My son, Brian Rumsey, studies History in Mississippi.This is an interest of mine also, so I read along with him on some of his books. We’ve been having a running discussion on the revival of narrative history writing, as discussed by Lawrence Stone, who relates it to the idea of “thick description.” More less unconsciously, I think, as this idea has percolated in my mind, it has become “thick history” instead of “thick description.”
These ideas were bouncing around in my mind when I visited Brian recently at Mississippi State, where he studies, and especially when we got a kind invitation from a fellow grad student to share Thanksgiving dinner with his extended family. The gracious Southern hospitality we enjoyed there was the highlight of our trip, in many ways – Story-telling, food, and much more. Of course, I couldn’t resist making a connection — This is history at its thickest! The rich dimensions of a Southern family! This made me realize that my conception of “thick history” is much like family history — It’s history that takes in all “members of the family” — all dimensions, all of the context of the story. History that values the STORY, and follows it wherever it goes, without trying to fit it into an ideological framework.
As I continued to cogitate on the idea of “thick history,” of course, I turned to Google — Searching in Google Web and Google Books, I find that I’m certainly not the first one to coin the term — It’s been used especially in discussions of Keynesian economics, but also in religion and sociology.
So I poke around more, and explore the idea that “thick history” resonates with “family” — I don’t find much in Google Web search, but then I turn to GBS and — Bingo! — Searching GBS for “thick history” family, I find just what I’ve been imagining — Number two is The Genetic Strand, with the passage “DNA measures thick history …” This book, by Edward Ball — is “the story of a writer’s investigation, using DNA science, into the tale of his family’s origins.” — with his Southern family being centered in Charleston, South Carolina.
No earth-shattering find, admittedly, but a neat little trick nonetheless — Using GBS to make a surprising connection between history and biology that would have been impossible without it. The sort of connection that I’m sure makes GBS invaluable for real historians, enabling them to see history in completely new ways.
Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey