History and the Abyss: What We Know about What Happened
Most people seem to believe that history is, broadly speaking, “the study of what happened.” But this is wrong.
More than anything else, history is the critical interpretation of surviving sources of information detailing what happened in the past. Some of those sources are literary: newspapers, official documents, engravings, memoirs, court records, and more. Some of those sources are the memories of people, gathered by oral historians, folklorists, and journalists. Some of those sources are more forensic, the bodies of people unearthed to reveal the nature of a crime, the details of one’s diet, and more. And some of those sources are simply part of our environment, the architecture that surrounds us and still tells us those stories of the past, or even the hills, trails, and streams that have been created or altered by human intervention.
These are sources of information regarding “what happened” in the past, but even this wealth of information leaves us at a significant remove from “what happened.” After all, we know that newspapers occasionally lied or at least deliberately distorted the truth, and even when that was not intentional, they did still regularly reflect the prejudices of their time and station. People’s memories can fade over the years, or perhaps simply conflate events, especially when stories are passed down through multiple generations. Forensic evidence can be challenging to interpret, and likewise with the features of our environment.
That is why I say that history is the “critical interpretation of surviving sources of information,” for we need to understand the context in which these sources come to be in order to develop some idea of their relative truthfulness.
But more than that, we simply do not possess all the sources we would like to have, which is why history only follows surviving sources. Now, as Donald Rumsfeld would have put it, there are some “known unknowns” as relate to sources that do not survive. For example, in the Hebrew books of Joshua and Samuel, there are references to a “Book of Jasher,” which is apparently some book of poetry that circulated at the time, but whatever it was, this book has long since vanished. Likewise, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, in his most well-known work, The City of God, regularly references one of the main works of Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, namely Antiquities of Human and Divine Things. This book, like the overwhelming majority of Varro’s works, does not survive. So all we really know of Varro’s most famous work comes from the quotations Augustine selects (to refute) in his own book, which I hope drives home the need for a critical interpretation.
So we know that we do not have access to some sources. But there are also plenty of “unknown unknowns,” or materials that we simply know nothing about. How many written works circulated, for example, through the Roman world and then disappeared without ever being referenced by any other work that does survive?
You might imagine that the ellipsis in our source materials exists largely in the distant past, but as I learned writing my dissertation (and subsequent book) on the phenomenon of racial cleansing in Arkansas, a lot of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources of potential history have simply vanished. The greatest known loss is perhaps that of the enumeration sheets of the 1890 Census, but just as devastating, at least on the local level, is the loss of copies of all the small newspapers of the period. Few people really collected newspapers back then; after all, they were printed cheaply and meant to be discarded (or perhaps used to insulate a poor man’s home). For example, only one issue of the African American newspaper called the Pine Bluff Weekly Herald survives. Only two issues of an anti-Catholic rag, The Liberator, survive. And we are lucky to have those. But there are entire runs of local Arkansas newspapers that have simply vanished. Maybe a few of their stories were syndicated in statewide papers, but otherwise, all trace of them is gone, much to our disadvantage. I know people who would kill for a run of the Black Rock Blade.
Official records can also let us down. For example, the collected record of military activities during the Civil War, known as The War of the Rebellion (and commonly called the OR, or Official Records), contains mention of a few different skirmishes that occurred in Arkansas but for which there is apparently no surviving documentation. And those reports that do survive must, again, be interpreted critically, as we know that some commanders were writing to impress their superior officers or whoever else might be reading. As historian Mark Christ writes in his entry on Joseph Shelby:
“Researchers should take note that much of the contemporary material written about Shelby—including Shelby and His Men and Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico, and, indeed, the majority of Shelby’s reports in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies—was written by John Newman Edwards, a flamboyant journalist before the war and Shelby’s adjutant during the conflict. Many incidents in Edwards’s accounts, such as the general’s meeting with Union commander James Blunt at Cane Hill and the so-called Battle of the Bees at Okolona in 1864, appear nowhere other than in Edwards’s work and thus almost certainly were the journalist’s exaggerations. Edwards should always be corroborated with other contemporary accounts.”
I am often struck by these words of Jan T. Gross from his 2001 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland: “All that we know about the Holocaust—by virtue of the fact that it has been told—is not a representative sample of the Jewish fate suffered under Nazi rule. It is all skewed evidence, biased in one direction: these are all stories with a happy ending. They have all been produced by a few who were lucky enough to survive.” And what he writes about the Holocaust can apply to most any other period in history. The existence of certain records is a boon for historians, but their existence depended upon a specific set of circumstances. The conditions that determine which records survive do, by necessity, warp the story historians try to tell, because, as noted, history is dependent upon these sources. History may not always be told by the winners, but it is told largely by the survivors—barring the discovery of other graves, other bones.
Granted, there may be, out there somewhere, surviving copies of certain lost gospels, more Dead Sea Scrolls, or select issues of the Black Rock Blade. But until we find them, we can only tell the stories we know in such a way as to be as inclusive as possible. That is our goal at the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas, and that is the goal of all true historians.
By Guy Lancaster, editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas