J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Senses and Sensibilities in History Writing

One small trend in recent history-writing is to focus on people’s sensory experiences. (I suppose writing whole books on “place” got old.) I first encountered this at a Massachusetts Historical Society seminar a few years ago which eventually fed into Richard C. Rath’s How Early America Sounded. That paper was about various yelling, ranting, and singing Quakers, before that religious movement settled down and became associated with quiet contemplation instead. Rath’s book also covers church bells, language barriers, and the importance of “earshot” in a culture with no electronic communication system.

I think another early example of sensory history is Elaine Forman Crane’s article “‘I Have Suffer’d Much Today’: The Defining Force of Pain in Early America,” published in Through a Glass Darkly. With few painkillers and no anesthetics, how did colonial Americans get through the day, especially a day with surgery scheduled? Since pain is subjective, baffling doctors even today, it’s very hard to compare one person’s experience to another’s. We must, as Crane does, fall back on thinking mostly about how people of the time thought of pain, particularly in how men and women were supposed to react differently to it.

The most general sensori-historical approach I’ve seen is Peter Charles Hoffer’s Sensory Worlds in Early America. While Rath focuses mostly on the seventeenth century, Hoffer discusses such events as the Boston Massacre, so I had to give it a shot. And I was underwhelmed.

Guess what? People sensed the Boston Massacre. They experienced the cold of the air. They felt the impact of sticks and snowballs. They heard the bang of guns. They saw the blood and bodies lying on the ground. Yes, people all over King Street were sensing things. (Except ropemaker Samuel Gray, who, having had part of his skull shot off, didn’t sense Pvt. Matthew Kilroy bayoneting his brain—if in fact that happened as some Bostonians claimed to have seen.)

So much physical detail might have been exciting for a historian who had previously focused on intellectual and abstract issues. Hoffer is a leading legal historian, and our legal system might in some ways be an attempt to get above how things feel to individual people to more general principles and rules. But I, having come to Revolutionary history through narrative writing in general and fiction writing in particular, never lost sight of the power of sensory detail.

When I saw pictures of Boston’s Pope Night, therefore, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to conclude that the celebration was meant to be loud. “To judge by the number of horns [Swiss artist Pierre Eugène] Du Simitière drew [in 1767], the evening must have been ear-splitting,” I wrote in an essay for The Worlds of Children. An ear-splitting event, but not an earth-shaking realization.

In the 30 Nov 2006 London Review of Books, Yale professor John Demos questions Hoffer’s approach to historical events on another ground:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and (for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . . It is, above all, emotional energy that drives specific human actions—the energy of fear, joy, anger, surprise and a handful of other ‘primary affects’ (in various compounds and combinations). Hoffer gives barely a nod towards this crucial aspect.
Demos’s point seems even more important when we consider the findings from neurology that emotion is key to memory. We remember not what we sense, but what we sense and feel emotionally about.


Manimala said...

Many epistemologists agree that the main ways of knowing are sense perception, language, reason, and emotion. I think that might apply to historical analyses.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting! Can you provide an example or two for us to cogitate on?

Kevin said...

This is a very interesting post and I just wanted to let you know that I used it over at www.civilwarmemory.typepad.com


J. L. Bell said...

I saw that, Kevin, and enjoyed reading your thoughts on the trend.