“Making of a Historian”

I wrote this brief essay for a Historiography course. It reflects on one spectacular children’s book which helped spark my interest in history.

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When I was about five or six, someone gave me a copy of the Smithsonian Children’s Encyclopedia of American History. It was a hefty book, with a thick cover that featured Neil Armstrong standing atop the Moon. Across 300 pages, it traced the course of the American nation, beginning with profiles of pre-contact indigenous peoples and carrying on through the centuries until it reached an image of the Twin Towers ablaze on September 11. From the earliest days I could read, or perhaps before, I perused it constantly. I brought it with me to school and on car trips, and I opened it up whenever I was bored or excited or interested or confused. After a while, I had many of its passages practically memorized. The encyclopaedia was far from the only historical text I relished as a kid, but my enjoyment of it made history a core part of my identity, and set me on a course to pursuing the subject professionally.

I think what first drew me into the book were its pictures. Almost every page of the text featured a large and typically colorful image, often splayed across the crease with text bounding in and around it. Some pictures portrayed high drama: Columbus laying claim to the New World, the British surrender at Yorktown, and Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing as Jack Ruby shot him. Others were more amusing, like a sketch of the peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant. Perhaps most intriguing were the images whose meaning I could not quite grasp for some time, like a panorama of the AIDS Memorial Quilt or the capture of Nat Turner. Though the emotions they generated ran the gamut from joy to sorrow, the images built a vivid world of larger-than-life characters and places even before I had the reading skills to parse them all. But what the encyclopaedia had, and which few other texts could offer, was a claim to “realness.” The scenes it depicted were not fantastical like cartoons or ordinary children’s books; they were drawn from the same world that I inhabited, a world in which I could someday participate on equal terms with the characters of the past. The images did not just transport me to a different, engaging space- they got me excited and interested in a world that was distinctly mine.

Not too long after getting the encyclopedia, I was able to read most of it. Once I could decode its text, the book became not just explorational, but explanatory. Its meta-narrative taught me how the nation I lived in came about, and its various discussions of economics, civil rights, and politics explained why the people around me behaved and related to each other as they did. In a sense, its chapters on the twentieth century served as a biographical sketch of every adult I encountered, whose background I could always frame around my general knowledge of the American collective past. The book also helped me grasp the story of my specific community. Living in the D.C. suburbs, I recognized many of the places and spaces described in the book, which had somewhat of an East Coast and Washington-specific bent. I had visited many of the battlefields mapped out in the chapters on the Civil War, and given how often my family went to the National Mall, images and stories from the halls of government seemed familiar. Over time, the thrill of understanding I got out of the book synergized with my growing ability to comprehend it. Being well-acquainted with the basic details of the American history it told, my readings became more about putting the pieces together, using my improving reading skills to see how events connected and endowed each other with meaning. In this way, I kept learning from the book, and being drawn back to it, years after I first opened the cover.

There are no control variables in life, but my gut tells me I would have been excited by any engaging and image-heavy history of the United States that fell into my hands at five or six. Many children have similar experiences, but most do not choose to become historians. The encyclopaedia pushed me in that career direction through how it told the American story. The narrative it conveyed was not straight-forward or teleological. It did not idealize American values or offer hagiographic renderings of famous figures, but strove to present the past in all the nuance that a children-focused text can convey. It did not shy away from the good, but neither did it turn from the bad; slavery, Jim Crow, internment, and a litany of other horrors were all well-represented. If there was any message to take from this, it was that neither the greatest American triumphs and crimes could negate the meaning of the other, and that history was not about trying to assess which moral judgement is ultimately right. Incidentally, conservative Amazon reviewers hate this text for exactly that reason, criticizing its willingness to present sensitive topics to children and calling it the “Children’s Encyclopedia of Anti-American History.” But for me, this perspective made the past seem dynamic and contingent, something worthy of study and not simple consumption or indoctrination. As my desire to grasp the world through history exceeded the depth of the encyclopaedia, I naturally looked beyond it, but with the knowledge that answers I was seeking would always be complicated and loathe to fit any pre-cut narratives or notions.

In the years after I received the Children’s Encyclopaedia, I fell in love with other history books too. In particular, a used copy of European History for Dummies holds a special place in my heart, coverless and grass-stained from a year of hard reading in second or third grade. But either because of its immediate relevance or perspective, or maybe because it came first, the encyclopaedia stands out as foundational to my desire to be a historian. In fact, I have seen the text that way for a long time- I included “Getting the Encyclopaedia of American History” on a ten-entry timeline of my life I wrote for a school project in 2009. It provided a broad base of knowledge (probably enough content to pass the AP US History test) and as I learned more, its nuance-focused perspective made sure that my subsequent reading never clashed with built-in judgements about what America or history more broadly was supposed to mean. I entertain ambitions of writing a similar text someday, but in the meantime I am content to let the same mix of wonder and confusion I had when I first opened the encyclopaedia carry me into an academic career in history.

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