What is the summary for After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This book is extremely difficult to summarize because it is, in a sense, more than fifteen different books.  This book is divided up into a number of chapters about things that are as different as the early uses of photography and the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.  Thus, any summary will necessarily have to gloss over most of the book’s content.

In the Introduction to the book, (p. xiv in my copy), the authors say that they are trying to write a book that is very different from a textbook.  They do not want to write a book that offers an overview of American history.  Instead, they want to write using what they call “an apprentice approach.”  They want to show how history is done by looking at a number of episodes from American history.  In doing so, they hope to show how historians do their work, but they also hope to make history more interesting by telling stories.  They say (p. xiv) that historians tend to lose the general public “when they forget that good history begins with a good story.”  Therefore, the authors are trying to use good stories to illustrate how historians do their work.  They do so using eighteen separate vignettes (one in the Prologue and one each in of the seventeen chapters of the book).

Beyond this, it is impossible to summarize this book’s message in a reasonable space.  Each episode that the book discusses leaves us with many different lessons.  For example, we are told in the Prologue that historians cannot simply transmit the past to the present because they have to choose which parts of the past to transmit.  This can be harder than it seems because it is very had to determine which details of the past are relevant.  As another example, in the chapter entitled “Huey Generis,” the authors discuss the “great man theory” of history and the degree to which they believe that it is a useful way of looking at history.  Given that there are many chapters in the book, each with a variety of lessons, it is impossible to summarize the book other than to say that it is an attempt to make history more interesting while demonstrating how historians do their work.

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