I was having a conversation with my mom the other day about history. We realized that we had similar views on a peculiar property of historical writing: That if you pick up a history book that was written, say, fifty years ago, it literally may not be possible for you to truly understand what you are reading. And as you go further back in time, history books become ever more insidiously incomprehensible.
For example, at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 it was determined that a slave in the United States should be counted as three-fifths of a citizen. To modern eyes, counting a slave at all might seem like a precursor to emancipation. But in fact it was something else entirely: The slave-holding states pushed this formula so they could have greater representatives in congress. Slaves were property, and therefore a measure of each state’s acknowledged contribution to the nation’s wealth.
A historian writing two centuries ago would see this issue merely as one of economics, so a history book from, say, 1800 would reflect that world view. Whereas a historian writing now would have a hard time working entirely from the mindset of “slaves are only property, not people”. History is not the only thing that changes — historians change along with it.
This kind of thing happens in all spheres of society. For example, “Babes in Arms” was a popular Hollywood film (based on a 1937 state musical) that saw itself as completely inoffensive when it was released in 1939. This teenage Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland singing and dancing romp was that era’s equivalent to, say, today’s “High School Musical. Yet if you look at this trailer, and skip forward to 2:24, you see a series of sequences that would shock the pants off of modern audiences, and might get the movie banned outright in various states.
Yet it is clear that the folks making this movie had no intention of offending anyone. It is history itself that has changed, so much so that the way people in 1939 saw themselves and their own era is something we can now only imagine, not directly experience. If you were to pick up a book about the history of cinema written in 1940, the author probably wouldn’t even mention “Babes in Arms” other than to note that Mickey Rooney, only 19 when the film was released, was the most popular movie star of the day.
One could posit a field of study about the way that history itself changes. I’m not sure what to call such a post-modern science of the ever changing mindset of historians, a sort of history of history. Perhaps it could simply be called History2.