Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Is There a "Sweet Spot" for History?
Most observers of the writing of history agree that it usually takes a couple of decades or even more for events to be put into perspective. This is certainly true for political history where partisan passions easily color fairly recent happenings.
The historian of events of the more distant past faces another kind of problem: he has to rely on documentary evidence of one kind or another because all the participants or witnesses of those events cannot be questioned, given that they have died. It also should be mentioned that history is often (always?) viewed through the prism of the time of the historian -- another, though usually less-serious source of distortion.
These considerations suggest that a good time for an historian to get to work is when passions have cooled, embargoed documents have been made public, and there are participants around to interview.
I experienced this recently when I devoured two accounts of American professional football at the end of the 1950s. One book, The Glory Game, subtitled "How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever" was co-written by Frank Gifford, a veteran TV play-by-play announcer who was a star running back for the New York Giants team in that game.
The other book was That First Season by John Eisenberg, its subtitle being "How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory." The season was the 1959 one for the Green Bay Packers.
The events both books deal with are more than 50 years old, yet many of the participants were still alive to contribute their memories as supplemental -- or even primary -- material in conjunction with game films, sports reports and material in previous accounts of the events.
I found the details fascinating because they fleshed out what previously had been grainy black-and-white television images and names and faces of players lacking more data than descriptions of what they did on the field. (Actually, I exaggerate slightly because I've read other behind-the-scenes books about the Packers -- my fave team -- so my knowledge wasn't quite so one-dimensional as it was for the Giants and their victors, the Baltimore Colts.)