In this Q&A we talk with Dr Douglas Wilkie about his love of solving history puzzles and the difference between writing as a freelance and academic historian. He encourages all of us to do what we love, to research meticulously, and to tell a good story.
Dr Douglas Wilkie was born and grew up in what were once the market garden suburbs of semi-rural South Eastern Melbourne. He went to Art School and completed a Diploma of Art majoring in Photography and Stage & Set Design. Later he completed a BA at Monash University with major studies in Visual Arts and Ancient History, and minor studies in Classics, Renaissance History and Aesthetics. He then completed a BEd followed by an MEd which involved a research thesis on the history of education in the squatting and goldfields districts of Victoria between 1836 and 1862. Many years later, Douglas completed an MA thesis at Monash in which he outlined the ways in which two Vandemonian Convicts set out to re-establish their lives after they served their sentences during the 1830s and 40s. Finally, in 2014, Douglas completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne with a thesis which investigated the forgotten origins of the Victorian gold rushes of 1851. In 2014 he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. In the meantime, Douglas has been an artist, photographer, teacher of art and history, and career counsellor.
1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
The study of Art History at High School embraced everything from Prehistoric Art to Picasso—and the history of art is the visual history of society and ideas. Year 12 Modern History covered the Renaissance and Reformation and therefore investigated an era during which many of the ideas of Western Society were formed. It was between those two studies that I developed an everlasting love of art and history. I then went on to study both of these disciplines at University, and to study the practical and creative aspects of the visual arts at Art School.
2. Describe your research for us. What are the questions that inspire it? Have they changed over time, or stayed relatively constant?
My studies of history and visual arts tend to overlap, with the underlying questions being not only the eternal What, When, How and Why, but also the more challenging Why Not? For example, when I was writing my PhD I decided I needed to write a narrative of “What Happened?” before I could engage in any analysis of what happened – because until then no historian had adequately plotted out what had happened during the period under investigation. It took a bit of persuasion, but in the end my PhD was 90% narrative history. Why not?
In another example, when I was writing the life story of Madame Marie Callegari I found the traditional third-person biographical narrative rather boring, so I rewrote it in the first-person. Not my first-person voice, but that of the subject, even though she had been dead for 120 years. Again, why not? It worked. It remained a work of history and did not become historical fiction because every line was supported by meticulously researched evidence.
3. Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?
It is the stories of history itself that inspire me, rather than the subsequent historians who reshape history to conform to modern-day prejudices and politics. I enjoy good story-tellers, whether they are historians or not, who not so much inspire me, but prompt me to ask more questions and seek more answers—to investigate the extraordinary lives of otherwise ordinary people and their society; what they did or didn’t do; what they created or destroyed. Then there are the stories of Detectives and Lawyers, whether real or fictional, who follow up every trail and every red-herring, and may in the end discard 50% of what they find, but end up going to court knowing they have tried to leave no stone unturned. They present the facts of the case, as they are known, and convince the jury through the skills of persuasion that the circumstantial evidence points to either the innocence or guilt of the person being investigated. These are some of the things that influence the way I research and write. Having said that, I also read the work of many historians, and am often inspired to want to know what they left out. There is usually another story waiting to be told.
4. You have had a long career as a professional historian. What kind of work do you get commissioned to do?
Many people assume that, but I may have a surprise for you. If being a Professional Historian means being commissioned to undertake historical research and being paid to write up the story dependent upon the constraints of the budget, then the answer is never. Yes, I have taught history. Yes, I have had numerous peer-reviewed articles published in history journals. Yes, I have written numerous books and peer-reviewed book chapters on historical subjects. And yes, if an Early Career Researcher is supposedly somebody who has completed their PhD within the last four years then I fit the ECR category. However, I enjoy being in a position where I can do what I want, when I want and how I want.
5. What is your favourite thing about being an historian?
All of the above. Meeting with others who enjoy the solving of the puzzle. Sharing with others the wonderment at the achievements, the struggles, the follies and the stupidity of mankind over millennia, and wondering whether anything ever changes. We may not learn from history but it is essential that we learn about history. As Theodore Dalrymple said: “Narrative history is important because, without a sense of it, the past has no significance. And if the past has no significance the future has none and the present, being the near future’s recent past, is likewise deprived of significance. All that is left is a shallow, meaningless life in which you drift from moment to moment in search of amusement. If nothing anyone else has done is important then nothing that you can do is important.”
Too much of history is the “Big Picture” view painted with the Broad Brush. The small details, the little people, the ordinary people, the everyday events get brushed over and forgotten. We might read that nineteenth-century British expansion happened during the reign of Queen Victoria. But what about the millions of ordinary people who made it happen. For better or worse. Or that Prime Minister So-and-So was responsible for some achievement. No it didn’t. Things happen because people make them happen, and often those people are the people in the street just as anonymous as you or me.
6. Your least favourite?
Academic historians who insist that history must be written according to their rules when there may be other equally valid sets of rules. Publishers who reject your manuscript about Australian History and then tell you that your work does not fit this year’s list because they are concentrating on publishing Australian History. Editors who insist on spending more time changing your grammar and syntax to conform to their own style of prose than actually giving a decent critique of the content and argument of the article. Reviewers who insist the article is too long then ask for several hundred words more of background material on some minor point that only they did not understand.
7. How does writing history as a freelancer differ from being an academic historian? Are different skills required?
The research and writing skills are essentially the same. The difference comes with having to deal with different masters—having to meet the rules of academia, such as being published in high-ranking journals (and there has been plenty of discussion about rankings for history journals recently); or meeting the whims, budgets and deadlines of commercial clients. I have self-published many of my own history books, but I follow strict rules. For example, the manuscript must be independently peer-reviewed beforehand by at least two or three specialist academics or historians; and the finished quality must match that of any commercially published similar book. After all, despite enjoying the luxury of being able to do what I want, when I want and how I want, I do have a reputation to defend.
8. Why did you decide to do a history PhD later in your career?
I had too much to fit in before the PhD. And now that the PhD has been done, I have applied to do another. Why? Well, as I said, Why not? And what will that be about? Without prematurely revealing the detail, it will be about breaking the rules of history writing; making new rules.
9. Tell us about your website Historian Incognita.
Historia Incognita. Hidden History. Unknown History. That is what I like investigating. Forgotten Stories. Unsolved Mysteries. Historia Incognita is a door, a portal, giving access to my research and books. Academia.edu provides another doorway.
10. What is the role of the Professional Historians’ Association. How does it differ from and how does it complement the Australian Historical Association?
Fortunately there are many Historians who are members of both organisations. I am a member of both, as well as others. There might be some who define the PHA as representing practical, community-based, down-to-earth historians, and the AHA as representing theoretical, academia-based, ivory-tower historians. Most would occupy an overlapping position with interaction between the practice and theory of history. One needs to be constantly tested and challenged by the other. Academics may become too bound by theory and rules, while commissioned historians may become too bound by constraints imposed by clients and budgets. Both practical and theoretical historians need to be open to the thought processes of other disciplines, as well as being brave enough to sometimes seem quite undisciplined. I frequently apply creative problem solving skills learned during my art training to help solve historical problems.
11. What advice do you have for early career historians who want to work as professional historians?
Do what you love. Love what you do. But do your research meticulously, and then tell a good story. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box, or to challenge critics with, ‘Why not?’