What is history?
The connection between history and storytelling
As a trained historian who’s been dabbling in history writing here and on my new Substack Unseen St. Louis, I’ve been pondering for a while how history and storytelling go hand in hand. In this week’s edition of Story Cauldron, let’s consider the question: what is history?
As to the above image—there aren’t really any depictions of female historians in the Getty image library, so I settled for a 14th-century fresco by the Florentine artist Andrea di Cione di Arcangelo, better known as Orcagna. I’m imagining the woman who’s casually holding a parrot is recounting a scandalous story from the past.
What is history?
People think of history as someone putting together a string of past events, indisputable moments in time, into a pleasant narrative.
Coming out of a 19th-century desire to understand and classify everything, history was understood as a scientific accounting of “what happened.” Historical accounts needed to be based on factual, indisputable data, and needed to be ‘objective.’ There could only be a single impartial and true historical narrative, and any deviation from that narrative could only be possible with new information that could better explain what we already knew to be true.
But that’s not what history is, and it’s not really what it has ever been. Here’s part of what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:
late 14c., "relation of incidents" (true or false), from Old French estoire, estorie "story; chronicle, history" (12c., Modern French histoire), from Latin historia "narrative of past events, account, tale, story," from Greek historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one's inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative," from historein "be witness or expert; give testimony, recount; find out, search, inquire," and histōr "knowing, expert; witness," both ultimately from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- "to see," hence "to know."
It is thus related to Greek idein "to see," and to eidenai "to know." Beekes writes of histōr that "The word itself, but especially the derivations ... that arose in Ionic, have spread over the Hellenic and Hellenistic world together with Ionic science and philosophy."
As this definition of history suggests, the concept of ‘history’ is not a scientific thing at all, but instead is a story of the past. And what story hasn’t been colored and shaded by the storyteller?
What this means is that, whenever you engage with history, you should ask, ‘why does this exist?’ Whether it’s a documentary, a history book, a website article, or a museum exhibit, it’s important to know who made it and why.
Why I like history
Like many people, I grew up with the notion that “history is written by the victors,” a quote inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill. The idea is that it is those who win the wars, conquer the territory, and win elections that get to decide which stories get told. Most people can name at least a handful of presidents of the US—but how many can name their opponents?
In school, the history textbooks told the story of the growth of Europe, westward expansion, colonialism, and the wars that countries fought along the way, often against indigenous people. But I always found that boring. To me, history is not about memorizing a list of kings and wars, but understanding how people lived their daily lives and how societies have changed over time.
As a graduate student twice, I gravitated instead to cultural history. I wanted to know what people thought, what they believed, and what they told each other. Along the way, what I discovered was that history ultimately is about patterns: human beings have this insane way of doing the same things over and over again, largely because they don’t remember how things worked out in the past.
The role of story in history
I’m a storyteller fascinated in history. Every historical event is, at its heart, a story to be told.
There will always be the ‘official’ story, the one told by leaders with power and influence, as reported in the media. But those storytellers rarely tell the story of the ordinary people, and never fairly report stories of people opposing that power.
When I engage with historical materials, I like to tease out a different version of that story. It might have some of the same historical markers—dates, important people, major events. But there are other stories that can be told by focusing whenever possible on ordinary people and how they lived.
When historians look back on the past couple of years, do you think they will get a fair idea of what it was like to live through the pandemic if they only look at what the presidents and governors and major organizations had to say about events? Or will they need to look at the stories coming out of hospitals and nursing homes, and how we all lived for years in fear of public spaces and at each other’s throats over masking and immunizations?
My current historical work
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve started a second Substack called Unseen St. Louis in which I focus on lesser-known moments in St. Louis history. As I dig into the history—most of which was never taught to me in school—I see how modern St. Louis is the product of its former position as a leading industrial city. Thousands and thousands of people moved here in the 19th and early 20th century looking for jobs, creating unique challenges for the St. Louis area that it continues to struggle with to this day.
To this end, recently I wrote about the Kerry Patch, a very large settlement of Irish people fleeing the Great Hunger. I also examined a notorious housing project in St. Louis that was long cast as so dangerous place that the city had to shut it down—only to find out that it actually failed because the city (and the federal government) never allocated sufficient funds and resources into its upkeep and security. I also dug into a boundary between cities in St. Louis county that was constructed to keep a Black community separate from a white one.
So circling back—what’s my ‘why’ in this equation? Why do I choose to tell these stories?
I guess it’s important to me that people have some sense of history. Like I said before, it’s helpful to know what happened in the past so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. And where St. Louis is concerned, I believe that if we don’t examine what happened in the past, we’ll never be able to move forward.
If you’d like to check out my recent history articles, I’ve linked them below:
Part of the reason I created Story Cauldron in the first place was to highlight my fiction. While I don’t have a new story to share, I did want to note that I was interviewed for the Serial Fiction Show! In a two-part podcast (one for readers, and a second for writers), I talk about my Favor Faeries series, available here and on Kindle Vella and what it’s like to be a writer, why I write about faeries, and more. Be sure to check it out!
And as always, thanks for reading Story Cauldron. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe.
I have been involved in a largish history bookclub for a long time. It is always fun to hear someone else's take on what history is. Different biases definitely afflict us members when we annually vote on the books for next year. There is a healthy tension as we almost exclusively puruse non-fiction titles. For me, the books that splinter our group the most are the ones that attempt to take on something that happened a longer time ago. Consistent scholarship, research get pretty hard based upon the region and it gets close to conjecture and opinion IMO. In the same way that you capture stories of St. Louis and surrounding, our group seems to enjoy the books that capture historical happenings in the upper Midwest or Minnesota specifically.
Nice writing and opinion.
You quite correctly said that historical accounts can vary. Often people see and recall that which they want to see and recall.
I think some of the insights from psychology and psychoanalysis may be pertinent. Scientists of the psyche have realized, for well over a century, that we will forget the truth, or mask the truth with lies, because it is too unpleasant. For example, in “Three Studies of Hysteria” (Freud 1899) it was found that in hysterical blindness (the patient cannot see even though she does not suffer from any organic defects in the eyes) the patient stopped seeing because what she had seen was too disturbing (She had witnessed her parents having sex.) Sometimes, the truth is distorted because it is too painful. For example, if A is discomfited because A is sexually attracted to B, he may instead contend that B is sexually attracted to A.
In unraveling psychological disturbances, doctors have found it imperative to uncover the truth (Of course, plenty of doctors now contend that your life experiences are irrelevant and that every emotional aberration is a manifestation of biochemical quirks), but at the same time the truth is so damn elusive.
For example, my Mother was perhaps the most brilliant novelist who had never written a damn thing. She gave me multiple accounts of her childhood, sometimes telling me she slept with her sister in a very tiny room (there was a shortage of space), sometimes telling me that that tiny room was occupied by her brother, sometimes telling me that her brother slept with his mother in the one large room in the house, etc. She always told me that her parents disparaged her, doubted her, even perhaps detested her, but her brother reports that their father expected her to be a brilliant chemist. How many female children were encouraged to be chemists in the 1930’s ??
Some psychologists have contended that traumas can have a deleterious impact on our psyche, but what traumas count and why. For example, a person might have experienced 1000 incidents in childhood in which he was harassed or dismissed or humiliated. Which incidents will he recall when he talks to his therapist? Will the therapist encourage to patient to recall only those incidents which fit in with the therapist’s biases re sex, race or class? Will the most troubling incidents be forgotten because sometimes we bury the most unpleasant incidents (And what is buried is never completely buried. Like spirits rising from the grave, the repressed. terrifying incidents make themselves known in the symptomology of psychiatric disease.)
I think the tendency to forget that which is disturbing is very much in evidence in this country in race relations. And in more way that you think.
For example, I think we all know that we have buried unpleasant aspects of race relations in our tendency, up until the modern civil rights movement, to prettify the status of black people. For example, I have seen psychiatric texts, from the 1920’s, which said that black people had more epilepsy that white people because they no longer benefited from the security of slavery. I recall an article, in a psychiatric journal, that said the lack of freedom consistent with slavery gave the slave the security of constancy and that the slave felt protected as an infant in swaddling clothes felt protected. I also recall a film, from the 1950’s, that offered marketing advise to businessmen. which encouraged business people not to overlook the huge and growing market of affluent black Americans. We constructed a history of lies to camouflage the awful, incriminating truth.
However, I found that the left also forgets that which it wants to forget insofar as race is concerned. For example, we all know that racists have sought to deny blacks the right to vote. However, I read an article, in "The New Yorker" in 2001, which said that the State of Alabama, in the early Twentieth Century, was concerned that their restrictions on black voting might be adjudged unconstitutional. Alabama came up with a brilliant plan to deny blacks the right to vote which would not be violative of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution. Alabama simply passed a statue which said that in order to vote one had to have 10,000 dollars in cash assets, a rather princely sum in 1905. Very simply, in order to suppress black voting, Alabama, and soon other Southern states, suppressed all voting by poor people. I thought of this when I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” in which he said that most political scientists, essayists and thinkers are unmindful that a huge swath of American society lives like peasants, never thinking of voting, suffering a paucity of money, education and confidence. But we are usually oblivious to this because the American hostility toward class consciousness makes us blind to poverty and construct lies everywhere, in sit coms such as “Leave it to Beaver” which pretends that we are all merrily ensconced in sweet suburban homes.
Also, the left sometimes buries those parts of our history which shows that blacks were given special privileges because they were second class citizens. For example, courts used to say that a white defendant could not claim “contributory negligence” if he was sued by a black man for personal injury.
Contributory negligence is a doctrine which holds that a Plaintiff cannot be awarded money, for personal injury, if he, the Plaintiff, did something stupid which caused the accident. For example, Plaintiff might not be able to collect from a Defendant automobile driver because he was contributorily negligent when he ran into the highway and started dancing.
Southern courts formerly held that white people could not avoid liability, by claiming that blacks were contributorily negligent, because, the Courts held, black people could not help being stupid. However, this aspect of our history is forgotten and, consequently, we overlook the possibility that some of our “liberal ,” remedial programs might perpetuate disabilities which afflict black people. For example, I know of clinics, with a predominantly black clientele, in which AIDS patients, before being prescribed medicine, are given M & M candies for a week or two so they can practice swallowing pills at a certain time of day.