Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #11: Ged Martin again

p. 31 It is difficult to imagine that any historian would claim total survival of evidence for any episode of the past.  Indeed some might wearily conclude that far too much evidence has survived, especially if it consists of archival mounds that they must quarry to ensure that their own research is comprehensive, even though the documents were never designed to help their enquiries in the first place.  Some are tempted to defend their own specialized research by insisting that enough of the materials needed to form an explanation have survived.  This assertion, which is often the only basis on which the scholar can go to work, ultimately rests on the internally contradictory premise that we can identify the materials needed for an explanation even though we cannot be sure that we know everything about the problem we seek to explain.

Ged Martin Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History, 2004 p. 31

I was flipping through my notes looking for something this morning, and I noticed this quote from Ged Martin- a historian whom I keep encountering because of his work in Canadian, Australian and empire contexts.  I’ve already cited some of his wisdom previously, but I am particularly aware of him at the moment because I recently read an article of his that was exactly on the topic I needed at exactly the right time.  It was about empire federalism -surely a topic to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, yes? It was a fairly old article from the 1970s, located through Google Scholar, but it was exactly the sort of article that you would have fallen upon as if it were a gold nugget in the pre-computer days because it has exhaustive footnotes.  In particular, he had located evidence (by his own admission, sometimes small and oblique) of the stance of various politicians between 1820 and 1870 on the issue of the colonies being represented in the British Parliament.  As I gazed at these long footnotes, ranging across letters, speeches to Parliament and newspaper articles, I shook my head in awe at how long it must have taken and how much reading must have gone into that one footnote.

Then I thought about the opening line of Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary. This is an unusual book, with a lyrical narrative in the first half, supported by ‘Notes and Reflections’, heavy-duty historical footnotes and nuts-and-bolts in the second half. And I do mean ‘half’- in terms of length and rigour, the two parts are equally balanced.  The opening line of the first half of the book is:

He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.

Donna Merwick came out to speak to us during my honours year, and she talked about that first line, and the sheer amount of research that went into making such a definitive statement.  Would I ever feel confident enough to make such a statement?, I wonder.  So often I am paralysed by the fear that there is another source, another archive, that sits just on the other side of the line in the sand that I have drawn when I tell myself “Stop. You have enough. Just write.”

Sometimes I wonder if the sheer availability of texts now through the internet is drowning us, but then I look at Martin’s footnote,  and the Notes and Reflections in Merwick’s book. I consider the paper-based  research tools available in the 1970s, and try to imagine researching with a typewriter and a pile of catalogue cards and my complaint about the deluge of material seems rather lily-livered. I am humbled by the hard work and sheer doggedness such research reveals.

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2 responses to “Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #11: Ged Martin again

  1. Mark McKenna was faced with the ultimate deluge of documentation when he was researching for his biography on Manning Clarke. Manning Clarke had carefully kept every bit of paper and sometimes wrote instructions on them to his future biographer, so certain Clarke was that one day someone would want to write a his biography . Fortunately McKenna spared the reader from an intimate encounter with this mountain of paper. But of course McKenna did have to read it all. I often thought while reading the book that you would want to have some sympathy for the person you were researching if you had to read such a huge number of records.

    The question is when to stop researching. That is easier for a narrow topic than a broader one. The problem is that one can imagine a marker saying, “but you should have read XXX”. The only way to avoid this type of comment would be to narrow the topic further. But ultimately I suppose a PhD is about becoming an expert in something and one cannot become an expert in it without a huge volume of reading. Though it is important not to use the need to research more as an excuse to procrastinate on writing.

    • I’m smiling at your last sentence! Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.
      I haven’t read Mark McKenna’s book on Manning Clark- even though (because?) he was so conscious of future biographers, Manning Clark was proved right because there’s quite a few books about him after his death.

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