be transported back to the time under discussion, to feel as though I have gained some kind of understanding of what it was like to live then. Not only what people wore, what they ate, how they lived and died, but also, how they thought, what were their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Providing this kind of historical understanding is what I aim for in my own historical writing.

However, as Gopnik notes, this concept of historical imagination is not the norm in academic historical writing. In fact, I would add, it is viewed with suspicion. I was surprised while teaching a graduate history seminar last semester that the students, at the start of the course, felt that historical works should not give too much of the sights and smells and feelings of the time, that somehow this was unseemly or too “popular.” Books that discussed 17th century British history, for example, should steer clear of explicit descriptions of plague victims and their sufferings or else be guilty of pandering to a non-academic audience. Yet how can we truly understand what it was to live in London in the 1660s without knowing what it was like to die of a disease that struck down about 20% of the population in the city in 1665?

As Gopnik puts it in relation to the Inquisition, “if you can’t imagine the horror of being burned alive, then you haven’t, so to speak, lived.” He praises history that “makes us feel not just what it was to see the Inquisition at work but what it was to suffer from it.” Without historical imagination, you cannot truly have historical understanding.

2 replies
  1. Bill Keogan
    Bill Keogan says:

    Historical imagination is wonderful in such books as Garrett Mattingly’s massively researched The Armada, but I find it somewhat irritating in such books as Karen Armstong’s Buddha. She starts off by saying that the Buddha did not want his followers to write about him, so nothing was written for more than a hundred years. Most of what we “know” about him is conjecture. Similarly, in the Shakespeare biography Will in the World, the author says on multiple occasions that he thinks that such and such happened. I guess I’m in favor of the Dragnet school of history—“just the facts.”

    • Laura J. Snyder
      Laura J. Snyder says:

      I quite agree about books written without historical documentation, or very very little. Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra has that difficulty as well. My point, and I think Gopnik’s as well, is that academic historians often shrink from even documented facts, if they seem somehow too likely to evoke “emotional” or visceral reactions from the reader, for instance detailed descriptions of the sufferings under torture during the Inquisition (Gopnik’s example) or the terrible deaths of plague victims. A lively discussion of this point ensued when I posted this comment to my Facebook page; feel free to take a look and comment there as well!

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