In the latest issue of the History Workshop Journal, 65(1), Mark Salber Phillips turns to examine a trend in post-1960s history writing: describing the past according to “what it was like” to be there, at that moment in time, rather than what happened to whom when.
This essay pursues a double purpose. In its larger context, the essay follows up on a set of earlier, more theoretical investigations in which the idea of “distance” is advanced as a tool for analyzing the variety of ways in which historians have sought to mediate the “then” and the “now” of history. More particularly, the essay proposes that one of the characteristic features of recent historical writing (as well as other forms of representation) has been its strongly affective way of approaching the past. In fact, much historical thought since the 1960s has been devoted to exploring affective issues, not simply as an important thematic for historical writing, but more profoundly as a privileged way of constructing a relationship to the past. This historical sensibility is moved by a relatively novel curiosity since it is often less concerned with what happened and why, as with what it was it like to be there. Focusing on a few examples of this approach – especially Marion Kaplan’s Between Dignity and Despair, Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight, and Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men – the essay explores some of the ethical tensions inherent in empathetic engagement. [Order reprints here.]