- Historians and their Histories
There are few sources in history less trustworthy than memoirs and autobiographies. At their most innocent, their authors want only to bear witness to events they have observed or in which they have participated, yet the labour entailed in recall, research, reflection, and composition means that the task is not lightly undertaken. There must be some motivation beyond the simple desire to record: one wants to set the record straight, or leave one’s mark, or reveal secrets, or get even—maybe all these things at once. At the very least, such works are necessarily self-centred, though at their best this does not mean self-serving. The eminent historian of New France, Marcel Trudel, began his absorbing memoir with two epigraphs referring to the early modern French essayist Michel de Montaigne, one by Pascal (“Montaigne’s ridiculous project of depicting himself”), the other by Voltaire (“Montaigne’s charming plan of depicting himself”) (Trudel 2002, 13). In doing so, he demonstrated an awareness of both himself and the writing journey on which he was embarking that the reader cannot help find engaging.
Jeremy Popkin, the only scholar I know of who has undertaken an extended study specifically of autobiographies written by historians, thinks that the long-ingrained suspicion of the genre as a source for historical study helps to explain why many historians are wary when they take on the job of writing about themselves, and why many others avoid it entirely. Nevertheless, the number of historian-autobiographers has been growing, wariness notwithstanding, and Popkin thinks the reason for this may be found, at least in part, in changes in the relationship that many historians have thought existed between themselves and their evidence. Having abandoned the canons of objectivity that guided the historical profession in the middle decades of the twentieth century and accepted that their study of the past was necessarily subjective, and having shifted their attention from public affairs and prominent people to the intimate lives of ordinary people, historians have lost some of their inhibitions about [End Page 321] “writing the self”: “The past generation has seen a sea change in the practices of the historical discipline itself, one that has involved both a new definition of the proper domain of history and a new judgment about the persuasiveness of arguments based on individual experience versus those derived from generalization” (Popkin 2005, 85). To say that we seem to live in an era of self-revelation verges on the cliché, yet factors specific to historians, Popkin suggests, may be just as important in explaining the new openness.
In carrying out his study, Popkin certainly found a surprising number of personal narratives by historians, some 300 in all. Admittedly, he included those of Edward Gibbon and David Hume, dating from the eighteenth century, Ernest Renan from the nineteenth, and Henry Adams from the early twentieth, but the vast majority were written in the last 30 years. He cast his net widely, reading examples from many countries of Western Europe, from India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, and from the United States, source of the biggest concentration (Popkin 2005, 86). Canada is also on his list, in the cases of Jill Ker Conway and Natalie Zemon Davis, though their inclusion might be explained by their even greater prominence in the United States. Had he looked more closely north of the border, he would not have found a large number, possibly because of the oft-noted reticence of Canadians, compared to Americans, but the works of C.P. Stacey (published in 1983), Michiel Horn (1997), Kenneth McNaught (1999), Trudel (2002), and Ramsay Cook (2006) illustrate several of his autobiographic themes: the experience of war (and writing the history of war), immigration and assimilation, professional life, and political engagement.
Popkin’s list is inclusive in other ways, counting essays and interviews, as well as books, and taking in the genres of autobiography, memoir, and ego-histoire. It was...