The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave
By Leonard Todd
W .W. Norton
336pp. | $25.95
History tends to be rigidly textual--which is both a strength and a weakness. The scientific method used in other disciplines emphasizes the reproducible experiment. But historians cannot refight the Battle of Hastings or repartition 18th-century Poland while changing a single variable. What keeps us honest is a healthy commitment to written words, to timelines, to verification with multiple sources. We are lost without footnotes. In the classroom, we historians are forever shaking down another historian's account: Does this footnote prove that? How do we know he crossed the Delaware? Does this account warrant that interpretation?
Yet our text-based obsession can be a problem. A document printed a hundred or more years ago was almost certainly written by a professional intellectual: doctor, lawyer, politician, or priest. When we turn to primary documents for answers to critical questions, we find that the lived experience of most humans is lost. For instance, we have multiple accounts of the Constitutional Convention but few records of the everyday conflicts with imperial soldiers that caused the delegates to come to Philadelphia. We can talk with confidence about the Mexican Revolution, but is it possible, as Luis Gonzalez has suggested in his book San Jose de Gracia, that the sewing machine and the cancan more profoundly altered the daily lives of rural Mexicans than the revolution did? Our institutional documents about that period cannot answer the question.
Want to describe American slavery? Here's the rub. We have hundreds of thousands of slaveholders' letters, thousands of deeds, 50 or so accounts written by visitors to the South, and only two dozen or so autobiographies of escaped slaves. These autobiographies are interesting, but formulaic--some of them show evidence of careful revision by white, abolitionist, Christian editors. Beyond text, historians grow uncomfortable. We have interviews with ex-slaves made 60 years after slavery ended. Many were conducted by out-of-work white writers who called their subjects Auntie or Uncle, asked ex-slaves about the "good old days," and revised what they heard by adding their own colorful interpretations of black dialect. The texts about slavery are problematic and scarce. I use song as a source for describing black life, but songs have even worse problems. Large...