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Autobiography with Scholarly Trimmings

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tags: writing history



Zachary M. Schrag is professor of history at George Mason University. He tweets @zacharyschrag.

In October 1962, a young US Navy officer named Martin Sherwin noticed unusual activity. “Although we were on the West Coast,” he recalled decades later, “a sense of being engaged in an international crisis permeated my squadron’s ranks. Extra munitions, and weapons we had never before stored, were delivered to our hangars . . . Marines in full battle gear were being flown east aboard military air transports. Something important was happening, and we were going to be part of it.” After witnessing that small part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Sherwin went on to graduate school and a distinguished career as a historian of nuclear conflict. In Gambling with Armageddon, his new history of the crisis, he has now surveyed that dreadful episode with a perspective far above that of his younger self.

Sherwin follows a tradition dating back to at least Thucydides: studying history as a way to expand our understanding of our own experiences. This autobiographical tradition has served historians well, as both scholars and teachers. Our personal experiences—and those of our ancestors, biological or fictive—inspire our research, help us make sense of the past, and guide our students to questions that drive their curiosity and passion.

The most directly autobiographical historians are those who, like Sherwin, have lived through the events they narrate. Along with war veterans, there are great histories by former diplomats, activists in social movements, and journalists. Other historians write after sharing more universal experiences. In Mother Is a Verb, for example, Sarah Knott writes as both a mother and a historian to explore mothering across time and place. Every day that we live, we are participants in history as well as its chroniclers.

Much more commonly, historians ask questions about events they have not witnessed, but that are still connected to their own lives. I’ve written two books this way. One asked about why my hometown had a rapid transit system when so many cities do not, and the second asked why my university was demanding that I submit my oral history projects to an ethics process that seemed designed to review laboratory science. In both cases, key decisions had been made before my birth or during my early childhood, so I had been even less of a participant than Lieutenant Sherwin. But to the degree that I was trying to understand the circumstances that shaped my own life, I too was writing a kind of autobiography.

 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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