Why was George Washington dismayed by the outcome of the American Revolution?
Would slavery still exist if the South had not seceded from the Union in 1861?
Might socialists govern America today if Teddy Roosevelt had not run for President in 1912?
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. 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 racial segregation inevitable? Was the Cold War necessary? Americans have repeatedly asked these sorts of questions as they examined the consequences of their choices and considered new options.
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. 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. 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 can amplify the meaning of a book 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 emerge fully formed from authors’ brains like Athena from the skull of Zeus. 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.