For a historian, a trip to Boston is pretty cool.* I did a little bit of work while I was there, followed by a lot of walking, a lot of eating, a lot of drinking local beer, a lot of reading small plaques on old buildings that celebrate (mostly) rich white dudes who did stuff (and usually not in the best interests of other non-rich, non-white, non-male people), and admiring those buildings even though it made me feel a little guilty. We–my boyfriend and I–did a lot of chatting, too, which reached the level of slightly inebriated, semi-philosophical debate about History at McGreevy’s Bar in Back Bay.
At an exhibition on the history of sports culture at the Boston Public Library (arguably my favourite place in the city) we learned that McGreevy’s was the first sports bar in America, dating back to 1894 when “Nuf Ced” McGreevy opened a bar devoted to his love of baseball and–especially–the Red Sox. The walls are adorned with old baseball photos, memorabilia, and a few TVs, and provided a space for fans to congregate. Unfortunately I neglected to take a picture of it.
As we sipped beer below the gaze of players and proprietors past, the conversation turned to what might be the the most maddening conundrum of doing history (for me): the loss of depth of experience when it’s translated into historical research. What I mean is that our historical understandings of people are unavoidably flat. Some people–yep, those white dudes again–have often been (un?)lucky enough to provide us with a larger historical record, but those sources rarely uncover their thoughts, and certainly not thoughts as they play out, bouncing around one’s head, in fragments that compete against one another and sometimes develop over time, but are sometimes interrupted never to return. The problem of lost thoughts is exaggerated in the case of non-elite dudes. For instance, what was a bricklayer thinking about he built those magnificent buildings on Commonwealth Avenue?
There is admittedly a debate here about whether historians ought to be concerned about depth of experience; many would argue that a historian’s foremost goal is to explain things that have happened, not aimlessly wander about the documentary record in a quest to show that people have ached and loved and felt passionately (or mired in depression) in ways that we could easily relate to today. But they did, even if their conversations and assumptions and everyday experiences were different.
We can speculate, of course, but being limited to speculation saddens me in some ways. (Oral history offers a slightly more promising avenue for regaining the ‘depth’ of experience, but it too is limited.) Legacies, artifacts, and stories may live on, but those thoughts are lost, both to oneself and us all. That’s the scary thing about dying, maybe: depth forever lost! Or maybe not. Perhaps it’s just depth redistributed elsewhere, to others.
But even if we (historians) could grasp those thoughts, that depth, a final question lingers: ought we?
*Boston is cool even if you’re not an ‘Americanist’ but an earnest PhD student with so many disparate interests that you’re more appropriate lumped under the thematic rubric of ‘environmental/social historian of all times and places.’ Expertise is just too darn confining. Unfortunately this is a poor attitude to have when said PhD student is supposed to be crafting a proposal for a thoughtful, manageable dissertation that doesn’t bewilder either their committee or future potential employers who would like a nice, well-behaved junior colleague to teach entry-level survey courses neatly organized by time and place.