Assignment 1: Reading the Historians

“It is to the common interest of all Americans that the Chicago dynamiters be hung.”
    —Theodore Roosevelt

Before actively exploring the artifacts digitized at the American Memory and Chicago Historical Society archives on the Haymarket Affair, we’ll familiarize ourselves with how two historians have narrated the events of Haymarket and analyze the claims each historian makes about the Affair.

1) Under “Course Documents” read both Richard Suskind’s “World Shuddered as Blood Flowed in the Haymarket” (Smithsonian 1971) and Lesley Wischmann’s “Remembering the Haymarket Anarchists: A Hundred Years Later” (Monthly Review 1987).

Each of these historians will provide an overview of the Haymarket Affair, from riot to trial to executions, but you should also read them with a sense of skepticism.  We often tend to view history as being more objective than subjective—that is, the historian reports only the facts of what happened.  However, as Hayden White has pointed out, historians construct claims about their subject—create stories from historical fact—through how they choose to present
material and the language in which they present it. 

White says this in Metahistory:
It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by “finding,” “identifying,” or “uncovering” the “stories” that lie buried in chronicles; and that the difference between “history” and “fiction” resides in the fact that the historian “finds” his stories, whereas the fiction writer “invents” his.  This conception of the historian’s task, however, obscures the extent to which “invention” also plays a part in the historian’s operations.  The same event can serve as a different kind of element of many different historical stories, depending on the role it is assigned in a specific motific characterization of the set to which it belongs.  The death of a king may be a beginning, an ending, or simply a transitional event in three different stories. (7)
In short, according to White, by the process of filtering through extant artifacts, much like the ones now available in digital archives, the expert historian makes up a narrative by which we are to make sense of events.

Thus, as you read Suskind's and Wischmann’s accounts of Haymarket, be attentive to how each narrates the story of the bombing, its causes, and its effects. 

Your main concern should be to answer the following questions:
  • What is the primary thesis or claim of each article?
  • What significant subsidiary or supporting claims are made?
  • Do the authors reveal the bases for their claims so that you can check them?
  • Where are the authors presenting "fact" and where "Interpretation"?
In addition, comparing and contrasting answers to such questions as the following in a kind of mental grid should also help to reveal the constructedness of each narrative:
  • To whom does each historian seem to be sympathetic?  
  • Who are the victims in each story—the Chicago police, the workers, the anarchists?  
  • Who are the instigators?  
  • Are there heroes?  villains?
  • In what context does each historian construct the story of Haymarket? 
  • What background is given for the confrontation?
  • Where do the accounts begin and end?  why?
  • Do the accounts cover the exact same events?  Are there incidents or people in one account but not the other?
  • How would you describe the language, the tone of the articles?  Are there changes in language at certain points?
  • Are there pivotal points in the narratives?  Are there climaxes?  In other words, is there plot movement of some kind?
  • Does the publication date of each article have any bearing on the nature of the account?
  • What is the purpose of each account?
  • What does each historian see as the significance of the Affair for the present?
  • Do the authors presuppose any knowledge or pre-conceived attitudes on the part of their audiences?
  • What response does each historian want from his readers?  
  • Where would you place each historian on an axis of objectivity <----> subjectivity?
  • Can you tell when you are receiving "fact" and when "interpretation"?
  • Does "anarchy" mean the same thing for both historians?  Do they feel the same way about it?
2) After you’ve completed the readings, go to the "Suskind and Wischmann" forum on the discussion board, where you will find the class divided into two or three groups.

Your post should have two parts:

  • First, using one of the prompts above or ideas of your own, compare and contrast the two historians on one or two very specific points.
  • To increase the pool of knowledge within your group, read what's already on the board (if anything) and post on a different point (or points).  
  • Please take care that the subject line of your post is not flabby or general but clearly identifies your content.
  • Second, in a final, separate paragraph specify two or three claims (not all from the same historian if possible) that you would like to test in the archive or, perhaps better yet, that you feel need to be tested if you are to rightly understand the Affair. 
  • To increase the testing pool, once again be aware of what others have already posted and try not to duplicate.
  • As usual with us, read other posts as time permits, but reply thoughtfully to the post of at least one other person (if at all possible, reply to a person you haven't replied to before and who hasn't received a reply).
  • Consider an addendum to your post as a result of reading others.
"If it is absolutely essential that seven men hang, the American people could better
afford to sacrifice the seven judges of the Illinois Supreme Court than the condemned."

---George Francis Train