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A Beginning, a Middle, and an End: The Difference between Chronology and History
06 / 24 / 15 | By: Ken Durr
Everyone knows that history is supposed to provide a solid record and perhaps even teach us something. We also know that a compelling history is, above all, a good story. But how to create it?
There is an old saw, “life is one damn thing after another,” which occasionally gets sharpened up and applied to history. At History Associates, we are sometimes asked to enliven a story that was written in the belief that if you collect all of the information and put it all in order, you’ll end up with a history. But you don’t, you get something closer to a chronology—in modern parlance, a “bullet list” of past events. A chronology is a useful tool but a miserable read.
Contrary to popular opinion, a good story never “writes itself.” Writing history is, in fact, a creative act. The historian collects things, anecdotes, descriptions, details, and facts—lots of facts—but she does not line them up and be done with it. Instead, doing history means being selective: which facts are the telling ones? Which anecdotes ring true (and can be corroborated) and which are themselves a product of imagination? Which statistics drive home a point and which are just numbers? Along with the selections come other decisions—which points to hammer hard on, which to soft pedal?
So how does the historian decide what to use or what to emphasize? This gets to what is mysterious and challenging about history and what makes it, at least in part, an art: the historian must necessarily create his own special version of the past and make it live in the pages of a book. To give that version of the past unity, impact, and meaning, historians usually employ an overarching approach depending on the time in which they write, the materials at hand, and their own particular convictions.
The philosopher Friedreich Nietzsche (who thought hard about this, among other things) identified three types of historical writing: monumental, antiquarian, and critical. Academics often produce critical history—ruthlessly examining past events in light of current knowledge and present values to take long-gone actors and their actions to task. Antiquarians write out of fascination with past conventions and artifacts—what is important to them is just how different things were. The monumental historian works to highlight something or someone which he believes future generations should never forget. Lots of popular works have employed this approach, from heroic company histories of the early-to-mid-20th century to currently ubiquitous tales of “greatest generation” exploits.
While some professional historians fully embrace one or the other of these strategies, most adopt elements of all three. They also employ plenty of other tactics to add reinforcement to their bags of tales: irony or metaphor, organic or mechanistic explanations, to name a few.
Ultimately, however, a historian who can tell a tale knows the basics of plot: character development (show people and their institutions learning over time); and tension and release (build up escalating problems, recount their resolution, and show how that resolution builds to new problems). The chronologist, for whom one fact is as good as another, will reject all of these methods of emplotment. The skilled historian will wield them effectively to tell a good story with a dramatic arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Published in our HAIpoints newsletter.
Categories: Company Histories