Adventures of a Postmodern Historian: Living and Writing the Past

Robert A. Rosenstone

Professor of History Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

(London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, Sept. 2016)


Adventures of a Postmodern Historian tells a tale of how someone trained in the norms of the profession in the mid-20th Century is moved to alter his beliefs about and practices of history over the next few decades.  The reasons for these shifts are a mixture of personal desire and interests, meta changes in the social, cultural, political, and technological landscape, encounters with books and people, and the impact upon academia of new theories about the relationship between language and reality, past or present.  Such a mixture can hardly be precisely measured but it can best be explored as part of a life story that meshes the objectivity of the historian with the subjectivity of the writer of fiction.

         The book deals centers around the four sites of major projects and the books that resulted: Franco Spain, for Crusade of the Left, a history of the Lincoln Battalion; the Soviet Union forRomantic Revolutionary, a biography of John Reed; Japan for Mirror in the Shrine, a work on American sojourners in nineteenth century Japan, and Hollywood for Visions of the Past.  It is written in line with director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of drama: “Life with the boring parts left out.”  The same should apply to memoirs.   In each of our lives and careers, there is drama during the processes of research and of writing.  Yet two tendencies of the memoir detract expressing this: one is the inclusion of so much detail, so much dutiful listing of events and people, that the overall thrust of the work disappears into a welter of disparate moments and facts; the second is an avoidance of the personal, the subjective, the intimate, and the psychological in favor of the external markers of a career.  This leaves out major questions that underlie our work as historians: why do we choose the topics we do, how do we decide what approach to take towards them, how do we choose to shape our narratives, and to what extent do the experiences and physicality of the research process itself mark the works we produce.

         The sources for Adventures are standard: personal memory jogged by letters, diaries, journal entries, articles, books, and other traditional documents.  But the form is meant to challenge the boundaries of the genre and to offer suggestions for broader, more unusual literary strategies to evoke the moments and movements of the past.  Though roughly linear in structure, the book partakes of collage; each section does not necessarily follow directly from the previous one; it may overlap, or precede, or occur in a different time zone altogether.  The author’s aim is to avoid creating the past as a seamless story devoid of ambiguity, for a search for the truths of the past should allow our works to express some of the ambiguities and disconnection that marks all our lives. 

To express himself fully and to perhaps expand the possibilities of the genre, the author has written Adventures in more than one voice.  Included are the following:  An author who is not afraid to be ironic, humorous, or to describe the romantic impulses which can mark the practitioners of history.  Dialogue for conversations that took place so long ago that nobody could possibly remember the exact words spoken (the words in italics to show they are not direct quotations).  Fictional letters based on inferences and extrapolations from conversations and written documents, sent to the author by intimate friends, letters which depict and comment on his activities, rationales, and experiences in a far more critical way than can the historian, himself. Fragments from Rosenstone’s previously published works used to suggest how personal experiences can become part of the history one writes.  Reflections on our changing notions of the past, and ruminations on how the demands of literary form affect the shape of our histories.

All this may make you understand why “postmodern” is in the title of the book.  For some people the word may be problematic.  If its definitions can seem so multifarious and contradictory as to have become meaningless, the word still speaks to me of something real and important.  This is particularly true when the author ponders the differences between the intellectual, cultural, and historical climate of the sixties, when he was trained as a historian, and that of today, long after revolutions in both communications and research techniques, after the subjectivity of language has snuck back into our discourse, and after topics for historians have expanded to include the once unthinkable: sexual practices, gender identities, and non-human topics such as codfish, garbage, trees.  Adventures is in part meant to raise questions about the forms in which we tell the past, personal and social, and to suggest ways of nudging them towards the loosened sensibilities of the contemporary world.


Early Reactions to Adventures of a Postmodern Historian

Hundreds of historians have written memoirs. I promise only that you have not read one as lively or revealing as Robert Rosenstone’s. Much has changed since the 1960s, when Rosenstone happened upon history. What remains is his honesty, irreverence, passion, cosmopolitanism, and wit, all of which makes him a great writer and ideal guide to the discipline and our time. (James Goodman, Rutgers University, USA)


Just what is this thing called history? If you have ever wanted to know then this book is essential reading. Robert A. Rosenstone – novelist and experimental historian — explains what it is in this fascinating personal account of his travels through time. His takes on life and philosophy offers a brilliantly illuminating insight into how we all voyage through time and places. As he says ‘History does not exist until it is created’. This is a book that should be read if you want to understand your journey through time. (Alun Munslow, UK Editor of ‘Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice’)


Adventures of a Postmodern Historian is truly one of a kind, at once an account of Rosenstone’s intellectual journey and an incisive look at the way the profession of history and ideas about historical writing have evolved over the past five decades. “The fingerprints of our minds, souls and ideology,” he writes, “are all over our pages.” Rosenstone is a brilliant writer. His conversational tone is captivating, conjuring up for instance, the image of a never-ending dinner in Leningrad in which virtually no food (but plenty of vodka) was served, or a confrontation, as a visiting professor, with a Japanese Program Head over his refusal to give his students a final exam. Intellectually and geographically far-reaching, this book is in every sense an adventure. (Alison Landsberg, George Mason University, USA)


This is an entertaining and instructive account of how one historian assesses his own intellectual development within the wider cultural context of his time. Robert Rosenstone describes how his experiences in Franco’s Spain, Soviet Russia, Japan, and Hollywood affected his views on historians’ treatment of the past, and his engaging style should help clarify the fundamental historiographical developments of the last half-century. (Beverley Southgate, University of Hertfordshire)