I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a historian for the past month or so, especially in light of several conversations I’ve had in a doctoral discussion group of which I’m a part. Some of my colleagues were affirming my ability as a historian to write about a particular topic but make that topic speak to wider issues. I was honored to receive the compliment, and it made me think about the influence Garrison Keillor has had on me as a historian.
Garrison Keillor, for those not familiar, is the host of the public radio show “A Prairie Home Companion”. As part of each show, Keillor does a segment called “The News from Lake Webegon”. Lake Wobegon is a fictional small town in Minnesota filled with lots of Norwegian Lutherans and German Catholics and other good Midwestern folks. Having grown up in a similar small, Midwestern town, I’ve listed to a lot of “News from Lake Wobegon” segments over the years.
In each segment, Garrison Keillor tells stories about the activities of Lake Wobegon’s residents over the past week, sometimes branching out in time to tell larger stories. The stories vary – some are funny, some are sad, some are poignant, some are hopeful, many are a mix of these. Although each of the stories is about particular details of the lives of particular people in a particular town in a particular part of the world, I have come to realize that Keillor’s gift as a story-teller is that through these particular stories, he’s able to talk about universal aspects of what it means to be human – what it means to love and to experience loss, to laugh and to cry, to lose and to win, to hope and to be disappointed, to live and to die.
I’m sure I’m able to appreciate these stories a bit more coming from a similar cultural background, but I’ve never thought that Keillor’s stories were only for small-town Midwesterners. Keillor may talk about what it means to be a Midwesterner, but I think for him, that’s only part of a larger picture of what it means to be human. Part of humanness is particularity, even if that particularity is being a Norwegian bachelor farmer in Minnesota.
While by no means a historian himself, Keillor has provided for me a model to which I’ve aspired in my historical writing. In my scholarship, I may be writing about particular people in a particular place and time, but I aim to have the history I write really be about what it means to be human. Even when I’m writing about Methodist missionaries in Singapore in 1885, for instance, I try to find what about those people in that situation reveals something broader about the shared human experience.
And it’s realizing Keillor’s influence on me that has finally convinced me that history really is one of the humanities. I’m a social historian, and so I draw on the work of sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and other social scientists in my history, and so for some time I’d thought there was an argument to make that history belonged in the social sciences. I’ve changed my mind, though. I have accepted for a while now that history is story-telling. It’s story-telling with some rigorous research and well thought-out methodology behind it, but nonetheless, good history is story-telling. And I think the best history is telling stories about what it means to be human, just like Garrison Keillor does. Hence, if history is really about what it means to be human, where else would we put it besides the humanities? Historians may not be poets or novelists, but if we’re fortunate, we can learn something from our more inventive storytelling colleagues like Garrison Keillor.