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Foreword The past is like a cloud. It changes shape as we observe it. One person looking at it thinks it resembles one thing, and another sees something entirely different. Ifs an Indian head! No, it's a BMW! AU we have of the past are memory and a changing body of data and interpretation that we call history, which is not the past itself but our understanding of it. Still, history is not the softest of the soft sciences. New discoveries are made and historical knowledge does progress, if not always wisdom. Instead ofwriting old-fashioned chronicles ofwar and politics, many historians today use other disciplines such as sociology, economics, philosophy, and linguistics to ferret out the past. They pore over previously unexplored sources of information, such as tax records (a kind of document that is seldom in short supply). The so-called Annals historians study the texture of quotidian life. In Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, for example, Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie makes use of an unlikely source of information, minutely detailed Inquisition records, to study a year in the life of a village in medieval France. By noting minor events—the circumstantial details of life—such as legal disputes, the price of cows, even the names of some pets, he weaves a tapestry of life-as-lived in the Middle Ages. In this issue's interview, novelist Annie Proulx says that as a student she was inspired by the Annals histories. But as an imaginative writer, she tries to engage a place and time through as many of her senses as possible. Drawing sketches, visiting places, smelling the air, talking to people, and overhearing conversations all contribute to the writer's effort to make a locale and time part of herself by active physical engagement.There are things about the past that one may "know" but not really comprehend. When Greg Michalson and I were editing a collection of American war diaries, I read about a hundred diaries written by common soldiers during the American Revolution. Writing in the field, under trying circumstances, many Revolutionary War soldiers had the energy and interest to note only where they were, how far they had marched, and descriptions of the weather. When circumstances or mood made them the most laconic, they described only the weather. They could have mentioned any number of other things—fellow soldiers, aches, pains, illnesses, the perilous condition of their boots— but for them the most relevant fact was the weather. Reading those diaries helped me appreciate that weather, the companion of every moment, can be a soldier's greatest enemy. These eighteenth-century diaries also reminded me that in an agricultural economy people are naturally oriented to the weather as an arbiter of success or failure. "Talking about the weather" today is the vestige of a custom practiced with more care in the past. Because of their very existence , these diaries also suggested the strong sense of purpose afoot among Revolutionary War soldiers. If only for their own memories, these men wanted personal mementos of the fight for independence. Primary materials such as letters and diaries are powerful sources of both information and general understanding. I inherited from my grandfather's attic a bundle of letters written by my maternal greatgreat -grandfather James Black, then a student at the Citadel, to his sister. In one of them, dated ten days after the shelling of Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor, he describes an "excursion to view the damage ." After a brief account of the condition of the fort, his letter makes the following segue: ". . . The flames inside did the damage, not the balls outside. Miss Hattie Miller, an old Citadel acquaintance of mine, and her company added much to the pleasure of the excursion. . . ." And off he goes into a detailed description of all the young ladies he has met in the last few days. While a historian trying to convey the larger picture might describe the situation in summer 1861 as tumultuous, my dear great-greatgrandfather , near ground zero, describes it—and indeed the whole summer in Charleston—as a time of being bored and chasing young ladies. Everybody sees historical moments though...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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