Juvenile Instructor » Avoiding Intellectual Paralysis, Part II: Craig Harline’s Conversions, and Historical Relevancy
 


Avoiding Intellectual Paralysis, Part II: Craig Harline’s Conversions, and Historical Relevancy

By: Ben P - October 25, 2011

[Part I on the importance of narrative is found here. Also, see Blair's review of Harline's book at BCC yesterday, which gives an excellent overview of the book's narrative(s).]

Craig Harline, professor of history at Brigham Young University and noted Reformation scholar, has long been noted as a skilled author whose prose and approach reach a much broader audience than is typical for academic books. Whether it’s a Reformation archbishop, a seventeenth century nun, or a comprehensive history of Sunday, Harline is widely respected for making historical stories accessible for general readers.

But while finishing his book on conversion in seventeenth-century Europe—focusing on a family whose father was a Protestant minister, whose son was a convert to Catholicism, and how they balanced these tough issues of tolerance—Harline considered ways to make the book more relevant to contemporary readers. He narrates how he came to this conclusion in the epilogue to the book: during a chance meeting with some family friends at a local restaurant, he learned about their college-age daughter’s recent choices and the grief and disappointment it brought to their close-knit family. Trying to bring comfort to the troubled parents, Harline shared the story and lessons of his current book-in-progress. Satisfied with the (albeit limited) relief that this brought, he felt justified in his desire to use his book “to show explicitly how the distant past could possibly have meaning in the present, and vice versa.” History, he concluded, was too often seen as “something mostly suitable for school, or hobbyists, something to be discussed recreationally..rather than as something that might inform present experience” (269-272). Hoping to reverse this trend, and hoping to better reach people an audience like his friends with the wayward child, Harline re-envisioned the overall framework and methodology of what is now published as Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Yale UP, 2011).

In seeking to make his work much more relevant, Harline offers a narrative style quite foreign to a traditional historical monograph. For one thing, he places himself directly into the text, narrating his time in “hot and muggy” summer archives, how he raised his hands “in triumph” when he found the seventeenth-century journal of Jacob Rolandus, and then his joy in being able to crack the journal’s written code (7-12). In some points of the narrative, Harline sounds more like a journalist than a historian. Further, he uses other unconventional methods within the book that promise to make traditional historians squirm: not only does he not employ endnotes (a bibliographic essay is offered instead), but he never even uses quotation marks, choosing instead to place all direct quotations in italics; in most cases, Harline merely paraphrases or summarizes a scene’s layout or a character’s thoughts like a typical novelist would. Take, for example, the following except narrating the buildup to Jacob’s escape:

There had been some close calls these past weeks, as might be expected with more and more friends learning of Jacob’s plans and needs: which of them might let something slip? Just days before, the local sheriff had approached to ask about rumors that Jacob was thinking of going off to war with Vlierden: there was nothing to it, said an undoubtedly shaken Jacob. Stay at home and keep studying with your father, said the suspicious sheriff.

Today was nerve-wracking too, for while Jacob sat in church listening to his father’s sermon, as he did every Sunday with his mother and sister, his mind was filled not with the mysteries of heaven but rather with the decidedly earthly matter of finding a horse. Just yesterday he thought he’d found one, but this morning had come word that it wasn’t available after all. yet he had to leave tonight, as he couldn’t bear to stay another day. Besides, he had to meet young Vlierden at the border the next morning, or never. (4)

Harline is an eloquent writer, and passages like this demonstrate why it is often easy to forget this narrative is based on documents nearly four centuries old.

But even more than introducing himself into the narrative or utilizing the novelist’s prose, Harline’s most imaginative (and perhaps controversial) technique was to use a “modern” story to magnify the “historical” tale. This Harline does by alternating the chapters on the Rolandus family with the story of Michael Sunbloom (not his real name), a friend of Harline’s whose life is filled with several similarly major conversions and transitions: first from Protestantism to Mormonism, a move that infuriated his parents, and then later embracing his homosexuality and entering into a long-term monogamous relationship with another male—a transition that initially destroyed his familial relationship but eventually led to full reconciliation. Such a collapse of distance (mid-seventeenth century Europe and late-twentieth century California) is traditionally avoided by academics, as accusations like “presentism” and phrases like “the past is a foreign world” typically restrict historians to their period of study. But Harline directly challenges this anxiety with his own guidelines:

The trick to seeing your connection, of course, is to see through all the differences that can blur it. You don’t ignore those differences: they are real, and wondrous, and give you an eye-opening glimpse into how other human beings have done things. Instead, you study these differences thoroughly, until you begin to see that many may not be so different after all: they just need to be looked at in new ways. (19)

Annette Gordon-Reed, in her award-winning Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008) argued for a similar approach:

Historians often warn against the danger of “essentializing” when making statements about people of the past—positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings notwithstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if historians did not try to connect to those elements (consciously or unconsciously), historical writing would be simply incomprehensible…Therefore, we should not be afraid to call upon what we know in general about mothers, fathers, families, male-female relationships, power relationships, the contours of life in small closely knit communities, as we try to see the Hemingses in the context of their own time and place.” (31-32)

Such a narrative requires the historian to be more transparent about their person views and background. But, to Harline, this is a good thing. “The whole [comparative] process reminds you again that the study of the past is not about the past but about life, including your particular life,” he explains before introducing Michael. “In fact when a story from the past seems fantastic it’s probably because that story is somehow about you as well” (18). After finishing his story of Michael, and in the middle of an extended justification for including the narrative in the first place, Harline shared his “growing conviction that to care deeply about the past you have to be a little self-absorbed: you have to find your story in someone else’s story, if it’s to have any meaning for you. The process doesn’t have to be narcissistic, but it has to be personal–and in the best possible world, a personal story should have some universal quality to it anyway” (268). This certainly places the historian in a much more vulnerable position than is typically expected.

This approach could easily be abused, and I imagine all of us have experienced a botched example of collapsing the past and the present. But when done right–and I believe Harline pulls it off beautifully–it can make the work both fascinating and relevant. The narrative is fluid and readable, and I had trouble putting the text down. Harline is at his best when, after finishing the two stories, he ruminates on broader issues of tolerance, resting his judgements on a broad base of research and reflection (243-251). The reader can easily discern the depth and breadth of Harline’s research, which makes his conclusions even more powerful. I viewed this section as being a “public historian” at its best.

Academic historians will (and have) take(n) issue with Harline’s use of sources—both the difficulty to trace his use of the Rolandus sources, and his use of interviews and memory in Michael’s story. But I imagine Harline won’t be too troubled with those critiques: they are trying to hold him to a traditional academic framework that he is consciously trying to challenge. He was more concerned with making the story relevant—by closing the distance between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, by lessening the gap between the ivory tower and main street, and by making his book significant to his friends in the restaurant with the wayward child—than with following the static blueprint of an increasingly isolated academic world. He implies that it is one thing to be accessible—many books are accessible, but they still aren’t read—and quite another to be immediately relevant, specifically showing what makes the topic significant for today’s readers.

And since much of Harline’s book is about finding “personal meaning,” I’ll end my review by pointing out the message that I found most poignant. While much of the narratives focused on issues of conversion and tolerance, I was taken back by the lesson of empathy: the ability to place yourself in the other’s shoes. (And certainly this is a key component of tolerance.) Throughout the text, there are instances of those unable to understand those who they are arguing with, but the triumph came, at least in Michael’s story, when people were able to drop their preconceptions and willingly embrace another’s point of view. And, personally, I hope that this book succeeds in bringing its many audiences to become more empathetic: average Americans empathizing with those of different faith traditions in a post-9/11 world, academics empathizing with a general public often unwilling and unable to comprehend scholarly tomes, and, perhaps most pertinently for the author’s immediate context, traditional religious believers empathizing with a homosexual community that they rarely understand.

And that’s an academic approach I can empathize with.

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18 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Ben. I also enjoyed Harline’s book and found the two stories compelling (and even at times moving). It’s a book I’d likely recommend to other Latter-day Saints, especially those affected by a family member who leaves the church and/or is gay. “Michael Sunbloom’s” story is powerful stuff. I also appreciated the insight Harline provided into his own research process–it’s always fun to learn how historians discovered their sources and the thought process that shaped their research and writing. And the comparative approach seemed to work well for his purposes—it’s difficult to pull off, but I agree that on that front Harline succeeded.

    That said, the sources are a serious problem. The historical profession has standards, and undocumented autobiographical memoir typically falls outside the bounds of acceptable source material. How exactly do peer reviewers or editors source check Harline’s book? And why on earth would he not use footnotes or endnotes for the source material that actually is documented? Would quotation marks and specific citations of the Rolandus manuscript papers really make the story Harline tells any less “relevant”? Would it somehow distract from the narrative flow?

    Comment by Christopher — October 25, 2011 @ 8:28 am

  2. Great review, Ben. Two points:

    In some points of the narrative, Harline sounds more like a journalist than a historian.

    This is an interesting comparison, because there are some elements of what Harline is doing which would be taboo in certain forms of journalism. A straight-forward New York Times article would eschew first person, for instance, but a magazine features writer could employ it with mass approval. Internal disagreements among historians about Harline’s approach are similar to concerns among different journalists and publications, too.

    You said:

    This approach could easily be abused, and I imagine all of us have experienced a botched example of collapsing the past and the present. But when done right–and I believe Harline pulls it off beautifully–it can make the work both fascinating and relevant.

    I think this makes a critical point: Harline’s approach isn’t fool-proof, it is contestable (as any piece of scholarship should be) and most importantly, it isn’t intended as a universal model for how to do historical scholarship. Also, I think it makes explicit a few important implicit philosophical concerns that historians confront anytime they try to describe the past.

    He implies that it is one thing to be accessible—many books are accessible, but they still aren’t read—and quite another to be immediately relevant,

    Bingo.

    Comment by BHodges — October 25, 2011 @ 8:32 am

  3. Christopher:

    How exactly do peer reviewers or editors source check Harline’s book? And why on earth would he not use footnotes or endnotes for the source material that actually is documented?

    Here’s a really interesting point. In a way, I look at it as though Harline interweaved himself as a primary source used in the overall narrative. In the same way historians have to take a leap of faith of sorts in using old primary sources, so must readers with Harline’s recollections. As for endnotes, footnotes, I know Harline was asked by the editors of the series not to include an apparatus at all. He volunteered to make a website to accompany the book which would lead to the sources, etc. but they said that wasn’t the direction this series was going in.

    Comment by BHodges — October 25, 2011 @ 8:38 am

  4. In the same way historians have to take a leap of faith of sorts in using old primary sources, so must readers with Harline’s recollections.

    The difference, of course, is that with old primary sources, any other historian can visit the archive, examine the materials, and offer a competing interpretation of what they say (or confirm that they plausibly say what the historian has interpreted them to mean). That’s virtually impossible for another historian to do with Harline’s own unrecorded memories.

    As for endnotes, footnotes, I know Harline was asked by the editors of the series not to include an apparatus at all. He volunteered to make a website to accompany the book which would lead to the sources, etc. but they said that wasn’t the direction this series was going in.

    Thanks for the additional background. That’s fascinating, if a bit bizarre.

    Comment by Christopher — October 25, 2011 @ 8:44 am

  5. “That’s fascinating, if a bit bizarre.”

    That is how I describe BHodges.

    Comment by Chris H. — October 25, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  6. Would quotation marks and specific citations of the Rolandus manuscript papers really make the story Harline tells any less “relevant”? Would it somehow distract from the narrative flow?

    Great comment, an important questions, Chris. I can’t answer for Dr. Harline, but I imagine the second possible reason you give plays a major role. And to be honest, though I was really up in arms about it at first, I actually did notice that it read easier as a result: it helped put me in the mindset to focus on the narrative itself, and I became raptures in the story almost as if it were a novel.

    Perhaps a crucial issue here is one of audience. This book is obviously not directed to specialists of Reformation Europe who would want the detailed endnotes. Rather, it is written for people who would generally find those a nuissance, and when they see footnotes they automatically classify it as a traditional, dry, academic monograph. This is an unfortunate and illogical dismissal on their part, but it’s part of the reality. Removing the endnotes directly displace the book outside of the traditional academic mold and force the reader to approach the text differently.

    But, as you rightly note, there are major issues of trust implied. When the format makes it tougher for editors and peer-reviewers to check, then we are forced to trust the author. Perhaps because Harline has established himself as a trustworthy historian it is manageable? This would make this type of approach only available to established scholars, but, again, there will always be the question of who is established enough.

    These are important questions and issues, but the book does indeed succeed in one point: it raises discussion.

    Comment by Ben Park — October 25, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  7. any other historian can visit the archive, examine the materials, and offer a competing interpretation of what they say (or confirm that they plausibly say what the historian has interpreted them to mean). That’s virtually impossible for another historian to do with Harline’s own unrecorded memories.

    That’s what I mean by reclassifying the personal reminiscences in the narrative as primary sources themselves, not in the sense of existing in an archive, but in the sense of existing in the book itself. To an extent, whenever historians use primary sources they’re taking the source’s word for it, though they also look at other records, consider other circumstances, draw inferences from the records by looking at other material, etc. But at the heart of it I think all primary sources are, like Harline’s memories, perspectival.

    So it raises issues about memory reliability, memory priming, distance between historical happenings and their subsequent recording, etc. And these sorts of questions always confront historians. Harline contributed to the source ambiguity himself, which is what I think leads to the objection or qualm that you raise.

    Comment by BHodges — October 25, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  8. Ben: Removing the endnotes directly displace the book outside of the traditional academic mold and force the reader to approach the text differently.

    At the same time, it might lesson the book’s utility as a starter drug of sorts. If the book can be enjoyed by a broader audience not interested in academic style, then the audience doesn’t have much impetus to make changes themselves, to give footnotes or quotation marks a chance. But as you point out, I think it was very effective at getting me out of the habit of saying “where’s the source on that, where’s the source on that?” so I could focus on the story.

    Comment by BHodges — October 25, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  9. Are direct quotations really “academic”? Don’t most novels utilize quotation marks? Don’t other narrative histories?

    Comment by Christopher — October 25, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  10. You got me on the quotation marks. I don’t know what’s up with those.

    Comment by Ben Park — October 25, 2011 @ 11:24 am

  11. Beats me, really. Other than doing it for the sake of stylistic innovation?

    Comment by BHodges — October 25, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  12. Ben, thanks for the thoughtful review, along with Blair’s over at BCC. I’ll jump in just to clarify a couple of things, if that’s okay.

    Regarding quotation marks: as indicated before the preface, quoted material is indicated, but it’s placed in italics rather than quote marks. It’s purely stylistic, as I liked the look better of the italics; but quoted material is definitely recognizable.

    Regarding notes: books in the Narrative History series can certainly have footnotes; mine went the way it did for its own reasons. I wrote a general bibliographical essay first, then planned to revise it to a more focused essay that shadowed the text more closely, so that you could find any source you wanted, as in my other books. But I submitted the first manuscript to Yale with the general essay, and planned to work on the more specific one once I had a revised manuscript; in the end, however, everyone at the press and series was happy with the general essay; I volunteered to do a website with more specific notes, but no one cared. So I left it. As noted above, general readers won’t usually care anyway, and that’s who the book is for. But I obviously wanted to suggest anyway that the book is based on real documents and material, thus the general essay. Anyone who really wants to know a particular source can write me, of course. But the point, as several of you noted, was really to give the story this sort of whole cloth feeling to it.

    Anyway, thanks again for the review and comments, and I hope my remarks here don’t confuse things further.

    Comment by Craig H. — October 25, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

  13. Thanks for the review, Ben. Would you compare Harline’s treatment of the Jacob Rolandus diary with Ulrich’s use of Ballard’s diary (i.e., where she quotes an obscure passage and then walks the reader through how she “unlocked” its meaning)? She’s a good example of what Sam Wineburg describes in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts of a historian that leaves in all the messiness of historical interpretations that normally gets edited out of final drafts, and in the process gives ordinary readers a false impression of how historians go about their work. From your description (and Blair’s), it sounds like Harline is another good example of this.

    Another question. For his description of Rolandus’ story, does Harline rely on a lot of source material? Or is he primarily using the diary and then contextualizing it with in his deep knowledge of the era? While I agree wholeheartedly with Chris that leaving out the notes cheapens historical standards, I’m wondering how much source material he’s really relying on. How does he describe his source material in the bibliographic essay?

    Edit: I was writing this comment as Dr. Harline posted his. He’s of course free to answer my questions.

    Comment by David G. — October 25, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  14. Related to Christopher’s point about sources, I took a class at UCSB on ethnography and brought up the same point because ethnographers don’t disclose their sources. “No one has access to the data?” I asked incredulously, “what’s to keep you from just making stuff up?”

    My professor’s response was simply, “well, if someone does another study and finds the complete opposite, that’s not good.”

    Robert Orsi talks a bit about this in his new intro the the later edition of Madonna of 115th Street if I recall.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 25, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

  15. David, Jacob’s story is taken almost entirely from primary sources; the journal is the starting point, but correspondence with his sister is also crucial, as are manuscript and published documents from the archives of the Reformed Church (especially in Amsterdam and Den Bosch), and, for his mission to Brazil, manuscripts at the Jesuit Archive in Rome. There was an earlier study of him published in a Catholic journal, around 1900, but it ignored the Reformed sources and members of his family, and was basically an apology.

    Comment by Craig H. — October 27, 2011 @ 6:55 am

  16. My professor’s response was simply, “well, if someone does another study and finds the complete opposite, that’s not good.”

    The standard criticism of this response is that the problem isn’t when the conclusions are completely opposed to the facts but when they are merely somewhat biased or twisted.

    Comment by Clark — October 27, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  17. Those weren’t his exact words.

    Of course, you can’t avoid bias (or being somewhat twisted), and ethnography is more art than science (observing people).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 27, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  18. I for one appreciate Craig’s move toward greater accessibility. Too often we historians get so caught up in questions of historiography, methodology, and theory that we forget our collective role as thoughtful storytellers.

    The trouble with this unfortunate turn is that as professional historians move away from this important role, they become more and more irrelevant to non-academic audiences. We’re abdicating our responsibility to talk to normal, everyday people, and journalists are taking our place. They have become the primary producers of popular history. Just look at any history shelf at your neighborhood bookstore.

    Comment by Brandon — October 31, 2011 @ 11:37 am