Pre-eminent American historian Carl Becker in 1931 sounded a theme for the 1930s when he pronounced, “Everyman His Own Historian.” The great American composer Aaron Copland in 1942 composed “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a wonderful piece for horns and percussion that announced the greatness of the common person. As I am a very common man, these works have had a profound impact on my own writing. My research interests and my books tend to focus on everyman, every human, on the common man, the common person.
I have written about people in the past who are hardly household names: Jeremy Belknap, a New Hampshire minister; John Evans, a guide, mountaineer, and hunter; Thomas Nuttall, an explorer and botanist; Ebenezer Hazard, an early postal surveyor and businessman; Jean Louis Berlandier, an explorer, apothecary, and artist; and John Smith, a relatively obscure explorer and adventurer who through self-promotion and chance became quite famous.
I have typically eschewed writing about the rich and famous: I suppose I could have added another to the hundreds of biographies on Lincoln, but would I have anything different to say? Rather, I enjoy studying those who have not beem studied, people who are relatively unknown, people who were among the billions of humans who have lived on this earth, most of whom are anonymous, unknown, unremembered. Whenever I research and write about a person who is generally unknown, it is an act of rescue, in my mind, of rescuing from oblivion, and bringing their story to the present from which people can know and learn.
This is what I like about narrative history: the story of a person in the past. I find someone I can identify with, someone whose life intrigues me, a life that I wish to relive, as it were, re-create. I love to read memoirs, diaries, letters, and other personal reflections into a person’s feelings, beliefs, and soul. Often, when these sources are sparing, I rely on empathy, the ability to make sense of a person, of a past time, to use imagination to feel the past, feel what really happened. As I research and imagine, and visit the places where people once lived, I can sense the past, and write what I believe is an accurate portrayal of what once was.
This involves what I call the dialogue with the past, a mixture of the subjective (feeling based on imagination) and objective (reason based on sources), by which to get to know the past person: their habits, feelings, thoughts, interests, aims, emotions, accomplishments. I feel compelled to deal honestly with the past: to have an honest appraisal of a person by not imposing my point of view, my preconceived notions, on the past (which would be anachronistic). To feel the past, I must feel the present. To understand the life of a past person, I must understand my own life. History is autobiography. Reflection on my life helps me write the story of the past: my feelings help me understand past feelings; my thoughts help me understand past thoughts; my experiences help me understand past experiences.
In short, narrative history (and biography) is the story of two lives, one life explicitly told (the past person) and one life implicitly told (the life of the author).
I know this isn’t quite what you’re talking about, but something I’ve always enjoyed reading are the hundreds of surviving papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. They came out of a rubbish heap that dated from about the 1st through the 6th centuries A.D., and include tidbits like named letters and receipts that give a great glimpse into the Roman world all those centuries ago.
It is precisely what I am talking about!