- Histories of the Self: Personal Narratives and Historical Practice by Penny Summerfield
Routledge, 2018, 194 pp. ISBN 9780415576192, $46.95 paperback.
Personal narratives have generated intense debates within historical research since the 1970 and 1980s. Precisely since those decades, Penny Summerfield has been interested in writing history using different types of personal testimonies. Combined with her teaching on matters related to personal testimony and historical research, Summerfield has consistently reflected on the great challenges that such research presents.
Those challenges stem from looking at the field from a theoretical and methodological point of view, and at its close relationships with other disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, literary studies, education, and sociology. Moreover, important issues such as authenticity, reliability, representativeness, personal experience, and public discourse, among other aspects, permeate such studies (3). Histories of the Self gathers the experience and reflection born out of a long academic career, and aims “to offer an opportunity to reflect critically, in relation to larger historiographies, on historical questions and methodologies focused on the personal in history” (3). Summerfield has produced a remarkable study, which will undoubtedly be of enormous benefit to scholars and students alike, especially those with a keen interest in the intersection between personal narratives and historiography, or in other words, between life writing as a form of self-expression and a form of social coherence or collective identity building.
The book is structured in seven chapters. In the first chapter, a special mention must be made of the section on terminology that collects the various positions and disciplines of researchers who have participated in this area of historical research: life histories, life narratives, life writing, personal narratives, personal testimony, testimonio, ego-documents, and histories of the self. Likewise, the studies are placed within a broader framework, contextualizing how they entered into dialogue [End Page 847] with post-structuralism, post-colonialism, feminism, and psychoanalysis, which have each had so much influence in historical practice.
The second chapter focuses on historians’ uses of letters. Among the many topics that come up in this chapter, of particular significance is the idea of the letter as the site of construction of the self and the other, as well as the interactions of the letter writers with available cultural identities, or how letter writers construct in their correspondence the subjectivity of their addresses.
The third chapter discusses the diverse historical uses of diaries not only as a source for social, political, or cultural studies, but to consider themes as varied as subjectivity, life writing, gender studies, and the private and public spheres. The author points to some researchers identifying diaries with “technologies of the self,” à la Stuart Hall, as well as studies dedicated to the contradictions and incoherence of diary editors. Summerfield mentions Steven Rendall and his belief that the diary—rather than an integrating instrument for the person—actually disinte-grates the subject due to time, an unusual and suggestive vision as to the possible psychic evolution of the writer.
The fourth chapter focuses on autobiographies and memoirs as sources for the knowledge of historical facts and for the study of subjectivity. But the author also discusses the relationship between gender and memory, the audience, accuracy, different autobiographical forms, and their ability to transform the past from a present standpoint.
In chapter five, oral history and its un/reliability is explored. Summerfield has previously engaged with the genre in the volume Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, where she gathered interviews undertaken in the 1990s. This type of research paved the way for dealing with the tension existing between public discourse and popular culture, as well as such issues as rich as silence/omission in the face of informants’ potentially traumatic past experiences.
Chapter six revolves around the representativeness and ability of these sources to generalize and create a reliable reconstruction of the past. However, the contribution of these sources may be especially valuable because of their emotional import, attitudes, values, and behaviors. Personal narratives have opened an avenue for research on the society and culture of a given historical period that may arise from a single...