History in self-making

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Through the analysis of archives, or findings from archeology, experts are able to write history as we know it today. However, some people have used their own stories in order to participate in writing history. How do personal narratives help shape collective history?

I) Writing oneself into history

1) Actors and witnesses

In his Memoirs of the Second World War (1948-1953), Winston Churchill discusses the war from his point of view. This now famous historical work has been widely read and studied, hence shaping the way we see and understand World War II today. However, some commentators have accused Churchill of “reconstructing the story” for personal and political reasons.

In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793), Benjamin Franklin gives an account of his life in the late 18th century and of the events that led to the Declaration of Independence. Franklin emphasizes how hard he worked to succeed, participating in the creation of the myth of the self-made man which has become central in American culture.

2) Using oneself in art to remember and to commemorate

Artists such as Vivian Maier chose to bear witness to their era by capturing it through photography. However, she added self-portraits to her photographs of New York in the 1950s in which her image becomes one with the city around her.

Louis MacNeice’s poems interweave the poet’s personal life and failures with political concerns about his time in The Burning Perch (1963); emphasizing for instance the fear of the atomic bomb. MacNeice and other poets from the 1930s such as Auden and Spender, are sometimes referred to as “the Auden group”, whose works were personal, political, and critical of their time.

II) Challenging history

1) Reappropriating history

Twenty years before the abolition of slavery, Frederick Douglass, an academic and former slave, published A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) an account of his own experience of being an enslaved person. This landmark narrative fueled the abolitionist movement by making a slave narrative public.


Slave narratives constitute a literary genre which features autobiographical accounts of enslaved people.

In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (2017), Sherman Alexie reflects upon his own upbringing in a Native American reservation. By focusing on his mother’s life and character, he participates in telling the stories of Native American people today.

In the non-fiction story I Love Dick (1997), Chris Kraus uses her own experience of creating art to bring the work of female artists, which had gone unnoticed because of their gender, to the forefront.

2) Subverting history

Some artists have used their medium to mock historical symbols and criticize the actions of their governments. In 1969, Jimmy Hendrix sang a version of the Star-Spangled Banner that subverted the meaning of the anthem to criticize the ongoing Vietnam War.

In Bloody Sunday (2002), director Paul Greengrass chose to change the focus of how the Bloody Sunday events are seen by showing them through the eyes of Ivan Cooper, a politician and civil rights activist whose role was central in the events leading to the massacre. History is thus re-told not by the English, but from the point of view of the Irish who were oppressed.


The Bloody Sunday Massacre (1972) took place in Derry, Northern Ireland during a civil rights march. thirty unarmed civilians were killed by British troops.