We are all storytellers and seekers of meaning in our lives. Historians and fiction writers both tell stories, but they have different starting points. A fiction writer may start by asking “what if” some situation happened. (See Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, a fun read.) A historian must ask “what happened.” (Thanks, Prof. Marysa Navarro.) The journalist also asks that question, but has a deadline, and maybe limited space in the paper. The historian’s job is to add context and perspective to what happened.
The PBS documentary on Hemingway said he thought reporters had to start each day forgetting about what happened the day before. I think historians remember. They learn and are expected to know about what happened in the past. And then they write about it.
There were plenty of examples of the historian's role during the New England Historical Association's virtual conference on April 10 -- thirty one panels of about 100 historians telling stories and trying to add meaning in our lives. Great job! Some panels dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic. While trained to avoid “presentism” (just looking at things from how they are today) historians also recognize “the silence of the archives” where there is little or no material to work with. So, during the past year, historians have been collecting materials – journals, photos of Covid-related signs next to roads and houses, articles – so that we can later understand better what happened during the pandemic.
Image by Friedrich, c.1818, used on cover of Gaddis, The Landscape of History (Oxford University Press, 2002)