by iampunha | 6/12/2008 06:06:00 AM
The 5-year-old girl who tells her father what she did at school that day is a historian.

The statistician who tabulates primary results and includes no nonmathematical analysis of those numbers is a historian.

The WPA volunteers who recorded oral histories of ex-slaves were historians. (Many of them also had degrees in English or humanities.)

The syndicated columnist who repeats half-truths, administration talking points and tortured facts is not a historian.

The soldier who takes pictures of foreign soil, writes brief captions for them and sends them home is a historian.

The Civil War re-enactor who researches the genealogy of soldiers who never saw action, of war widows who died young and never got their husbands' pensions, of Confederate slaves killed in battle, then gives the information to local libraries and historical societies is a historian.

But at a certain point, each historian above stops being a historian and starts being a storyteller. That point is reached when telling a good story becomes more important than telling the whole story.

A historian is someone who uses the scientific method in researching and writing about history. The method can be drawn out or span a second's thought.

In the two months I have been running my "Today in History" series, and in the longer time I have spent as an amateur historian of sports and language, I have learned two things I take with me wherever my research takes me:

1) I'm never, ever, ever, ever going to get the whole story.
2) If I try to pretend that I have it all, someone will embarrass me.

My research this Wednesday night is on Henry Ossian Flipper and Thomas Huckle Weller. Right off the bat, I know almost nothing directly of Flipper's childhood beyond his being a slave and his parents' jobs. Did any of his relatives escape on the Underground Railroad? Did he know Harriet Tubman (by that or a different name)? Did Weller have some relative die of one of the diseases he later fought?

Interesting questions, all. If I felt more like telling an interesting and suggestive story, I might frame them to invite the reader to consider them as plausible. But lacking any factual basis for believing there's more to those questions than just the questions (and I'll be looking later), any such maybes are conjecture.

Am I, by virtue of my egotistical little series, a historian? Sure, in the sense that someone who's good at Wii sports is an athlete. Sure, there's hand-eye coordination going on there, and there's absolutely competition, and you have to look for your opponent's strategy.

But if I can win a baseball game sitting down in my living room, I'm playing a video game, not a sport. And spending four or five hours researching one topic, and getting into barely respectable depth in the subject, gives me a passable first few pages of a junior-level paper in my chosen subject.

But oh, it's interesting! I write engagingly! I tell jokes (mostly about sex)! I make history fun!

Because that way people will actually read what I've written. Because history books are boring by default. You have to actually want to know the material to be able to plod through them. By contrast, people read me because I'm fun.

Because historians generally write for historians first and the general public second — unless they are writing to get a book sold, as opposed to merely published (in which case the writing style is more engaging and the title is sexy rather than descriptive). Most academic writing is intensely boring, partly because excitement dictates importance and emotive response, which historians are supposed to stay away from. Because I have no concerns that my editor (Jeremy, who presumably recruited me based on my writing style) will say "You need to stop being so opinionated," I can … be opinionated. I can tell you what I think. I can use my Today in History to only tangentially talk about that day in history and launch into a more general discussion of the phenomenon, as I did with my first PH entry.

I have no interest in writing like the average historian, and I have no hope of being the next great historian. I'm far, FAR too flighty to stay on one topic for more than one diary, and while I might return to certain themes (civil rights is a big one), that's only when the topic so invites.

I tell stories that are as factual as I can make them and as complete as I think is interesting (details can make stories more interesting, but they can also bog you down in trivialities and result in your waving goodbye to any sense of your narrative's flow). And that makes me a storyteller. Not a historian except on the third-year history major level. Sure, I use the scientific method, but I test my hypothesis for an hour or three, not weeks, and against what documents I can find online and in my apartment, not source documents from 1324 or Malaysia.

I'm a storyteller. And I prefer things that way.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/12/2008 1:21 PM:

Thanks for doing this -- and thanks for working around my verbal imprecision! What a great start to the symposium!