What comes to mind when James wants to write, he commented in March, is his life experiences mixed with current events.
Current events only matter because they affect life experience. Some effects are dire: reservists sent into combat, undocumented families torn apart, invalids denied insurance. Others are a matter of awareness and memory. Most American adults remember where they were when they heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers in 2001, or—if they’re old enough—President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Forty-eight years ago today, President Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Protests erupted. The Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State University students dead that Monday. Effects rippled out. A mother couldn’t cross town to pick up her toddler from day care because riots blocked the streets. Another couldn’t find campus housing for her returning veteran spouse because college offices closed in the wake of the crisis.
Such experiences, largely unrecorded but seared into the memory of those involved, are the collateral damage of major public happenings. They’re partial answers to the question, what was it like to be there? Letters, diaries, and oral histories offer precious clues rarely captured in history books. Historical imagination helps fill in the blanks.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.