In graduate school, I was begrudgingly introduced to renowned American colonial historian Bernard Bailyn. I say begrudgingly because my professor wasn’t exactly a fan. He believed Bailyn furthered the idea of American exceptionalism to the detriment of impartial, objective criticism, blah blah blah. He had a point, of course. But one thing Bailyn proposed, which has stayed with me throughout the years that I’ve been practicing history, is the idea of the historical imagination.
( Bailyn was influenced by Robin George Collingwood, but it was from Bailyn that I first learned of the concept).
Anyway, “historical imagination” refers to the practice of putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and it tends to be the simple shoes of a run-of-the-mill person from the past, not a great or infamous leader… the decisions of Presidents, judges, and scions of the Gilded Age tend to be unique and a little convoluted. But the opinions and reactions of a pioneer, or a Comanche woman, or an enslaved man, or an Italian immigrant, would appeal to anyone who’s studied the past, even cursorily. Their motivations tend not be that very different from our modern inclinations, even if their political and social backgrounds are not as similar.
History, I’ve learned, is all about the imagination. That old building I like to take pictures of? I have to imagine it being used, with people walking in and out, with horses tied up to the the rings and posts. That historical school building or courthouse square? I think about the kids and citizens who beat a path to the doors. And that raid on a settlers family in Forestburg? I imagine their fear, their fatigue, and their uncertainty.
I’ve always encouraged my students to imagine things like being a soldier in a Civil War battle, being an enslaved woman whose child was sold, or being a tenant farmer who lost his livelihood to a big corporation. What I try to do is to get them to understand that not only are people, even over time, not that dissimilar from us today, but that history is itself the study of time, and how we’ve used it. To draw conclusions about the past, one must first be able to view it through the eyes of those who lived it… from those people who didn’t have a lot of power, but were a large part of the force that made the present into history.
Imagining history gives me a moving picture. I can deduct from my suppositions the actions and policies that came about after an event. It helps me to understand that no history is black and white, but rather shades of gray, but it also allows me to judge injustices and empathize with those who lived through them.