Professor of History, Brandeis University
A bonus for historians studying the twentieth century is the chance to meet your historical subjects. I was lucky enough to meet George F. Kennan, a man who featured in both of my books.
I met Kennan as he approached his 97th birthday in winter 2001. I had been thinking a lot about him for the previous five years, ever since I had run across a 1932 memorandum by Kennan while reading through State Department microfilms in a desolate corner of the Berkeley library. Kennan's memo must have arrived at State Department headquarters on a bad day for filing clerks. His astute analysis of the Soviets' all-out push for industrialization was misfiled among travelers' reports, an error that explained why this remarkable document had never been cited in the large scholarly output on Kennan.
Kennan's memo contained a striking phrase:"the romance of economic development," which, he had written, inspired Soviet youth"to ignore all other questions in favor of economic progress." In language revealing as much about the writer as his subject, Kennan praised that romance for saving Soviet youth from the" curses of egotism, romanticism, daydreaming, introspection and perplexity" that befell their western counterparts. I loved Kennan's elegant prose, and also the way his description fit western observers, not just Soviet youth. Some American observers explained away a famine by saying the USSR was"starving itself great"; others were so compelled by Soviet industrialization that they trotted out the old canard about breaking eggs to make an omelet.
As I began revising my dissertation into a book a few years later, I wrote Kennan, attaching a copy of his 1932 memo and asking if he remembered anything about the sources for his ideas. A speedy reply from his secretary implied that Kennan was unavailable to assist other scholars' work while he had so many pressing projects of his own. The following year, I resent my inquiry through a colleague of Kennan's who had offered to act as intermediary. Kennan's urgent letter (and two phone messages) came just as quickly as his earlier rebuff. He wrote me that he had no recollection of the document (then nearly 70 years old), and then requested whatever contextual material I could provide. I worked up the nerve to ask if I might deliver the documents in person - and a week later I rang the doorbell at his stately but slightly run-down Princeton home. His physical frailty limited our time to an hour, but his intellectual acuity was very much present as we spoke about his training in Russian history and his experiences in the USSR. Kennan recounted the lessons he learned at the University of Berlin in 1929-31; his professors stressed study of the Realien of geography, national character, and national interests rather than epiphenomena like governments and ideologies. This helped me understand Kennan's views of the USSR and of the world, and why he was, in his words,"an expatriate in his own time." The conversation deepened my fascination with Kennan, a familiar enough infatuation among diplomatic historians. I overcame my awe just long enough to ask his wife to photograph us in our conversation.
I would have a chance to meet some of my other historical subjects, especially as I wrote about Kennan's heirs, Soviet experts of the Cold War. These interviews were all fascinating. I learned about their scholarly inspirations, their political investigations, and their experiences visiting a country so different and distant from their own. I even learned about a number of romances and the scandals that often ensued - but none matched the opportunity to learn about the"romance of economic development" from the man who coined the phrase.
By David Engerman
About David Engerman
"he's so creative with his use of materials, like using music, video, photos in his lectures to get a deeper understanding of a time period than one can get from books alone. he looks at history as a set of paradoxes, very interesting way to think about it" - -- Anonymous Students
Assistant Professor of History, University of North Texas, 2009-
I have spent much of the holidays editing the memoirs and oral histories that will become a part of the forthcoming collection of material about the SNCC Arkansas Project. Given our space constraints, I have made suggestions about what material we might possibly be able to omit.
I have agonized over this process of editing. Although, it is necessary to shorten your piece-it need not be shortened in the way that I have suggested. If I have omitted something you think is vital, changed your meaning, or inadvertently altered your narrative style, please respond with a different suggestion about what should be excluded and included. The last thing I want to do is to impede your ability to tell your story in your own way..."
Being an historian sometimes means writing letters like this one. Those of us who work on twentieth century historical topics often have the privilege and the dilemma of writing the histories of individuals who are still living. Although the historian's task is always accompanied by the grave responsibility of striving to be fair to one's historical subjects, this duty takes on a different resonance when writing about historical moments that are very much still alive in the memories of the people who participated in them.
This past year, I have had the opportunity to work on one of the most important and one of the most difficult projects so far in my career. Along with John A. Kirk, I have had the privilege of compiling a book of materials about the activities of the 1960's civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Arkansas. Although much has been written about the activities of this organization elsewhere in the South (particularly in Mississippi), their work in Arkansas has been understudied if not nearly forgotten by historians of the movement. In order to begin to fill this gap in the literature, John and I put together a collection of articles by historians, primary documents, oral histories, and short memoirs written by members and supporters of SNCC in Arkansas.
I had the unenviable task of whittling down the contributions we solicited from SNCC participants into a size that could fit into the 300 page book envisioned by our sympathetic editor at the University of Arkansas Press. Perhaps more than at any other time in my career I felt a heightened awareness of the seriousness of the historian's task. Collectively historians who document the civil rights struggle are striving to rescue worthy individuals from historical obscurity and challenge simplistic historical narratives of the past embraced by politicians and others to meet present day needs. This book is part of an attempt to wrest control of the legacy of the civil rights movement from those who would reduce that variegated grassroots struggle to a single, often misinterpreted speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
As important as this task was, I wondered if it was accompanied by a certain amount of hubris on my part. Who was I to strike out details and descriptions written by people who made the history that I was attempting to tell from the comfort of my living room? Who was I to say what should stay or what should go in the name of something as constructed and arbitrary as"space constraints"? In slashing passages and omitting specific memories, to what extent was I shaping this collection rather than allowing these history makers the opportunity to tell their own stories?
When I have these doubts and hesitations, I console myself with the idea that an inevitably imperfect retelling of the past is infinitely preferable to leaving these histories dormant and unknown. For me the process of historical interpretation is and must be a process of constant self-interrogation and continual reexamination of methods and motivations. For, as David Blight reminds us, our work has implications that go far beyond the so-called Ivory tower as we engage in the study"of contested truths, of moments, events, or even texts in history that thresh out rival versions of the past which are in turn put to battle in the present."
By Jennifer Jensen Wallach
About Jennifer Jensen Wallach