Two days with a popular historian

Paul HamThe assassination of a relatively minor figure, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggered an escalation of events that nobody really wanted or anticipated, causing World War I. Or so high school history led me to believe. I’ve been carrying this around as a “fact” for many years, and I’m sure many others who were semi-awake during high school are as well. But the answer turns out to be not nearly so simple or decided. With the 100th anniversary of WWI approaching, historians are still hotly arguing over its causes.  

Last week, as a volunteer at the Bookworm Literary Festival, I tagged along with Australian historian Paul Ham as he talked to school groups, writers, and audiences, addressing how he approaches writing about the past. He defines himself as a popular historian, an appellation sometimes spoken with condescension, though one he has come to embrace. He distinguishes himself from academic historians in terms of what he considers relevant information. In addition to sitting in libraries pouring over archives, part of Ham’s process is to travel to the places he writes about and speak to those who lived through the events—though he may not always take the details of their memories at face value. In Vietnam it was important for him to meet with aging generals and even a Laundromat owner as they recalled the national feeling in the war period. He has trekked through dense jungles in New Guinea, where the Australian army checked the advance of Imperial Japan in the obscure Battle of Kokoda. (Well, obscure to me as an American—already I’m getting into trouble sorting the importance of historical facts). Ham has seen the color of the mud at Somme, site of the densest killing field in the history of warfare, and walked among the gravestones reading epitaphs. An academic historian might consider such details fanciful, but for Ham it’s important because in part his job is to build a mood and narrative that will keep readers interested. I think some of it must also be a certain respect for human tragedy that might not be as tangible sitting at a desk. He also takes into account psychological factors of character that an academic historian might leave out. An example he cited was that one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s arms was longer than the other, rendering him unfit for military training, and in Ham’s view, hiding a timid disposition behind confrontational bluster. Ham notes that his books are also well-documented, with extensive bibliographies using credible sources. He believes that we’re living in something of a renaissance of popular history, caused by academic history’s unhelpful attachment to historical determinism and its general inaccessibility. Ham maintains popular historians today are following a tradition of earlier writers such as Tacitus, Thucydides, and Edward Gibbon.

I think if a popular historian’s work is both properly researched and also approachable, that has to be a good thing. History need not be dull, and we all have a stake in understanding how we got to where we are now. In an example of history being much more useful than it’s given credit for, Ham brought up that during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. This work of popular history about the beginnings of World War I apparently led him to act with much more caution, and who knows, perhaps saved us all from global thermonuclear war. Yay! Thanks, popular history.

Ham’s own book about atomic warfare, Hiroshima Nagasaki, will soon be released in the United States. He feels both Japanese and American historians have been too caught up in our respective national narratives to write an accurate history of the subject. I’m curious both to read it and to see what the reaction will be. The United States could certainly use more voices in the public realm who can both connect with the general population and base their conclusions on careful research.

-Deva Eveland