1st Edition

Histories of the Self
Personal Narratives and Historical Practice

ISBN 9780415576192
Published June 26, 2018 by Routledge
202 Pages

USD $46.95

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Book Description

Histories of the Self interrogates historians’ work with personal narratives. It introduces students and researchers to scholarly approaches to diaries, letters, oral history and memoirs as sources that give access to intimate aspects of the past.

Historians are interested as never before in how people thought and felt about their lives. This turn to the personal has focused attention on the capacity of subjective records to illuminate both individual experiences and the wider world within which narrators lived. However, sources such as letters, diaries, memoirs and oral history have been the subject of intense debate over the last forty years, concerning both their value and the uses to which they can be put. This book traces the engagement of historians of the personal with notions of historical reliability, and with the issue of representativeness, and it explores the ways in which they have overcome the scepticism of earlier practitioners. It celebrates their adventures with the meanings of the past buried in personal narratives and applauds their transformation of historical practice.

Supported by case studies from across the globe and spanning the fifteenth to twenty-first centuries, Histories of the Self is essential reading for students and researchers interested in the ways personal testimony has been and can be used by historians.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction ‘Things happen in your life, you see, you never know what is going to happen’ Terminology The turn to the personal Archives Structure of the book Chapter 2. Historians’ Uses of Letters Reading letters for fact Letter-writing as a social and cultural practice: the case of war letters Gender and the letter Epistolary constructions of the self Conclusion Chapter 3. Historians and the Diary The diarist as observer The diary as a ‘technology of the self’ Gender and the diary: the making of masculinity Contradictions and incoherence The diary and the psyche The diary and privacy The public and the private Conclusion Chapter 4. Autobiography, the Memoir and the Historian Reading memoir for fact Reading for subjectivity Gendered subjectivities and models of autobiography The present meets the past Audience Rethinking the past for the present Conclusion Chapter 5. Oral History and Historical Practice Reliability and the cultural turn Public discourse, gender, and personal recall Personal memory and popular culture Evasions and silences Conclusion Chapter 6. Representativeness Historians and the sample Cultural criteria of selection The luminosity of the single case The exceptional normal Conclusion Chapter 7. Conclusion Authenticity Multiple genres Alternative genres and new directions

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Penny Summerfield is Professor Emerita of Modern History at the University of Manchester. She is the author of numerous publications using a range of genres of personal narrative, notably Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War (1998) and Contesting Home Defence: Men, Women and the Home Guard in the Second World War (2007).


'In recent years the personal narrative has moved to the heart of historical research. Driven by the cultural and emotional "turns", historians seek to understand the relationship between the intimate and the public, developing a wide range of methodological approaches to their analysis of personal testimony. As a leading scholar in the field, Summerfield proves an invaluable guide to the ways that individuals have tried to make sense of their experiences, and how historians can approach these "histories of the self" as a means of, themselves, making sense of the past.'

Lucy Noakes, University of Essex, UK 

'The book provides an accessible introduction to the varied ways in which historians have drawn on letters, memoirs, diaries and oral history to write histories of ordinary people in often extraordinary times. A particular strength is its focus on issues of gender, sexuality, class and race.'

Lisa Kirschenbaum, West Chester University, USA

'In an age of personal testimony, this book is essential reading for historians and students. Summerfield expertly analyses and clarifies the ways in which historians have used personal narratives and dealt with issues of authenticity, reliability and representativeness. More nuanced understandings of the value of individual stories, and the relationship between personal experience and public discourse, increasingly permeate society. In this timely book Summerfield makes it clear that they are essential for our understanding of the past, in all its complexity and diversity.' 

Dr Carole Holohan, Assistant Lecturer in Modern Irish History, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

'The turn to the self has been a major feature of recent historical work. Penny Summerfield's new book, presented with clarity, measured judgement and a wealth of examples, provides an indispensable and authoritative guide to the variety of ways in which historians have made use of personal testimony to explore the history of selfhood.'

James Hinton, Emeritus Professor, University of Warwick, UK