European languages often use the same word for “story” and “history,” but many English speakers regard these words as antonyms. But how different are they really? At The Last Word on Nothing, Ann Finkbeiner asked some practicing PhD historians for their opinions.
Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian Audra Wolfe opens the conversation with this response:
Of course histories are stories. History is the study of change over time, which means that it’s an inherently narrative enterprise, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be sure, it’s possible to write a history of a given moment in time, a more static account that tries to capture a particular Zeitgeist. But even then, the author has made certain decisions about how that moment of time is defined. Something happened beforehand, to start the era under question, and something happened at the end, to close it.
Naturally, the exchange gets more complicated, and more interesting, from there. Consider this zinger of a statement, for example, from science historian Alex Wellerstein:
“...history is not a science in any form and should not be mistaken for one.”
It’s a claim that, upon first impression, may strike you as surprising, but one for which Wolfe and Wellerstein make, at several points in the conversation, a compelling case. Here’s Wellerstein:
...the basic structure of the story/narrative is an artistic choice. Is the story I’m telling going to be a romantic or heroic one, where the protagonist wins out against the world? Or will it be something more tragic, where the world wins out against the protagonists? Or something in between, as in satires or comedies? These are all different modes for plotting a story out, and when you lay them out like this, one immediately has ideas about how they might apply to one type of historical story versus another. Nuclear history is often told in one of three different narrative veins — the “official story” is usually romantic (where the scientists, or the government, is a hero), the activist story is usually tragic (good people being poisoned, or persecuted), and the Stanley Kubrick version is essentially satiric (the whole world is crazy). Like all writers, historians who are in control of their craft ought to make these kinds of choices purposefully.
It all makes for a wonderfully fuzzy, philosophical conversation. Read the full exchange at The Last Word on Nothing.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top Image: Philip of Macedon, interior illustration from A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich.