History and Identity

May 9, 2009 | 3 comments
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I recently read a short essay by Eric Hobsbawm, “Identity History Is Not Enough.” I came across it in his book On History, a collection of essays, but fortunately for you it is available online at the above link (except for the last page, for some reason). Mormonism is not mentioned, but the discussion seems to bear directly on the writing and reading of Mormon history.

After giving a pointed example to illustrate the problem, he restates it as follows.

The problem for professional historians is that their subject has important social and political functions. These depend on their work … but at the same time they are at odds with their professional standards.

The danger, of course, is that the social or political imperatives will compromise or even suppress the professional standards that ought to govern the practice of history. Hobsbawm identifies nationalism as an example of an “identity culture” and one of the prime offenders against history properly done, then uses the same quote by Ernest Renan (in a slightly different translation) that I used two months ago in a similar post: “Forgetting, even getting history wrong, is an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.”

He goes on to attack the postmodernist critique of objective history, insisting that historical evidence does truly distinguish historical narrative from the endless string of clever but ungrounded narratives produced by postmodernists.

To insist on the supremacy of evidence, and the centrality of the distinction between verifiable historical fact and fiction, is only one of the ways of exercising the historian’s responsibility …. The deconstruction of political and social myths dressed up as history has long been part of the historian’s professional duties, independent of his or her sympathies.

Mormonism, of course, is an “identity culture” as well, and thus at risk for elevating “identity history” over the real thing. The writing of LDS history raises the same issues that Hobsbawm discusses in his essay. There was a knockdown dragout historiographical fight between LDS scholars and historians in the 1980s about the status of the New Mormon History. That debate mirrored Hobsbawm’s brief defense of objective history against the postmodernist critique. Some of the discussion is accessible to the 21st-century reader in the book Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History. The upshot was that the orthodox-postmodernist critique became an enduring and useful tool in the FARMS toolkit, while historians pretty much just went on writing Mormon history. As one with sympathies that run to both sides of the debate, I’d say that both LDS scholarship of the FARMS variety and the writing of LDS history improved in quality as a result of the debate.

Where are we now? The publication of the first volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the recent publication (with the full cooperation of the LDS Church and its archives) of Walker, Turley, and Leonard’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows suggest that “identity culture” issues are not the problem they might have been once upon a time. Whatever it is, a no-holds-barred account of MMM is not “identity history.”

And all of this is good news, I think. As Hobsbawm notes, it is historians that provide the material for fashioning collective identities. When we come to refashion the Mormon identity at some point in the 21st century, we want there to be lots of good material to work with.

3 Responses to History and Identity

  1. Steve Fleming on May 10, 2009 at 9:48 am

    These are good signs but writing our history will always be a tricky process. I do not doubt that Walker, Turley, and Leonard would have a lot to say about this.

  2. Dan on May 10, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Hobsbawm has excellent thoughts on nationalism. Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” should also be considered.

  3. Bruce Crow on May 14, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Fascinating. Articles like this are why I read here. Thanks.