Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A meditation on historiography—Alfred Crosby and Alvin Josephy




Commenting on my last blog, in which I played that major Josephy song about Indians being omitted from the standard American historical narrative, retired history prof Steve Evans said that he would ask students what American history would look like without considering the progressive movement—or George Washington.

Fiction writer and social commentator John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Stories from the Lycra Archipeligo),wrote from his perch in Standley, Idaho that he is “realizing that true history may be an oxymoron, due to the distorting lenses through which we all view the past.”

I apologized for using the word “true,” excusing myself somewhat lamely with the fact that I used “truer” rather than the absolute. And brought out another old song—I don’t remember when or where I first heard it—about history telling us more about the time it is written in than it does the time it is written about.

On the other hand, our persistent attempts to explore the past and to chronicle events of the present for presentation in the future keep many working away at retrieving, chronicling, and explaining. As even casual readers of this blog must realize, my touchstones on this over the last couple of years have been Charles Mann and Alfred Crosby. Here, in an October 2011 interview in the Smithsonian Magazine, Crosby explains how he came on the idea of the "Columbian Exchange," and how historians too are creatures of habit.

The interviewer asks “What made you want to write this book?” And Crosby replies:

I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox.
Smallpox was enormously important until quite modern times, until the middle of the 20th century at the latest. So I was chasing it down, and I found myself reading the original accounts of the European settlements in Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I kept coming across smallpox just blowing people away. So I thought there must be something else going on here, and there was—and I suppose still is.

History from an ecological perspective was a new idea, the interviewer  says, and asks why.

Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.

And how did Crosby go about his research?

It was really quite easy. You just have to be prepared somehow or other to notice the obvious. You don’t have to read the original accounts in Spanish or Portuguese. There are excellent English translations dating back for generations. Practically all of them will get into a page or two or ten about the decimation of American Indians, or a page about how important maize is when all European crops fail, and things like that. I really didn’t realize that I was starting a revolution in historiography when I got into this subject.

I( recall Alvin saying that writing a history of the Civil War in the American West was a matter of sifting and putting together the numerous well documented  accounts of what was happening across the West in the run-up to and during the War. A recent US Park Service bibliography of Civil War in the West material runs 24 pages, and lists Josephy’s 1991 book as the best and most complete general treatment of the subject. I’d wager few college Civil War classes use it.

And, although Crosby’s work and Charles Mann’s popularization of it in 1491 and 1493 have certainly opened eyes to a different way of looking at history and the Europeanization of the New World, Indians IN American history are still crawling up from Indian studies departments into the mainstream.

I like Steve Evans approach: Imagine American History without George Washington, or Cortez or Pizarro—and then imagine it without Tecumseh, the Inca emperors, the Iriquois Confederacy, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It is a different history.

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