The historical imagination

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I recently picked up a copy of Edmund Wilson’s book To the Finland Station. The book itself is a bit of a curiosity these days, the author’s 1930s hero-worship of communism looking decidedly naive. But this edition contains a wonderful foreword by Louis Menand, which explores the use of the imagination in writing history. Here’s an excerpt:

Writing history is an imaginative act. Few people would deny this, but not everyone agrees on what it means. It doesn’t mean, obviously, that historians may alter or suppress facts, because that is not being imaginative; it’s being dishonest. The role of imagination in writing history isn’t to make up things that aren’t there; it’s to make sensible the things that are there.

Menand points out how, since our knowledge of the past comes largely from written documents, historians are ‘almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you have set out to represent.’
Indeed. Imagination is the only way we can breach this wall of print (or in the case of first century Jerusalem, wall of papyrus.) Without the imagination, history is just a jumble of facts and dates, names and places, and millions of bits of old pottery. With a bit of imagination, however, those shards can gather together, the bones in the grave can come to life.

Imagination isn’t necessarily ‘making things up’. It can also be making things real.