Impressions of the Naive

Tomorrow in my History 299 class we will be discussing an article called “The Experience of Writing History” written by George F. Kennan. Almost immediately I am right there with Kennan, he tells the reader that he became a historian later in life and that the article is impressions of someone just really working out what it means to be a historian, yes impressions of the naive. He says, “And since the naive is occasionally amusing, whether or not it is instructive, I thought you might just possibly like to hear what these impressions are.” I think that one line sums up thus far my experience with blogging, I love it.

His succinct writing is enjoyable and he directly tackles many of the feelings I’m sure most historians (or history majors) feel starting out in the field. When he first started out he believed that historical facts would be “lying scattered around”, waiting to be put into the right order, simple enough. Soon he realized that there were infinite ways to rearrange the facts and nothing was as simple as it seemed. Life is more like the latter than the former, we make plans of A,B,C and we end up with B,D,2 and #, what the heck? No sense in thinking we can arrange our lives in the “right” way, is there a “right” way?

Later on there is a great illustration that I think not only applies to historians, but all humans:

It is the rarest of person who today has any comprehension of the series of events which, just in his own time and that of his father, has brought him where he is today. Even the historian feels increasingly inadequate. He can only wander around, like a man with a tiny flashlight amid vast dark caverns, shining his little beam here and there for a moment on a tiny portion of the whole, but with the darkness always closing up behind him as it recedes ahead.

Kennan does not leave the reader will feelings of despair though. He ends it by reassuring us that it is not necessary to know and understand all of history and that “a little bit, looked at hard and honestly, wil, do.” It is in this little bit that we dedicate our time and lives to that we can find meaning for ourselves.

There is more to this article too, even in you are not a historian, I think it is worth the read. I’m definitely looking forward to discussing this in class tomorrow.

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3 Responses to “Impressions of the Naive”


  1. 1 J. McClurken January 15, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    I’m a big fan of this piece by Kennan. It’s dated at points, but still manages to capture much of the heart of being an historian.

    Still, I’d like to think that the loneliness he describes as central to the profession is beginning to not be the norm. As more people collaborate on historical research and work, isolation doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for historians.

  2. 2 Gardner January 16, 2008 at 6:16 am

    Thanks for sharing that, Shannon. The quotation about a little bit, looked at hard and honestly, is especially resonant and encouraging.

    I agree with Jeff that collaboration in the humanities is good. It should and will grow as a scholarly practice. That said, I also think that solitary work will always define some part of the humanities, at least as long as the humanities value and share individual sensibilities and experience. Maybe it’s just the essayist in me. Collaboration and solitude form a necessary rhythm of the intellectual life, I think.


  1. 1 First Week: Classes Recap « Loaded Learning Trackback on January 19, 2008 at 11:23 pm

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