John H Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000).
As one of the “A Very Short Introduction” series of books, John H Arnold’s installment on History is very short indeed, just 123 pages. It is also, very informative. History does more than define history as those things belonging to the past. It describes the act of creating history, a work of history. Much attention is given to the importance of research. Searching for, collecting, and organizing small bits of evidence. Allowing the evidence to prove both insights to, and questions about, a given topic. History also discusses sources, primary and secondary. Most of all, History explores historiography, the way in which each of us view history.
Opening with the bold statement “Here is a true story”, chapter 1 examples a small but intriguing bit of evidence connected to a story of heresy and murder. With this, and other stories, Arnold illustrates the problems associated with creating a “true” account of past occurrences. Sources connected to a given subject are often incomplete or untrustworthy. How history has been, and still is, used to support a given idea. History as a tool. Challenges associated with conceptualizing past events, such as presentism, and periodization are detailed. History recounts the development of history. From Herodotus to today, major historians, their historical focus, and the ways in which each contributed to how history was written.
Unfortunately, Arnold appears to hold some admiration for relativism. Marx and his view of history as a class struggle, is given tacit support. As is historical fraud. The author claims that a report which likely misreported the dialect used by Sojourner Truth in her speech to the Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention in 1851 as something to be cherished. Because, although she likely did not speak with the “ar’n’t I a woman?” dialect, it seems right. After all, the cause benefited from the possible misreporting. Arnold acknowledges that Sojourner Truth questioned the use of her words in dialect. In this case Truth’s causes, the end of slavery and the advancement of women, were certainly righteous. If we allow frequent instances of useful fraud, who determines whether a fraud purports righteousness or if it is simply fraud?
Earlier in History, Arnold appears to question the motivations of Jacques-Auguste de Thou, whose History of Europe was undertaken to produce religious harmony, as a failed attempt at objectivity. Like ending slavery, is the desire to bring religious harmony not also a righteous cause? The author examples other stories to question the ability to determine objective historical “truth.”
In the final chapter, Arnold seems to promote the post-modern/ Marxist historiography of Race, Class, and Gender. A historiography developed, largely, out of the Marxist concept of history as a class struggle. RCG (Race Class, Gender) adds race and gender to Marx’s sour cocktail. In other words, RCG is an approach to history designed to support an ideology. It is the combination of activism and history. How could that be produce historical inaccuracies that contribute to a misunderstanding of modern issues? Throughout the book, Arnold frequently mentions the use of history as a tool. I sensed that he did not favor that approach. However, he also states that history should contribute to change. On page 122, Arnold states that “History provides us with tools of dissent.”
History: A Very Short Introduction is quite informative, and I recommend its reading to anyone wanting to write history read the book. It provides a valuable introduction to the development of history as a craft, and to historiographies.