U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are questions ok in historical writing?

I have three new primary sources I’m trying to analyze (yay! new sources!), which I received from a settlement house in England. The first is a snarky yet charming poem about solving all of life’s ills by forcing world leaders to attend a settlement house for a retreat. I’m not quite sure how to interpret it. I think the authors are being silly–poking fun at their own seriousness of purpose with which they are attending the settlement house. But at the same time, I think there is a bit of serious desire to see world tensions cease and peace come to reign. The author also (chides?) (pokes fun at?) (teases harshly?) (teases gently?) Mabel Byrd for her anger, saying that she will come to realize that what is important is what is beneath the skin–as if race problems were arising from Byrd’s point of view, rather than real historical realities.

Accompanying the poem is a song about how much all the students at the settlement house will be missed once they are gone. Byrd is included as a comrade in arms. The final new source is a extract from an essay Byrd wrote making fun of another U.S. tourist as a “Mrs. Babbitt” and her daughter. I also know that Byrd was on the student committee which wrote these three tributes to their summer at the settlement house.

So my question is–to what extent are questions ok in historical analysis. Can I say, this poem suggests that Byrd either had such camaraderie with the others at the settlement house that they could poke fun at her for her passion or so put off someone with her anger at race relations that the poet chided her. Or must I pick one and pretend that there is no other option? Or suggest both and suggest reasons why one makes more sense than the other (I think the first one makes more sense b/c Byrd was on the committee that drafted the three tributes, but I don’t think the second one is entirely eclipsed. Perhaps both are right at different levels).

One of the things I remember most strikingly about Annette Gordon Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello is that she provides much of her analysis in the form of questions and postulates. I loved that and so I adopted it. But many of the people who have read my work have encouraged me to get rid of the questions and just put forth my analysis. To what extent do I let the questions get in the way of actually analyzing my texts and to what extent do I truly believe that there cannot be a definitive analysis? (Hahahahaha I just realized I had to frame that in the form of a question as well.)

All of this and I tell my students to get rid of the rhetorical questions in their essays. Perhaps that is my answer? (hahahaha another question. Laughter and a sigh–cause I think I ask too many questions. That may be an odd statement to make, but I think I come across as less authoritative when I pose everything as a question. Look at my blog posts–almost all of them are questions. That is in part to encourage participation by you, dear readers, but it is also a problem because I come off as not very knowledgeable. But maybe I’m just sensitive because in my now defunct marriage I asked all the questions and he provided ALL the answers).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As with many things, I think that the issue of posing questions in a manuscript is a matter of proportion and taste. If it’s done too often, it undermines your authority on the subject. You can speculate without putting the problem in question form. But I do believe that inserting questions is permissible. I do it. Some issues are knotty, and it is important to explicitly convey that to readers. I’ve seen other authors—including professional historians—insert questions. If you’re unsure, plow through with your questions inserted. Then evaluate at the end whether you’ve overdone it. Plus, your journal/press editor will give you feedback. – TL

  2. Is it possible that the questions are meant to help people think the same way the author is thinking? So it’s more of a persuasive piece.
    A lot of people read historical essays or novels because they want to learn more about that time period. But everybody has a different view of that time- nothing is ever black and white. It’s why there are so many books about WWI/WWII- different politics, different theories, etc.

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