Writing History with Emotion

by Andrew J. Huebner

As historians we write about the most dramatic and poignant human experiences, yet too often we drain those subjects of emotion. Our admirable quest for detachment, our devotion to provable assertions, our reliance on often dry archival sources, perhaps even our desire to be taken seriously in the academy—all inhibit more evocative writing. But this need not be so. We can maintain our dedication to scholarly rigor and yet still write with feeling. I’m not talking about the important and still-developing field of emotions history, which seeks to explain and historicize human sentiment. Rather, I’m suggesting that all of us, no matter the subject of our interpretive interest, pay more attention to the emotions of our historical characters as well as the emotions of our readers—that we cultivate sympathy and even empathy as a way of truly excavating the character of the past and conveying it to our audiences. I’ll first suggest how to do this, and then turn to why.

One way to bring more feeling to our work is to pay attention to the emotional cues of our subjects. These cues don’t have to be central to our analytical purposes, as they often are for historians of emotions, but they can add color and mood. We should say it when historical actors were forlorn, ecstatic, confused, or angry, provided we have the evidence to show it. In her recent book What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, Mary Louise Roberts writes of a murdered prostitute:

 

By talking to women who worked in the same neighborhood as Marie, police discovered that she had eaten her last meal—two glasses of white wine and a sandwich—alone and depressed at the café Sans Souci on the rue Pigalle (pp. 147–48).

 

The passage demonstrates one of Roberts’s arguments—that social networks governed the lives of French prostitutes—while also profoundly evoking the woman’s isolation. Often our historical training leads us to eschew such claims. How can historians really know what was in people’s hearts? We can make those claims the way we make other claims, by accumulating familiarity with our subjects, reading their words, quoting them, and making reasoned judgments about what they felt.

Of course, sometimes the sources don’t contain explicit emotional cues. In those cases we can work to cultivate a novelist or filmmaker’s eye for poignant detail. A single sentence in Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market captures the indignity and sorrow of American slavery, with neither direct evidence of emotion nor resort to fraught language. Details are what do it:

 

Twelve-year-old Monday was whipped by his mistress because his lupus made his nose run on the dinner napkins (p. 21).

 

We feel something about the scene because we can picture it—a boy with an illness, a finely set table, a whipping, terrible pettiness and cruelty. The scene and the feeling help Johnson re-create the character of everyday life in the antebellum South. Novelists call this “showing” rather than “telling.” There’s no need to say the abuse of innocents is tragic if the narrative detail shows it more vividly.

Gloominess need not dominate our emotional repertoire; our sources typically offer opportunities to elicit positive feeling as well. We should assign humor a larger role in our work, whether it means pointing out an ironic detail, quoting a funny line, or just writing with more wit. David Greenberg combines these approaches in a passage from Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image:

 

The thick curls of black hair, the bushy eyebrows, and the five-o’clock shadow enveloped Nixon in an aura of gloom. He scowled and frowned, prematurely creasing his forehead and cheeks. Few profiles of him failed to note his “ski-jump” nose, which poked out, Pinocchio-like. His eyes, beady and dark, darted as he spoke, adding to the air of suspicion; “shifty-eyed,” Truman called him. The heavy jowls, which grew more pronounced as he aged, made him seem, Kempton wrote, as though “a great wad of unmelting butter [was] stuffed next to his lower jawbone.” Liberals just didn’t like the looks of him (pp. 38–39).

 

Here Greenberg uses wry humor not just for amusement’s sake, but to help him develop the main theme of that chapter in his book—liberal hatred of Richard Nixon. Many other subjects lend themselves naturally to positive feeling. Courtroom dramas, the reunion of prisoners of war and their families, civil rights victories—all offer opportunities to invite suspense, relief, joy, titillation, and surprise.

Why do all this? Partly it’s an aesthetic matter—our books are more readable, memorable, and lively when we highlight our actors’ emotions and stir those of our readers. In a competitive market it can help sell books. But more deeply, it’s our job. Evoking feeling does not have to distract us from our primary goal as historians—to vividly convey the character of human life in the past—and in fact helps achieve it.

Our readers’ main ambition is probably to learn, not to feel. But to make them feel is to help them learn. All the pieces of writing cited above carry water for their authors’ interpretive arguments. In fact, many of our professed aims are served by seeking out emotion in our research and eliciting it in our readers. We constantly argue for contingency in history, insisting that things didn’t have to happen the way they did. Cultivating feelings of suspense can help us do that. We value “accuracy” in our work, usually regarding facts and figures. A fuller, more emotional rendering of the past is likewise more faithful to history as it was lived—provided we’re sensitive to the ways emotions change across time and space. Even those scholars who do broad, quantitative studies of the aggregate value the experiences of the individual. Encouraging empathy and sympathy underscores the uniqueness of people even as we understand them as members of groups.

We do need to be cautious, of course. In building empathy we risk making ourselves falsely similar to people in the past. “They do not think the way we do,” Robert Darnton wrote of historical actors in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (p. 4). They don’t necessarily feel the way we do either. Yet excavating and evoking emotion helps us comprehend and assess those differences, showing us where we’re similar and where we’re not. Mourning the mass murder of cats can help us understand eighteenth-century Parisians, even if—or more precisely, because—they weren’t sad about it. Evoking emotion thus fulfills the mandate of historical research and the humanities more broadly: to understand people.

In short, the best reason to write with emotion is that it’s good history. We often tout the conceptual richness of our discipline, its ability to deliver the fullest possible picture of human civilization and culture. We consider virtually any source fair game, and borrow liberally from other disciplinary approaches. Bringing forth the emotional component of the past only gets us closer to that full picture the study of history promises. Avoiding doing so, in my view, risks a worse violation—sucking the life out of our subjects in the name of detachment. Let’s unleash the emotion of history for our readers, and awaken theirs along the way.