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Observations Of An “amateur” Historian

April 2024
1min read

Don Russell, who has written extensively on the history of the American West, recently published an autobiographical essay entitled “How I Got This Way” in The Western Historical Quarterly . In it he traces his growth as a historian and makes some interesting observations on the study and uses of history. Herewith some excerpts.
It may be deduced … that I resent the tag “amateur,” even though it does mean love of the subject. History is produced by professional writers and by professional teachers. That professors of history should arrogate to themselves the title of professional historian seems inequitable. Some of the most readable history that I have found was written by professors of English. Is a prejudice detectable here? From what I read in the newspapers and in books that should have remained Ph.D. theses, I might suspect a taint. However, one thing I have learned from historical research: Never make hasty (or any) generalizations. And I have never met a history professor I did not like.
… Have I learned anything from all this? Yes, to be skeptical of anything that is said, or written, and, above all, printed in type, to be suspicious of any idea on which historians are generally agreed, especially if it be in accord with the latest fad in scholarship. Repetition in type does not make truth of an original error. On the other hand, the historian, unlike the lawyer, cannot impeach a witness for one erroneous statement. Even if the witness is 90 percent wrong, the remaining 10 percent may have historical significance. Fact erodes as the square of the time elapsed since the action, but reminiscence still has its value, if only in recapturing the attitudes and emotions of an earlier day. Sometimes it gets down to just plain common sense: What is the most reasonable interpretation of conflicting testimony? Rarely will witnesses agree, but a deliberate lie is also uncommon. I am intolerant of those who pass on as legends the lies they are too lazy to investigate; of writers who rush into print ignorant of their subject; of pedants who prove their lack of prejudice against popular minorities by exhibiting their prejudice against the majority; of hasty generalizing that condemns the army, the Indian Bureau, or the Establishment without understanding that all organized groups consist of individuals, some good, some bad, but mostly both; of explaining all failures by blaming a Custer, a Reno, a Lyndon Johnson, or some other historic character without considering that these were human beings, conditioned by their background of experience and personal characteristics to act the way they did and lacking our overwhelming advantage of hindsight; and of those who pervert their findings to fit a thesis. History’s enduring value lies in the interpretation of the present from the past. It loses all its values when we try to interpret the past from the present.

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