Why was George Washington dismayed by the outcome of the American Revolution? Was the Revolution a mistake?
Would slavery still exist in the United States today if the South had not seceded from the Union in 1861 to try to protect it?
Why did Walt Disney make the wolf black and the pigs pink, and why did Dr. Seuss make Horton an elephant?
Why did Shakespeare have the ghost in Hamlet say that he spends his days in Purgatory?
Why did Melville include all those boring chapters about whales in Moby Dick?
In everyday life, we confront problems and debate options for solving them. Then we make choices and face the consequences of our choices. Often we wonder if different choices might have been better. And we consider additional choices that might make things better.
History is the same. It is full of contingencies. Just because something happened does not mean that it had to happen or that people did not have other options. Understanding history requires us to examine the plausible options that people had, the circumstances in which they made their choices, the arguments that they made about their choices, and the consequences of those choices. Most important if we are to use history to help us understand our present circumstances and the choices we face, we must explore whether a different choice might have been better.
Was the American Revolution a mistake? Was slavery helpful or harmful to the American economy? Was the Cold War necessary? These are questions that Americans debated before, during, and after the fact with respect to these events. Americans have invariably asked questions of this sort as they debated making important choices, examined the consequences of their choices, and considered new options. Revisiting the debates of the past and relating them to current debates about society can deepen our understanding of the past, and help us make good choices in the present.
In looking at literary works, we are faced with the choices that authors made, choices that were conditioned by the historical contexts within which they worked. We are also faced with the choices made by characters in their books. Interpreting literature requires us to examine the plausible options that authors had, why they made the choices they did, and whether they made the best choices. In exploring the meaning of literary works, we need to ask the same questions about choices made by characters in the books.
Why did Mark Twain revert to a racist portrayal of the slave Jim at the end of Huckleberry Finn? Why does the ghost in Hamlet say that he spends his days in purgatory? Why is Popeye’s mantra “I yam what I yam?” Exploring an author’s choices and the choices made by a book’s characters can deepen our interpretation of the book and amplify its meaning for our lives.
Conventional history often obscures the choices that people made. It leaves one with the feeling that what happened had to happen and that there was no choice. Conventional literary interpretations similarly often overlook the choices that authors made. One is left with the feeling that books spontaneously emerge fully formed from authors’ brains.
The purpose of this blog is to discuss ways in which we can look at history and literature as a process of people making choices – the same way that people in the past looked at their lives and their work, and that we look at ours. The goal is to reconsider conventional interpretations of important historical events and literary works, and to explore some of the choices we have in thinking about them.
For a discussion of Washington’s reaction to the Revolution, see my blog post “George Washington’s Lament: Was the American Revolution based on foolish expectations?” George Washington’s Lament: Was the American Revolution based on foolish expectations?
For a discussion of why slavery would likely still exist but for southern secession, see my blog post “Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Conclusion: Very likely.” Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Conclusion: Very likely.
For a discussion of the moral implications of choosing the characters in a children’s story, see my blog post “What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story.” What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story.
For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the devil, see my blog post “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.” Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England
For a discussion of whale morality and human immorality in Moby Dick, see my blog post “Whalers, Whales and Morality Tales: Voyages of Discovery in Moby Dick. What’s with all those boring whale chapters?” Whalers, Whales and Morality Tales: Voyages of Discovery in Moby Dick. What’s with all those boring whale chapters?