Monday, November 26, 2012

Memoirs and Our Perception of History

I recently participated in a discussion focusing on the benefits, nature, and drawbacks of the memoir genre.  In the past decade the memoir genre has experienced a huge serge in popularity.  This serge has not been entirely smooth, controversies have surrounded many memoirs in recent years.  Perhaps, most famously James Frey's A Mission Little Pieces was exposed as being a fictional fabrication after being promoted as a truthful memoir on a variety of media outlets. The controversy surrounding Frey's use of fiction in a memoir is not a singular event, in April 2011 Greg Mortenson was sued for including potentially fabricated details in his memoir Three Cups of Tea and the content of many other memoirs has been questioned.

If nothing else these controversies tend to highlight how firmly the general public believes that literary works purported as truthful must adhere to a strict code of reality.  Based on this logic memoirs can be self serving, full of bias and pride but must not include excessive fabrications or stretching of the truth.  Memoirs present only one point of view and tend to present an edited view of a persons life -- does this make them any less of a valid literary work? Or a valid personal history? The point is debatable, but I tend to think they
 are valid on both points, they just need to be treated with care and with an understanding of their nature.

This discussion of the nature of memoirs led to me thinking about the nature of established histories.  Archives and historical records can be just as biased as memoirs.  For example, correspondence that acts as a historical record or an archival source is often fraught with contention.  A written letter only tells a specific story, the one written on the page.  What the author left out, the reasoning for including particular references, and additional context can at times be inferred but can rarely be known with certainty. 

Similarly, ledgers, statistics and other quantifiable records are not always hundred percent truthful.  Look at wartime statistics, the number of enemy kills is often approximated or exaggerated to garner wartime support.  Granted, the fallibility of these statistics often comes to light at the conclusion of war, but 100% accurate numbers often don't appear.  Another example of the fallibility of historical statistics can easily be found in the case of Residential School records.  Quarterly returns, the student lists submitted by school principals to Indian Affairs to gain a per student compensation rate, often included 'errors' which would result in the school gaining additional funding.  Students who had left the school or passed away were at times left on the official class list, gaining the school funding for a student who wasn't in attendance.  Statistics are not always the ultimate historical source when looked at in isolation. 

Additionally, archives, museums and formal histories are not the be all and end all of history.  Selection procedures and display policies all impact what history is kept, recorded, and presented.  Visitors to a historic site are seeing a curated presentation of the past.  It is physically impossible to keep or display everything.  Researchers and the general public need to be aware that just because something isn't prominently display or well represented in an archival collection, doesn't mean that it didn't happen or impact historical events.  

Most records and perceptions of the past have some kind of inherent bias.  Personal correspondence, official business records, government records, etc may all contain underlying motives that aren't apparent at first glance.  Contextual analysis and examining documents in an inclusive manner can help bring about the most representative truths from documents.  Looking at history from a variety of vantage points helps expose hidden aspects of the past and helps drive further historical research. 

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