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Review: Zen and the Art of Local History

Note: In 2014, AASLH and the British Association for Local History (BALH) began steps to make common cause in the pursuit of local history. While we’re in the very early stages of this partnership, and do not know what it’s going to ultimately look like, we are excited to offer this review of one of our books, Zen and the Art of Local History, by Alan G. Crosby, the editor of The Local Historian: Journal of the British Association for Local History.

Alan’s review originally ran in the journal’s April 2015 issue (Volume 45, no. 2): 92-96. We are running this review as originally printed, complete with British spelling and punctuation conventions.

 

“Zen and the art of local history: reviewing some transatlantic perspectives”
Alan G. Crosby

ZEN AND THE ART OF LOCAL HISTORY edited by Carol Kammen and Bob Beatty (Rowman & Littlefield/American Association for State and Local History 2014 332pp ISBN 978-1-4422-2690-6) £27.95 details at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226890/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Local-History

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Since the early 1980s Carol Kammen has been a leading voice for local history in America, and since 1995 has written regular editorial essays about the subject for History News, the quarterly journal of the American Association for State and Local History. This book brings together, and builds on, that reflection and experience and comes to BALH as one of the first fruits of its recent link-up with AASLH.

Carol’s writing arose from a growing frustration that in the early 1980s History News was concerned more with the management of historical agencies and organisations, with education programmes and the technicalities of the practice of history, and less about history itself, and what made local, regional and state historians tick. She penned an irate letter and (while living on the Rue de Pontoise in Paris) wrote what she describes as ‘a screed’ entitled On doing local history: reflections on what local historians do, why and what it means.

She is a skilled and stimulating essayist, her success being in no small measure the result of her own intellectual personality, having ‘grown from a young woman attempting to be sure of herself into an older woman not so much sure any longer and still seeking’. Her progression towards enlightenment came through being self-taught, arriving in a new place as a woman of 28 with two small children and needing something to do. In her case, this was to write a pamphlet, commissioned by the local history society, about the founder of the community, and then to offer a course on local history at the community college. From the outset, she perceived the need to include the excluded—those who had been to a great extent written out of history. This meant paying proper attention to women, African-Americans, Greeks, Italians … the people who hitherto had scarcely figured in the narratives of the white Anglo-Saxon males of the American story. In a revealing phrase, she says that she ‘ignored railroad lines and focused on people’.

This refreshing determination to stretch boundaries and create new frontiers for local history research, writing and teaching, combined with a down to earth approach which harnessed the developing enthusiasm for new aspects of local history (such as oral history, the preservation and conservation movement, ‘small is beautiful’, and the awareness of the rich diversity of American history which stemmed from Bicentennial celebrations of 1976) became the hallmark of her work. She recognised that local history takes many forms, and that research and practical activities are diverse and varied—more so, perhaps, than in mainstream history twenty or thirty years ago: ‘I [found] my way around archives, wrote some books, and had the opportunity to run workshops, consult with numerous historical agencies, meet interesting people, and travel here and there’.

She is driven by an insatiable curiosity for discovery and for the exploitation of neglected or underused sources. Her ideas and methods are not rigid, and they have changed over time. She eschews parochialism and narrow research topics and seeks connections and linkages, sifting out truth from fiction, verifying realities rather than accepting received wisdoms. Her experience led her to think widely about the ‘issues’ which we encounter in undertaking local history research and writing, challenges such as the debunking of entrenched but incorrect mythologies, the need to escape from the familiar and to be more imaginative and adventurous, and the necessity for approaching the past with sympathy and understanding, avoiding judgmentalism and censoriousness. We should all think about our role in relation to those who come after us, and our duty to future generations for whom our research and analysis will be a foundation stone in their own further explorations.

Her editorials since 1995 address an extraordinary variety of subjects which will be familiar to anyone involved in local history on this side of the Atlantic. There are important universalities, of methodology and approach, of the frameworks of public and private sector involvement in local history and heritage, and in the abstract issues of why, how, where and when we work. Zen, as a path to enlightenment, is a very good analogy for much of what we do: as Carol writes, ‘I am more Zen than anything else. Not with a constant ohm but more like an ever-expanding sense of understanding. Because while the place about which I have researched has been pretty much the same, I have come at it differently each time. I have shifted my ideas about locality—what it means, how it works, my place in it, and everyone else’s too, for that matter. Zen promotes self-exploration, a self-realization. It is intuitive rather than academic’. Dangerous words to some, perhaps, but maybe all local historians should aspire to understand not only the subject, but what it is that draws them to it. For most of us, it is a calling, not an obligation or a dull necessity.

Zen and the art of local history was published last year with the assistance of Bob Beatty, Carol’s indefatigable editor, who writes that ‘it has been an absolute professional and personal joy to work with Carol … helping her shape the clay of her original idea, to draw out her thoughts and observations about our work and collective passion in history … we both want her essays to spur thought and dialogue, to offer new ideas or modes of thinking’. The book is a compendium of 65 editorial essays, described as ‘calls’, each accompanied by a response from a reader, giving a different perspective on the topic in question and emphasising the value of civilised debate and discussion.

The first section, ‘About being a local historian’, considers a range of pertinent points. The essay ‘Not for a test, but history for life’ notes the fact-based approach formerly (?) so prevalent in school history teaching but then suggests some important messages for local historians: ‘We are not high school teachers to the community … We are not just guides to the facts and we are not just the people who find answers. Rather, we are Diogenes with a map, wading into the past, touching that which interests us. We are at our best when we take our community by the hand to allow others to experience what it is we do when we think about and research the local past’. One way of doing this is discussed in ‘Perambulation’, a call for local historians to walk and explore. With characteristically strong and effective prose, Carol notes that Lambarde’s 1576 history of Kent was entitled a ‘Perambulation’ and that almost 450 years later ‘In good weather, I too perambulate my historical kingdom … I walk the streets looking at the domestic architecture, plantings, the evidence of renewal, the loss of community facilities, the uprisings or down-goings of an area … Knowledge of place, an understanding of where we live, brings pleasure [and] is also a crucial factor in our sense of responsibility … for to understand the past of an area is to foster concern and care’.

Another essay wittily comments on how internet access and emails have led enquirers to assume both that the information is ‘there’, readily accessible, and can be provided instantly, and that the enquirer does not need to bother doing the work himself or herself. In other words, Carol writes, there is ‘a spate of questions that I can only call inappropriate’. She cites, for example, the somewhat peremptory demand: ‘Searching for information on reasons for increase in deaths in your surrounding cemeteries at several peak times. Send all information about epidemics between 1800 and 1870’. Her instinctive response to another question, asking for information about ‘any battles, massacres fires, widespread disease or other catastrophic events’ over a 40 mile radius, was “Is this your research project or mine”. There is much here that is familiar to many of us. I particularly relished her assessment of journalists and their role in disseminating information (or misinformation) about local history: ‘All too familiar to the local historian is the telephone call from a nearby journalist … I like journalists (and yes, some of my best friends are members of the fourth estate) [but] we and they operate differently’. This section includes pieces on local knowledge and the importance of context, the choosing of topics for research, and the importance of looking at the work of earlier local historians. The essay ‘Water buffalos, wildebeests and gazelles’ challengingly addresses the all-too-familiar perceived divide between ‘academic and ‘non-academic’ (or professional and amateur) local historians, while another explores the idea of history workshops (noting the English antecedents of this approach) and the notion of developing an apprenticeship system for local historians to ensure continuity and the passing on of skills and knowledge.

The next section, ‘The clay for our wheels and the pots we make’, is primarily about sources and how we deal with them. It begins with a powerful essay on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, arguing that recording and documenting the local manifestations of such immediate and unexpected events is very important (the parallel with, for example, the death of Princess Diana is obvious) but then moving on to the need to continue such recording in the more ordinary and everyday world around us. What we do with the ‘stuff’ we accumulate is the subject of an entertaining essay called ‘Out of the closet’, but Carol moves on to more controversial topics—buying documents and archives privately on, for example, eBay, and the complex issues surrounding their ownership, provenance, and ultimate fate and destination. She laments the quality and accessibility of archival material in ‘semi-public’ custody (in a specific example, the legal records held for many years at the county courthouse and now inaccessible in an out-store). A very relevant essay examines the manifest weaknesses and inadequacies of the 2010 US Federal Census, with its badly-worded and extraordinarily limited range of questions, and almost complete uselessness for future historians of any persuasion or specialism. United Kingdom citizens beware – campaign for quality now that the 2021 census is confirmed!

‘Mingled yarn’, the third part of the book, considers the catchphrase ‘community education’, the process whereby local history organisations can work towards presenting the past by exploring sense of place, change over time, and the contexts of the lives of groups and individuals. The essay ‘Seeking diversity’ addresses a highly sensitive question, in which ‘our sympathies pull us in one direction, our historical sensibilities in another’. It focuses on the preparation of a Wall of Fame in the museum of science in Carol’s community, Ithaca in New York State. Names were put forward, but then representatives of the county and city governments said ‘it needed minorities, people of color, people who were anything but living (or dead) white males. “The list is full of them,” muttered one lawmaker’. A problem was at once apparent. Carol was expected to produce names but ‘we do not have what everyone wanted me to produce. We do not have a nineteenth-century African American scientist who happened to be female. Some places do, we do not’. She pleads for realism rather than false expectation, for a recognition that (in this instance) ‘the nineteenth century was not an era—at least not in my community—in which many minorities had the opportunity to achieve something noteworthy in the field of science’. The response to this, from Patricia Williams Lessane, the executive director of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History, is a succinct and moving statement in support of that view, arguing that deliberately seeking diversity is a dead end, an outdated and ineffective strategy. Lessane suggests that instead collective and community history should accept a commitment to making the past ‘accessible to all people and inclusive of all our unique contributions [and] embracing the premise that our collective history is storied, complex, colorful, inspiring, and yes, sometimes ugly and difficult to accept’. By doing that, she suggests ‘we free ourselves from the albatross of race, and thus empower ourselves to see ourselves and the world through new eyes’.

Among Carol’s great strengths as an essayist is her talent for drawing an important principle from a specific and focused point or fact. Two articles entitled ‘Travel at home’ look at cultural tourism, linking the international passion for travel with the message that a local historian should be a tourist and traveller in his or her own place, and then discussing a day trip to a town thirty miles from Ithaca which markets itself as a tourist destination because a battle was fought there in the Revolutionary War—Carol’s comment is that ‘this site is now being promoted as a major battle of the war (which of course it was not)’. But her argument is that this apparently unremarkable place actually has a complex and diverse history and that ‘the small places, the ordinary hometown places near you … have an intricate past that can tell us a great deal … for those of us who do local history, we know that what seems ordinary is not but it is, with explanation, sometimes extraordinary’. This theme is reprised in ‘Acts of nature and other disturbing events’, assessing the attitudes of local historians to the one-off dramas which punctuate the history of almost any community, from fires and floods to epidemics and spectacular crimes. Kammen argues that local histories should pay full attention to these, but that they should be used as pegs on which to hang larger themes—drainage and river management, rebuilding in fire-proof materials, the longer-term economic consequences of disaster. Local history, she implies, is a blend of the generally unremarkable, ‘the normal, the small, the repeated task or story’, with the startling events. Both have their place.

‘Truth and consequences’ deals with the highly charged issue of accuracy and reliability in historical research and writing, and whether or not it matters, the first essay being entitled ‘When not being wrong is not good enough’. Carol recounts being asked to vet the text of a series of historical markers (or signboards) to be erected in a nearby town, a text laden with poor grammar, meaningless abbreviations, incorrect terminology, historical misinterpretation and an anachronistic perspective. We have probably all encountered such material in our own explorations. She pleads instead for ‘careful investigation, balance, discretion, thoughtfulness, fairness, context, and finally, clear communication’. The next essay, ‘Ducking, bobbing, and looking away’, homes in on an awkward consequence of truthfulness—that it may require the researcher or writer to address unpalatable, unpleasant or highly contentious matters. She introduces the questions of partisanship, political correctness, and the demolition of mythologies, and follows this up with an essay setting out the unforeseen results of newspapers and journalists latching onto one aspect of the history of a place, distorting the story and taking it out of context, and then publishing it as a sensational news story. The moral: be careful what you say and to whom you say it, and treat journalists with great wariness! This leads seamlessly to discussion of historical fiction and fiction in history, the blurring of the distinctions and the validity of using fiction, or imaginative reconstruction, as an element in our investigation of the past and its meaning and reality.

‘Words in stone’, the fifth section of the book, considers recent local history, and its relationships with, for example, environmental history and family history, and then puts the audience for local history under the spotlight, asking provocatively about the real purpose of local history publishing and questioning whether much of the output is ever actually read (‘I believe that few [local history books] are’). Carol makes the perceptive point that people buy and really read books on subjects that positively appeal to them (on themes such as the American Civil War or railroads) but that in contrast local history books are primarily for reference. This essay was written eleven years ago: today, with print on demand and electronic publishing, the issues she raises are even more relevant. And what of the other topics, beyond wars and railways and other perennial favourites? In ‘the things we ignore’ she admits to keeping a list (called the Anti-Index, those nouns that don’t appear in indexes) of topics that local historians avoid or overlook, ranging from excise laws and their local consequences, via the detail of local politics and party rivalries, to strikes, childhood, business failures and the process of law (rather than the sensational crimes themselves). In the British context some of these may be addressed, but we can readily see themes which on this side of the Atlantic are usually overlooked … supermarkets, multiples and chain stores, bus services and their social and cultural impact, and the local history of landscape conservation are three which come to my mind.

And finally, ‘Work and play in history’s sandbox’ sets out agendas for the future. This sequence of fourteen essays concerns how we organise and manage local history, what fundamental changes are in progress and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. There’s so much of interest here, and so much that is of global relevance, that it is going to be the subject of a separate assessment in the next issue of The Local Historian. Much of what Carol Kammen writes is simple common sense, but she has a gift for putting into crafted simple prose the thoughts that many of us have floating around rather vaguely in our minds. Zen and the art of local history is a constantly stimulating read. I have rarely seen a better book about local history, or been more impressed by the combination of wisdom, humanity and practicality which it offers.

ALAN CROSBY is the editor of The Local Historian, and has a special interest in the practice of local history in other countries including Denmark, Ireland and Poland.

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