Letting the evidence lead

Letting the evidence lead image

I’m deep off into transcribing parts of a ship master’s log. There’s the early, painful period of learning the writer’s handwriting (which in this case is particularly bad), and with any eighteenth-century script, learning the orthography, frequently by comparing one weird character to a similar one somewhere else in the text, thinking about context, until finally it clicks and you say “oh, it’s a Q!” I’m past that; it’s uncommon now that he stumps me. And, since I’m accustomed to the pattern of the content, and of his phrasing, I can transcribe pretty fast, despite the complete lack of punctuation and proper capitalization.

So, with the actual work now just being a matter of getting through it, and being careful, my brain has time to think about what to do with it. I’ve found myself thinking about how to use it, how to relate it to the secondary reading, what other primary-source material I may need, and how the book is going to take shape. Is it going to prove worth doing, or is the original purpose going to elude me, ultimately? Who’s going to publish it? How do I write it so that they will?

After I knocked off work yesterday, and had a little Brain Adjustment Juice (rum), I told myself to back off of all that. I reminded myself that we work like scientists; we have to let the evidence lead us where it will. Let the sources speak whatever they have to tell. We can’t do that if our own noise is getting in the way in our heads. It takes courage; we’re turning over control of the process to people who died over two hundred years ago, the only remains of whom are the scratchings on these pages, and what those scratchings represent and convey to us from across all that time and disparity of experience. If we’re going to hear all that, we have to be quiet and listen carefully. We can’t analyze the data until we have the data. We don’t impose our preconceived agendas on the evidence. The evidence may well demand a revision of any such agendas. That’s OK; that’s how we write good history.

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