In his classic book Les Miserables, Victor Hugo often gets side-tracked from the story and enlightens us all with some deep (sometimes confusing) philosophy. While I haven’t always appreciated his digressions from the story plot, his thoughts are insightful.
Here is a quotes about what historians study (or should study) in his humble opinion:
“No man is a good historian of the open, visible, signal, and public life of the nations, if he is not, at the same time to a certain extent the historian of their deeper and hidden life; and no man is a good historian of the interior if he does not know how to be, whenever there is need, the historian of the exterior. The history of morals and ideas penetrates the history of the events, and vice versa… Since true history deals with everything, the true historian deals with everything.” (Hugo, Les Miserables, page 984, emphasis by yours truly).
In other words, historians can’t just look at the easy stuff like “oh there was a Civil War in America in 1861-1865.” They need to honestly consider why. And the answers are not always easy…they are vast and varied…and changing. (Just as a reminder the changing views of how historians look at and teach history is called “historiography” – how’s that for a big word?)
If we are going to be honest with ourselves and with others, we must always tell the truth. And there is no exception for historians. We must “deal with everything” – the ideas, the religion, the society, the government, the individuals. That is history.
P.S. Huntington Beach Civil War Re-enactment is next weekend. Can’t wait to spend some time with my living history friends! (Don’t worry, I’ll post the last article on WWI before “time traveling”…)