Exemplary or Singular?: The Anecdote in Historical Narrative


Although coming from different perspectives and periods, the two quotations above speak of the ambivalence that modern historiography has systematically displayed toward the anecdote since Voltaire. An anecdote—defined here as a short, and sometimes humorous account of a true, interesting, if minor, event—is the matrix of any (hi)story telling and the very substance of historiography. Yet, this fertile soil was also often seen as the threatening substratum from which historiography had to extract itself. After all, anecdotes are associated with rumor, legend, lack of rigor or evidence, a fascination with singularity and with aesthetic form, lawlessness, contamination with fiction, and subjectivity. As unpopular among historians, who tend to endow the phrase “anecdotal history” with condescending overtones, as it is among literary scholars who regard it as part of popular culture, this short narrative genre ranks low, surviving in the grey area of sensationalistic journalism and “faitdivers.” At a juncture when historians in the postmodern context are cautiously willing to grant it legitimacy, it may be worth exploring some origins of this ambivalence.

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