The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Tensing up; or, the uses (and abuses) of writing history in the present tense

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One of the things that I like about Twitter is how it can prompt us to reflect on aspects of our writing and historical practice that we might otherwise take for granted. As the screen grab above shows, yesterday a simple question about writing history in the present tense turned into a conversation that last several hours and drew in a number of different people. Opinions varied but it struck me that there was something of a consensus that writing in the present tense was jarring and inappropriate.

I have some sympathy for this view. When it’s done badly, reading something written in the present tense can be like listening to someone draw their fingernails down a whiteboard—enough to set your teeth on edge. Piercing and dissonant, writing in the present tense departs from all the familiar conventions of historical analysis: it collapses the differences between then and now; it obscures the boundaries between argument and evidence; it compromises the illusion of objectivity and distance on which so much contemporary scholarship rests. In recent years, more than ever, I have found myself bringing out the virtual read pen when encountering this mode of writing in my students’ essays.

As the screen grab above also shows, however, I think writing in the present tense has important uses in our historical practice. More than this, I’d go so far as to say I actually like it as a stylistic device. That’s what I did say in this Twitter conversation (hiding behind a photograph of Kermit the Frog performing an arabesque while balanced on the saddle of his bicycle). I have to admit that my intervention was more than a bit defensive: writing in the present tense is something that I do a lot in my own work. It’s interesting, in the context of this virtual conversation, that no one actually seems to have noticed.

Here is a long example, taken from my Past and Present essay on Edith Thompson’s letters:

A reflective approach to fiction continued into adulthood. Consider this—a longer extract from the letter written before 1 May 1922:

 

Ive nothing to talk about darlint, not a tiny little thing—Life—the Life I and we lead is gradually drying me up—soon I’ll be like the ‘Sahara’—just a desert, like the ‘Shulamite’ you must read that book its interesting—absorbing, aren’t books a consolation and a solace? We ourselves die & live in the books we read while we are reading them & then when we have finished, the books die and we live—or exist—and just drag on thro years & years, until when? Who knows—I’m beginning to think no one does—no not even you & I, we are not the shapers of our own destinies.

 

There is a sense here of how reading offers an escape from the everyday. Books are a ‘consolation and a solace’, opening up an ‘absorbing’ otherworld in which to forget the fears and loneliness attendant on being involved in an adulterous relationship with a lover half a world away. There is a lot more going on in this passage though—living a fictional life means far more than escaping into ‘make-believe’. Reading offers Edith a way of making sense of a specific emotional trauma by reinventing herself as Deborah, the Shulamite, isolated, desolate and alone on the South African veldt—not the Sahara—after sending away the man she loves, and sacrificing her own happiness for his life. More than this, the life of fiction far exceeds and transcends those quiet moments spent reading. For sure, ‘we ourselves die & live in the books we read,’ inhabiting that world with and through the characters. But when the final page is turned ‘the books die and we live.’ We live, moreover, in a space irrevocably shaped by the traces of our reading. Edith almost suggests that that the book plays a sacrificial role—giving us life as it dies. Rather than being a transitory and fleeting pleasure, reading has an enduring social impact.

Reading through this essay again earlier today, I was struck by just often it shifts into the present tense. Here are two shorter examples:

‘Commuting from Ilford to Carlton and Prior in Aldersgate Street gives Edith a consciousness of ‘Suburbia’ as a geographical and cultural entity’.

‘At other times, business interfered with writing. Halfway through one letter she comments: “I shall have to stop for a little while now darlint. I have a ton of work to do.” A day passes before writing resumes: “It’s Thursday about 12 noon and I’ve squeezed 10 minutes to talk to you.” Privacy remains forever precarious: Percy’s suspicions grow, workmates gossip, commuters read over her shoulder.’

 

It is significant, I think, that I find the present tense most useful and appropriate when writing about the individuals on whom so much of my work focuses. I use it most often when teasing out the meanings and significance of their personal testimonies—when engaged in what we might think of as close textual readings. Rather than simply describing Edith’s thoughts and words, my own interventions carry larger arguments about the social and psychological functions of reading and writing in twentieth century Britain. If this stylistic device does collapse the boundaries between now and then, that is precisely the point. In this instant, I think writing in the present tense carries a demotic (perhaps even democratic) impulse. It is a way of giving Edith the dignity she deserves as a historical subject. It is a way of foregrounding what I see as the equality between her voice and mine as a historian trying to understand her life. Writing in the past tense—establishing an illusion of distance and objectivity—strikes me as imposing my voice on hers. Far better, I think, to write with rather than upon our subjects.

In this sense, writing in the present tense can be a way of ensuring our essays and books are emotionally engaged (with the lives of the people we write about) and engaging (to the readers whose attention we hope to absorb). How better to convey the joys and tragedies of Edith’s life than to work in this way? As @thesearethingsilike rightly pointed out in yesterday’s Twitter conversation, writing in the past tense is vital if we are to ‘recognize the historicity of what you are working on.’ Historians are never as distant from ‘the past’ as we often like to make out, however. Our interventions call history into being. Writing in the present tense might be one way of acknowledging that. At the very least it gives us a voice through which to convey our own emotional or political investments in the subjects we write about. It suggests what I often encounter as a sense of closeness to people like Edith Thompson. Her life and death has the capacity to move and trouble me still and it is important to acknowledge that. Good history should move all of us.

It is true, of course, that history written in the present can be jarring and difficult. It can make it ‘hard to work out what’s a recent analysis and what’s primary material.’ This is also useful and something that we can work for us. As I commented on Twitter, as a stylistic device it ‘disrupts and questions our sense of boundaries / analysis and “evidence.”’ It places the historian in their work. It shows that ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources are not always as distinct as we often assume. It calls into question the idea that ‘analysis’ is somehow distinct from the partial, selective and provisional ‘evidence’ on which it draws. Writing in the present tense might be jarring, but another way of thinking about it is as troubling. If something jars, we might usefully think about why. In this case, I think, we tense up over the present because it troubles many of the core categories around which historians seek to make the past knowable.

For all these reasons I will go on writing in the present tense as I finish The Prince of Tricksters. The book includes passages written in the present tense as fiction. Fingers crossed I can still manage to get away with it.

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7 comments on “Tensing up; or, the uses (and abuses) of writing history in the present tense

  1. Alison
    September 5, 2013

    Great post. Something I’ve been pondering a lot lately. I find I always write in the present when I am really involved in my work and then have to translate it into the past tense. It is the closeness, as you say, and I like the sense of immediacy and even urgency that it conveys. It also allows us to see the acts of imagination involved in writing good history. Thank you!

    • The Trickster Prince
      September 5, 2013

      Thank you! It’s really useful to hear how other people approach these questions.

  2. I know there’s quite a debate over this topic. I recall hearing John Humphries on the radio snapping at an academic he was interviewing for using “the historical present” which he said he hated.

    I haven’t totally made up my mind about ‘the historical present tense’ yet. It can be quite a tricky thing to do, but I agree it can work when done well and if used judiciously, but as a stylistic affectation it can sometimes be overdone and this is when it most jars with me. However, I think a mix of the two can also work in one piece of writing – depending on which emphasis you are choosing to take, as you say, it can heighten immediacy and engagement, whereas the past tense is more suited to reflection and the historian’s own analysis, yet you have to maintain a real keen awareness when writing in this way. But, when all’s said and done, if the piece flows and makes sense – that’s the key thing.

    • PS – I meant to add that I’m the same as Alison when I get sucked into what I’m writing, then re-reading it later I find I’ve slipped into the present tense & often have to “translate” it back.

      (Just found your blog btw, and glad I did too! Looking forward to reading through your other posts)

  3. The Trickster Prince
    September 6, 2013

    I think you’re right about moving between tenses / voices and the importance of ensuring that writing flows and makes sense. What’s interesting in this case is that there don’t seem to be any hard and fast rules on what works and what doesn’t. As much as *like* what writing in the historical present allows us to do, I recognise the number of times that it can be excruciatingly awful.

    Hope you enjoy the rest of the blog! There’s a lot of fluff in there so fingers crossed you can find the decent bits.

  4. benjaminthomaswhite
    September 6, 2013

    In French, the historical present is the standard tense used for historical narrative. “En 1918, l’armée française est la meilleure du monde”—that particular example, the first that sprang to mind, happens to come from an exceedingly reactionary biography of the exceedingly reactionary generalissimo, Maxim Weygand. Here’s another one, from a blog on contemporary Algerian history (coincidentally run by a good friend of mine): “Le 24 mars 1957, la presse annonce la mort à Alger de l’avocat Ali Boumendjel, d’une chute du 6e étage du bâtiment où il était retenu par les parachutistes.”

    These are quite disconcerting for the anglophone reader: ‘In 1918 the French army is the best in the world’; ‘On 24 March 1957 the press announces the death in Algiers of the lawyer Ali Boumendjel, of a fall from the 6th floor of the building where he was being held by the paratroopers.’ It would be interesting to know why French historiography typically uses the historical present, and English historiography the past. Literary narratives in French, as in English, are most commonly composed in the past tense—often, though perhaps decreasingly, a simple past tense which is only used in writing, never in speech.

    My PhD supervisor underlined quite a few bits in the first ‘proper’ chapter I sent him that were in the present, and told me to change them. They were all places where I was commenting directly on the content of some source texts (newspaper articles, as it happens), and—though I’m happy enough to have changed them—I still think the present tense worked for that task. After all, logically that article from al-Ayyam still does describe refugees as ‘infiltrators’; that editorial from al-Qabas still does make an argument about the Syrian national territory without any references to the wishes of its inhabitants. Focusing closely on the content of the sources, I wasn’t constructing a narrative of past events. All of which is to say that I used the present tense in exactly the same kind of way you did, and for the same reasons!

  5. Christopher T. George
    July 27, 2014

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people posting genealogical information will write, “11 July 1904, Joe Blogs is born at St. Pancras. In 1923, he is living in Spitalfields with wife Marjorie and son Terry, 2, and daughter Meg, 1.” This is all very well but it often becomes a mix and match when past tense starts to be used by the same writer, making me wonder why use present tense for the genealogical data.

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