Historian Carl Becker was a prolific historian, writing extensively on the topics of how history affects everyone on a day to day basis (“Everyman his own historian”) and on what historiography is (“What is Historiography?”). These articles are invaluable tools for high school students, undergraduates and as a refresher for graduate students.
Becker’s Everyman his own historian
Carl Becker explores the definition of history and relation of history to the public in the article “Everyman his own historian.” Becker first narrows down the definition of what history is by eliminating unnecessary and ambiguous wording. The phrase he comes up with is: “History is the memory of things said and done.” This definition leads into a discussion of Mr. Everyman.
Mr. Everyman represents the common person as an actor in the creation of history. History, as defined by Becker, is constantly being created by smaller and personal consequences dealt with by Mr. Everyman. The Everyman may forget to do something but when he remembers, a slew of memories come to him and he has thus acknowledged history. Mr. Everyman deals with all of this every day and molds these memories to present and future circumstance. Mr. Everyman is on an equal standing to the professional historian in the significance of their historical work.
Becker discussed the significance of professional historian in comparison to the Everyman. Becker basically said that historians and the common person view the same events with a different lens. The common person sees it with perhaps a less educated eye but with a certain perspective that makes the event unique. Professional historians view events with biases as well, but if they do not relate history in a way that the public can understand, their work will be for naught.
Becker does a fantastic job describing history at its basic level and how it is constantly changing with time and different schools of thought.
Becker’s What is Historiography?
Carl Becker’s article on historiography is a bit obtuse to the average reader but contains within its text an interesting analysis of historiography. Becker uses as an example a book called “A History of Historical Writing” by Harry Elmer Barnes. This book sought to understand the intellectual history of the past by analyzing the works that were written in each period of academic thought. Becker uses Barnes’ book as an example of one type of historiography, which is an understanding of intellectual history.
Another type of historiography is stated as a precursor to Barnes’ book. This type is just pure annotation of all academic works, basically a listing of all works for each period. These listings of sources are invaluable to professional writers and scholars who can see that there has been work in the past on their subject of interest. These annotations also show that there is much work to be done, since each period’s scholars have a certain point of view or bias.
The third type of historiography is a more holistic approach to understanding past histories. Basically, this approach is meant to fit historical works and periods in a framework of time and space so that we can understand our present world. Past writers, scholars, and even the public have a limited scope to what they know. Future generations of academics can learn from these limitations and place these past contexts into the present. Using a “history of historians” or “history of history” is useful to expanding our perspective on what work has already been done on a particular topic. Becker does an adequate job of describing the different types of historiography.