I am a firm believer in reading eclectically and daily. Over the past couple of days I’ve been revisiting a book by the British historian A. L. Rowse titled The Use of History, which was first published in 1963. The jacket copy describes it as a work that “discusses the place of history in education and general culture, methods of teaching and how to tackle reading.” It goes on to explain that the book “deals with problems that are among the most pressing intellectual issues of the twentieth century as well as being a practical handbook on how to read history.”

Rowse reads today as an old-fashioned British intellectual historian. Even in the ’90s, when I first read him as a graduate student, he was seen as a thinker who was out of date. But while Rowse was conservative politically, he was intellectually bold. He also is eminently readable. Each page, in fact, is delightful. Rowse wrote with verve, enormous confidence, and fluidity.

What I’m most taken with is Rowse’s overview of different types of history, and the way he handles the question of whether history is a science or an art. The answer is, according to Rowse, at once “both” and “it depends.” Speaking to why some historians understand their endeavor as science, he writes:

What is it that historians have in mind when they claim, or disclaim, history as a science? I think that they have at the back of their minds an idea of exactness, dependable objectivity (although in an ultimate sense, what objectivity is there even in physics?), a certain capacity for being systematized as knowledge.

This point is a good one. And it is relevant across all work in the humanities that seeks to say something about the human condition (including in the fields in which I was trained and work: cultural studies and critical theory). We scholars ought to be concerned about whether what we say bears some resemblance to the world, and that requires a systematic examination. If we write about individual episodes, and haven’t examined patterns, we can’t tell you whether the episode is a weird outlier or representative of a pattern. Truth isn’t just factual. Truth requires context.

One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Amanda America Dickson. She was born into slavery in Hancock, Georgia, in 1849. She was her master’s daughter; her mother was his property, as was she. But she was unusually doted on by her father and paternal grandmother. They acknowledged her and loved her. Because of that affection, her father effectively made Amanda white and free, marrying her off to a white cousin.

Amanda came back home with a few children after several years. When her father died, he willed her the bulk of his property, making her one of the wealthiest women in Georgia. Amanda’s sons passed into whiteness as adults. But she crossed back over into Blackness. Her second marriage was to a Black man and her social milieu became the Black elites in Augusta.  

Amanda’s story is strange and unique. It isn’t representative of slavery or the color line, nor does it give us a window into how race functioned in the 19th century. To write her story, as some historians have, in a way that is historically sound requires an attention to how much it isn’t a common one at all.

It’s also a good story. And that’s why I’m curious about Amanda; the very human love of a good story is real. A good story isn’t a clinical assessment of patterns and social relations. It includes idiosyncrasies, drama, and surprise. And it requires some rhythm and panache.

Rowse gets this too, writing:

In the realm of historical method, there is a non-scientific element that is just as important. There is the feeling for material, such as any good craftsman must have for the medium he is working in, the potter for the clay, the mason for the stone, the needle-woman for the texture of her stuff. There is sympathy of mind, love of the subject in and for itself, that kind of understanding that tells one what to beware of and what to look for: one derives all sorts of unconscious aids from the practice of one’s craft, as with poetry and gardening. There is, in the end, intuition: that leap of the mind that suddenly suggests the explanation…

Reading Rowse this week has made me reflective. Scholars, literary writers, and journalists, each in their respective professional milieus, bear some “scientific” pressures and responsibilities. We ought to be deliberate and consider the what and why behind everything we put into the world. But we also must, as Rowse says, cultivate feeling for the material we work with, and hone our crafts. That synthesis is really hard, but it is also rewarding. Rowse himself makes the point. Fifty-nine years after his book’s publication, I, a writer who comes from an entirely different perspective and position, find both truth and resonance in his words.