Relying on memory is a disservice to historical reporting

Historians Kyvig and Marty point out that memory is often imperfect and formed by the exigencies and prejudices of the time. To write a history or tell the story of any place by relying on memory is a mistake that does disservice to those who struggled to leave future generations something they could proudly call home.

To date, no one has written a comprehensive history of Duval County, Texas. A number of brief histories of the county and its various communities and ranches have appeared in manuscript form, but their authors wrote all of them, with the exception of a few graduate school papers, based on the personal memory and accounts as participants or descendants of participants.

Take, for example, the vital relationship between Mexican-descended and European-descended Texans. Clearly, the clash between these two groups was at the epicenter in the history of Duval County and South Texas, as a whole. To tell the story of the area based on the memory of descendants of either group would certainly result in a biased and imperfect account. The truth is that this relationship was much more complex than the simplicities that personal memory can store and tampered views can recall.

While a historian must acknowledge the fallibility of memory, he or she must not dismiss it as a source. Coupled with empirical evidence, personal memory can make a valuable contribution to history by providing context, even of people’s biases. It can also contribute greatly to the physical, familial and community attributes of the players who shaped a story and the places in which a history occurred. History done under the rigors of scholarly research can serve as a remedial tool to overcome the imperfections of memory. Using sound research methodology, a historian can examine the available evidence from a distance and can form objective conclusions about the past.

It would be a mistake to assume that even scholarly research is immune from subjectivity. The historian working under the rules of research and writing can, in fact must, apply interpretation to the available evidence. The difference is that personal and societal concerns shape the subjectivity of memory, while the subjective interpretation of a historian has its basis on research, of not only the locality under study, but also of the broader geographic, economic, political, and social events that influenced an area’s development. Subjective interpretation is vital, if a historian is to understand and convey the full story.

It is not enough to provide names of people and descriptions of places; these places and societies were shaped not by people with names but by people with ideas, yearnings, and motivations. A storyteller can only make these clear by bringing them together under a historic microscope and determining how the different organisms worked together and shaped each other. By applying empirical research methods, a historian can understand the why and how of what happened in the past.