Getting at the truth in history

Henry Ford, or maybe it was Harry Truman, said that the trouble with history was that it was “one damn thing after another.” Other people say that historians are god-like because they can make history in their own image. George Santayana said “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sergeant Joe Friday, on the show Dragnet said: “All we want are the facts.” Patricia Hampl wrote at the beginning of her poem Resort: “The point of this place: don’t ask for much, ask/ for everything. Get: details as everywhere.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that everyone was entitled to his or her own opinion but no one was entitled to his or her own set of facts.

All of these thoughts are worth considering when thinking about the process of gathering information to figure out what happened in the past. Let’s suppose you are doing research on the history of bathtub use by early European-Americans in Minnesota.  Suppose that one of the drawbacks or, perhaps, attractions to writing about this subject is that there are many people with very decided opinions about the topic.

For example, some people may say that in the 1840s and 1850s, when white settlement began in Minnesota, taking baths was not a common practice anywhere in the United States. They say that people just didn’t have a real hangup about bathing. They say that for people then cleanliness was not next to godliness, nor was it all that important. They say that the first European-Americans in Minnesota never bathed. On the other hand there are other people who claim that cleanliness was sweeping the country. They say that bathing was all the rage, especially in places like Minnesota where there was plenty of water to spare, except in the winter when all the water was frozen. And even then they would melt the ice and bathe in it, or cut holes in the ice on lakes and jump in for a brisk soak.

So if you plan to do research and write about the topic of bathtubs in the first years of European-American settlement of Minnesota, you have to be aware of this controversy and you have to expect that at some point you are going to have to express an opinion on this controversy. But, regardless, in doing research on the subject you are going to want to look at all the available documents about the subject, oral history, letters, newspaper articles, books, even works of fiction, to figure out not only whether people in Minnesota in those days had bathtubs, but also how they used them.

You will want to be very thorough abut this, to get all the facts and all the details. And even though there is this widespread controversy on “Cleanliness in 19th-century America,” you can’t just set out to prove that Americans in the 19th century did or did not care about being clean. You can have a theory about that, but you have to keep an open mind. You have to look at all the facts that you find and then draw some firmer conclusions. Otherwise your work will be a real stretch. If you decide beforehand, before you’ve looked at all the information, you will look like an idiot, someone just picking an choosing from among the facts to prove your point.

If you write about the topic and ignore or leave out some of the information and it turns out that that information contradicts what you’ve written then you are going to look pretty silly, unless you are willing to incorporate the new information and show, somehow how it either proves your point or how you have changed your theory to mesh with the facts. Suppose you write: “There were no bathtubs in early Minnesota,” and then someone finds half a dozen letters describing bathtubs on farms and in towns like Chatfield, Red Wing, Dawson, and Alexandria how will you be able to explain that your statement was accurate? One way to justify your description of the lack of bathtubs is to attack the messenger, saying, for example, that the person who provided the information was an idiot, an adulterer, a vivisectionist, or an opponent of highway construction and should therefore not be believed. Or you could even pretend that the contrary evidence proving your theory wrong simply did not exist.

But these strategies have dangers because at some point people are going to ask you why you are ignoring the facts. They will repeat Moynihan’s statement that you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own set of facts and they will say that if you are going to do history you have to deal with all the facts, not just some of them. One strategy to get around this is by suggesting that not all pieces of information are really “facts.”

What are “the facts” anyway? Some people who do history intentionally stack the deck by deciding that some information is factual and other information is not. For example, they may claim that oral history is not reliable but that information written down or printed is likely to be very reliable. So, if you find an oral history with someone who recalled, years after coming to Minnesota in 1853: “We carved our tub from the trunk of a red oak tree and when we were done we filled it with water from the spring behind the barn, in which we bathed after thanking the Lord for our bounty,” you might question its accuracy, especially if there were no discussion of bathtubs or bathing in issues of the St. Paul Democrat or St. Paul Pioneer from the 1850s. And to prove your point you might add that this description says that the people “bathed” but that it was an ambiguous statement suggesting that the people bathed in the tub, the spring, or even the barn and that if they bathed in the barn they may have been bathing the animals and not themselves. You could even point out that the tub in question was homemade and therefore not really a bathtub in the proper sense of the word. Who’s to say, you would ask, whether or not this particular settler was an odd duck who happened to like bathing in water, unlike the vast majority of his fellow settlers?

The success of any one of these strategies depends in part upon your status and the status of the person or persons who presents the contrary evidence. If you are working for a well-known agency or institution and the person offering evidence to the contrary happens to a blogger of uncertain reputation then it is likely that you are not going to be asked any hard questions about your theory that “there were no bathtubs in early Minnesota.” Newspaper reporters or editors in particular are not going to want to give attention to information supplied through websites. In fact it is likely that you will not get questions at all on the issue of bathtubs in early Minnesota because, someone might say, who really cares one way or another about this antiquarian issue? What difference does it make whether settlers bathed or had bathtubs anyway? This is a helpful attitude, because it it is always better for well-known institutions if their employees do not have to answer for any mistakes they may have made.

But the blogger who maintains that there were really bathtubs in early Minnesota might be a persistent person. He or she might keep posting stories like “Why is the well-known institution lying about bathtubs?” or “The truth about bathing that the well-known institution has chosen to ignore.” After a few of these stories, people, even newspapers, might start to ask you hard questions. You will try to simply ignore the blogger and other disgruntled people but it will start to make you feel really testy. It will be harder and harder not to respond. Even when people send you emails to ask you simple unrelated questions you might end up itching to throw in a few odd thoughts about bathtubs to defend yourself, at the end of the email such as: “You may be seeing a lot of untrue or unreliable information about bathtubs on the web. Let me know if you have any questions.”

That’s when you know know that the obligation of the historian to deal with the facts, all the facts, is really getting to you, in spite of your plan to stack the deck in favor of your own theory.  One of these nights you are going to wake up screaming: “Yes, I know there were bathtubs in Red Wing and Chatfield! Leave me alone!” Your family is going to wonder about you, but it is a good start. As Fran Lebowitz, Harvey Fierstein, or Harry Carey once said, “Denial is not just a pool of water in Egypt.”

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