May 27, 2003

Time Travel Fantasy Game

'But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in...I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either weary or vex me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs -- the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.'

-- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

It may be laid down as a general rule, though subject to considerable qualifications and exceptions, that history begins in novel and ends in essay.

-- Thomas Babington Macaulay, "History," Edinburgh Review (1828)

One reason for the gap between academic and popular history is that most people would rather read novel than essay. Given the choice between narrative or expository prose, that is, most people will choose narrative. The historian of the early modern village insists on the necessity of a detailed examination of probate inventories, and from one perspective, of course, that historian is right. But who, beyond specialists in the field, cares to read about probate records? What most people want to know is: what was it like to be a lord or a peasant circa 1600 and how did it feel? What did they wear and how did they speak and did they engage in premarital sexual relations? A cast of colorful characters, a fully realized plot, a richly imagined evocation of the quotidian detail of everyday life...this wins out over detailed analyses of crop rotation and exogenous marital practices any day. Hence the enormous popularity of historical novels and films, and the corresponding unpopularity of historical monographs.

It is easy enough to blame academic historians for failing to make their work accessible to a wider audience. And calls for a "revival of narrative" are recurrent in the field. This does all very well for political history, whether at the level of high politics or popular protest or what have you. But there are many areas of historical inquiry (certain types of social and economic history, for example) the results of which simply cannot be rendered as narrative. Though narrative history can and often does rely on the knowledge gained through non-narrative approaches, it is not necessarily possible to do this in reverse: how is the historian to plot a story out of those probate inventories?

Of course I am oversimpifying here: many historians try to combine the two, and some of them are successful. But in general, I believe that the professionalization and specialization of history has increased the gap between the kind of history that academic historians do and the kind of history that non-historians would like to read. Nor am I convinced that there is an easy solution to the problem of bridging this gap.

All of this by way of a lengthy apology for my Time Travel Fantasy Game:

If you could travel back to any time and place of your choosing, where would you go and with whom would you like to have dinner?

If I were a professional historian, I suppose I would blush with shame to acknowledge any interest in such a trifle. But since I've been deprofessionalized, I'll admit that I occassionally entertain time travel fantasies. What was it like and how did it feel and what did they wear and how did they speak and did they engage in premarital sexual relations...and what would it be like to travel back and experience the sights and sounds and smells firsthand? (In fact, such questions form the basis of an engagement with history for many professional historians, but then they are supposed to move to a higher level of theoretical sophistication and no longer indulge in such games...)

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 27, 2003 02:29 PM

Hands down, my favorite fellow dinner party guest would have to be Winston Churchill. Even though I am a left of center democrat and liberal (on most things) to boot, anyone who could come up with a way to make everyone angry and yet think at the same time gets my vote. I especially like his saying about truth, the fact that people rarely stumble over the truth, but instead "dust themselves off and scurry away as if nothing happened." Actually, a dinner party with Churchill vs. that annoying guy with the bowtie who's on CNN would be priceless.
As far as travelling back to any time and place, I would find the post Civil-war era to be the most interesting. How did people cope with the end of a war right in their own country (a question, unfortunately, that most other nations have had to answer again and again).

Posted by: Cat at May 27, 2003 03:56 PM

I found your site from CalPundit.

Could I bring (modern) guests along to that dinner? While there are many historical figures I'd love to meet (such as Shakespeare and Marlowe), if I could choose only one, it would be my maternal grandfather, in part because I didn't start dating my husband until after his death and I want the two of them to meet.
[Most often, I've seen this question portrayed as a dinner party with ten people. I've answered that one on my own site at]

Regarding your broader question, over the last several years I've discovered an interest in Elizabethan history which I've indulged by reading biographies and nonfiction (and the occasional fiction set in the period, though those often prove less interesting than the historical facts). And I have been astonished at how K-12 managed to make history boring. It's fascinating! It's such a soap opera! I've now read from Henry VIII's death through the last of the Stuarts, and (though I've discarded many books in my search for the right ones), it's been positively enthralling!

How do the schools manage to suck the life out of the subject? By going for breadth instead of depth? By trying to avoid controversy? I don't know. I'm not a historian, but if you want any recommendations in this area, I'd be glad to list some of my favorites.

Posted by: Lis at May 27, 2003 05:02 PM

Amen! Anyone who makes history boring should be arrested on the spot. I mean it! Don't get me started on the K-12 school system...

Posted by: Cat at May 27, 2003 05:13 PM

I suppose I would take the glutton's path: if I could have dinner with anyone from history, I would choose someone who had really good dinners. So, maybe someone like Louis XIV or even a common millionaire like Vanderbilt. I suppose some Roman emporers would have had big dinners, but I don't think I'd enjoy the cuisine. As for conversation, none would be fine: just to avoid the whole altering-of-history issue.

Posted by: ChrisL at May 27, 2003 05:22 PM

Good game! Plato's Academy on one of the several days Plato and Aristotle must have argued about the Theory of Forms. I'd even cook.

Posted by: ogged at May 27, 2003 05:48 PM

I'd like to ask Archimedes why he spent so much of his time as an abstract mathematician, so much of his time as a military engineer, so much of his time as an assayer of the quality of goods delivered to the Tyrant of Syracuse--and so little of his time as a non-military engineer...

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong at May 27, 2003 06:07 PM

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation," by Archimedes at the behest of Brad DeLong. But would you cook dinner for him? is the question.

Cat: You are taking a hard line here! But some history has to be boring: there's only so much excitement to be found in crop rotations and inheritance laws, but without studies of such subjects, our understanding of the past would suffer.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 27, 2003 06:26 PM

IA...some novelists have effectively used time travel as a way to make past ages seem more "real." One of the best is Connie Willis. In "The Doomsday Book," a historian travels back to the Middle Ages and finds herself in the middle of the Plague; in "Fire Watch," the same character travels to the London Blitz. A somewhat similar approach is taken in "The Devil's Arithmetic" by Jane Yolen; here, a modern-day Jewish girl finds herself in 1941 Poland...

Posted by: David Foster at May 27, 2003 07:54 PM

I think the time travel fantasy speaks to our desire to really know something about the past from the inside out. When it's done well, it can be very effective. But when it's not done well, it can be pretty cheesey.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 27, 2003 10:11 PM

I'd pick St. Columba, the first person in recorded history to see the Loch Ness Monster, the person responsible for Christianizing Scotland, and the person who buried one of his monks alive for three days in a Jesus-burial experiement (the monk died).

Posted by: Jane at May 27, 2003 10:57 PM

IA: I've had teachers who have taken the most exciting parts of history and made them dull. There has to be a special category set aside for teachers like this. While not every aspect of history is thrilling, the parts that are need not be transformed into banality! Plus, the boring parts are actually interesting to me (like store ledgers, crop cycles, etc.). They paint a portrait of what was happening at a particular time and stirs up the detective in me!

Posted by: Cat at May 27, 2003 11:16 PM

I hear you. When it comes to teaching, just about any kind of history can and should be made interesting. But when it comes to books and articles, some studies are going to strike many readers as dry and dull: as I said, there's only so much you can do with crop rotation.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 28, 2003 01:54 AM

I find crop rotation and inheritance laws fascinating; Louis the Whatever couldn't interest me less, but the quotidian life of the proles — as seen in diaries, correspondence, and even probate court records (I've read a few regarding involuntary psychiatric institutionalization ca. 1910-20 that were real page-turners) — get me excited. The best K-12 history text I ever had was the one that was based entirely around transcriptions of medieval land transfer records and the like. But I suppose that's why I work in an archives. Sure, you can't make a movie out of it, but that's another issue altogether.

Posted by: E. Naeher at May 28, 2003 02:51 AM

Everyday life can be fascinating if the details are properly selected -- wouldn't The Return of Martin Guerre qualify as a sort of social history? But I agree about the people doing probate records; I'm glad someone does them, but they kind of bore me, too.

As for your immediate question, I don't see why a professional historian shouldn't enjoy time-travel fantasies. On balance, I'm going to be predictable (well, for me) and opt for a Roman-style dinner party in Jerusalem in late May of 57 C.E., with a field trip to the Second Temple beforehand (and let's stipulate that I'm in disguise as a male priest for halfway decent viewing opportunities). Guest list for dinner: Paul of Tarsus, James the Just, Flavius Josephus, Yochanan ben Zakkai, Eliezer ben Hyrcanos. I could go for some articulate Sadducees and Essenes to round out the party, too.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at May 28, 2003 04:48 AM

My answer to your query is up. As I said, my answer is probably shaped by current events quite a bit.

I love this sort of thing!


Posted by: Tom Spencer at May 28, 2003 05:05 AM

Given who I am (which is a lot to give), I gotta admit who I'd *really* like to have dinner with is some person (or, even better, three people) who had wonderfully original insights and wonderfully interesting experiences and who vanished without leaving a trace. Place and time unrestricted, assuming magical language acquisition on my part. And then I'd come back and try to tell everyone about them.

All the known people I admire or am curious about that I haven't met I don't think could compare with that.

Posted by: Ray at May 28, 2003 05:19 AM

I would love to spend a week trailing Napoleon.

Posted by: walter at May 28, 2003 09:56 AM

Great idea! Easy one for me, too: 19 November, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln. I assume I would get to be there before dinner to hear The Address as well. I'd want to know what he actually said, and whether or not he had any sense of how important those words would be.

Posted by: Brian Linse at May 28, 2003 10:50 AM

E. Naeher writes:
"But I suppose that's why I work in an archives. Sure, you can't make a movie out of it, but that's another issue altogether."

What, Possession didn't give enough of that dusty archive flavor?

Posted by: Jason at May 28, 2003 01:26 PM

I'm with E. Naeher. A person who can't turn notarial records of marriage into (really stale!) gossip shouldn't be writing history. And may I add, I love archivists.

I feel as though I have had dinner with some of my dissertation subjects, because they saved the menus from the banquets of their conferences, and wrote both snarky and diplomatic letters about them afterward.

What about The Return of Martin Guerre, speaking of archives and movies? Though Natalie Zemon Davis' book was better than the movie.

Posted by: RA at May 28, 2003 04:23 PM

Great question! First, I should admit that I wrote my dissertation on time-travel films, and I have a feeling that time travel serves a much different function there than it does in "historical" time-travel fiction. In film, especially recently, time travel is almost always "about" new viewing technologies (digital technologies, etc). In fiction, I think time travel often does address the historical fantasy. Maybe, in some ways, these two desires come together (once I figure that all out, maybe I'll be able to finish my book).

I'm not sure if I could pick a single moment I'd like to revisit. I'd love to sit down and talk to Orson Welles while he was working on Citizen Kane, before the studio system wore him down completely.

Posted by: chuck at May 28, 2003 06:26 PM

I don't know if I'd like to compress my time travel into a single dinner. Heck, I wouldn't want to do that with regular travel. I'd rather hunker down someplace (probably an urban place to avoid outsider issues) and just see and hear and feel and smell and taste as much as I could. It would be particularly interesting to go to the places I write about in my own research, which means we're looking at the United States in the first three decades of the 20th century.

As for boring history classes... I think part of the problem is that there is too much emphasis placed on data and not enough on interpretation. Heck, I have trouble remembering the classic names-dates-places if they're not hooked to something like a story or an explanation. What we want is the feeling of a living past, one in which all outcomes were not foreordained, and not a collection of dead and useless trivia.

Focusing on interpretive and analytical skills would also make students better equipped for dealing with the past (and the present) on their own outside of class.

Here's another thumbs-up for Connie Willis!

Posted by: Rana at May 28, 2003 07:08 PM

Oh, I forgot, I like Connie Willis, too, but Rana has a great point. Trying to imagine one dinner made it tough, but while I was blogging about this game on my own blog, I came up with a better answer than Orson Welles: dinner with Byron and the Shelleys the night that Mary Shelley started telling the Frankenstein story might be fun.

Posted by: chuck at May 28, 2003 07:14 PM

"19 November, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln. I assume I would get to be there before dinner to hear The Address as well."

Possibly not a good idea--Lincoln was coming down with varioloid, a mild form of smallpox, after the address, and was quarentined by his doctors on his return to Washington . . .

Posted by: rea at May 29, 2003 03:48 PM

Heloise, I think, though she'd find me a dreadful bore. Or perhaps Margery Kempe. Sor Juana, if I could get her young enough; I'm not fond of what her church did to her.

Oo! I know! Maria de Zayas y Sotomayor. Love her stuff, wish we knew more about the woman behind it.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 30, 2003 02:20 PM