While Post-modern novelist William H. Gass is best known as a novelist and fiction writer, he offers sage, incisive advice to historians and readers of history.
“Historians tend to want to create a narrative, to make the world along the lines of the 19th century that pretended the world has meaning, that there are heroes and heroines and climaxes and real denouements and turning points. I happen to believe in none of that, so I feel my book is real realism: there’s contradictions and confusion and deliberate darkness.”
Often, historians have the urge to write history as a simple, neat story with unambiguous events, uni-dimension characters and clear turning points. Gass reminds us that life is more complex and historians should avoid embellishing events or describing historical figures as clearly good or bad. Further, historians must be comfortable with ambiguity and leave gaps in the historical record where they naturally occur and simply point out contradictions. Too many or overly broad inferences alter rather than interpret history.
Also, Gass’s personal journey and observations point out that many insightful learnings are the result the intersection of multiple areas of study and research disciplines. Getting out of one’s comfort zone to look at things differently is vitally important to generating ground-breaking new ideas. For historians, concepts, research and techniques from disciplines outside of history can lead to new historical interpretations.
As we read and write history, Gass’s admonishments are well worth remembering! The best practice for historians is to embrace the ABC’s: ambiguity, bafflement and contradictions And also to follow Gass’s lead and integrate other disciplines into our historical research.
Note: William Gass passed away December 6, 2017. His obituary in the Washington Post.