Zoom in or zoom out? How much background or context does a true narrative provide? It’s a question of craft and purpose. In Born in Blackness (2021), Howard French traces the transatlantic slave trade to Portugal’s quest for African gold. As I’ve written before, the story begins where the storyteller begins it. The same holds for the ending: Juneteenth? Jim Crow? This week?
Historians deal in evidence and interpretation. Truth or falsehood rests large on evidence; interpretation is better described as persuasive or weak. Evidence can be mixed. The late Professor Geoff Blodgett recalled serving as ship’s historian during a naval battle in the Korean War. Interviewing sailors the very next day, he found that every one of them recalled the battle differently.
History is neither an art nor a science, Blodgett told us. It is a craft. In the mystery novels of my leisure reading, crime scene photographers document a scene at many scales and angles. In history, the more different angles we can see from, the closer we come to understanding what happened and why.
Image: (left) Cropped by me, from (right) Monarch flying away from a Mexican sunflower. Wikimedia Commons (license).
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.