I'm reading Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, 2010), which I'm finding fascinating, if a bit prone toward jumping around and certainly advocating a particular series of positions. Regardless of one's opinion regarding the current political climate, I found myself struck by an anecdote she shared about an early American lawyer, legal scholar and author by the name of Royall Tyler.
Tyler began writing his autobiography in the early 1820s, addressing it to a fictional reader in the year 2025. It was never published, and survives only in fragmentary form, but Tyler's understanding of the potential shortfalls of history is profound. As Lepore shares, Tyler envisioned his mythical reader as a historian, smiling at
The sprawling letters, yellow text,
The formal phrase, the bald stiff style...
And in the margin gravely notes
A thousand meanings never meant.
Lepore: "Historians, Tyler knew, will always make too much of too little. After all, what if only his left shoe made it down to that superexcellent age, 'to be gathered as an invaluable treasure into the museum of the Antiquarian'? Some historians, 'after vainly essaying to fit it to the right foot, would gravely declare that the anatomy of their ancestors' pedestals differed from those of his day.' They would think people who lived in the eighteenth century had two left feet." (Lepore, 151)
A perceptive bloke, was Tyler. So often we use our fragments of evidence to cobble together a coherent narrative that fits our vision for how the past should have operated. We need legitimacy for our beliefs, so we go in search of those bits of the past that will enable us to claim it. In truth, however, the past is always more complicated and more contested than that. This, really, is Lepore's larger argument, even if she does go on to suggest some conclusions that might better fit her own stable of beliefs.
Does this mean that history is necessarily illegitimate? Does it mean that we can never use the past to help inform the present? I would argue no. The past has much to teach us, and careful historical study is the best way to improve our grasp upon what came before. The problem comes when we attempt to make history fit our current circumstances. History informs our circumstances from behind. It's a one-way path. Any time we begin from the present and start to impose the present upon the past, we are going to run into trouble. Our best understanding of our past comes when we examine history without such preconceived notions, understanding that the complexity we find will not lend itself to easy conclusions. Life may have become more 'complicated' in a technological sense, but humans 200 years ago were just as complicated as they are today.