Budding young historians are warned in grad school to stay away from the “what if” questions. Imagine the world without the printing press or the steam engine. Consider what the world might be like if Robert E. Lee hadn’t made some bad decisions at Gettysburg. What if Hitler had won at Stalingrad?
The stodgiest of traditional historians will roll their eyes and make you stop right there. “That’s a counterfactual,” they’d say, dismissively waving away such thought experiments. And you’ll go look up counterfactual only to learn that it’s a thing you aren’t supposed to do.
To give stodgy its due, they have a point. After all, historians study what happened, not what didn’t happen. And the few times that academic historians have tried something like this, they’ve been clobbered.
This has always bothered me. I may be a historian, but I’m a historian that wrote a book about monsters. I grew up with science fiction novels and Marvel comics that made alternate worlds sometime seem a bit more real than this somewhat sad and boring one. Why can’t we wonder “what if”?
So, at the risk of getting into trouble with my colleagues, let’s play. Maybe if we tweak the past just a little, we can better understand what made the world we actually live in. Imagined pasts will put the real past (and present) in sharper relief.
So this year, the YEDI (i.e. Year-End Double Issue) will take us to places that aren’t but could have been.
Let’s get counterfactual.
What if the place we live looked very different, and the peninsula had become an urban environment similar to coastal cities like Boston or New York? What if Charleston had never become a historic preservation Disney World? Or, as Will Moredock wonders, what if Charleston had essentially become Myrtle Beach?
We’ll ask some questions about history itself, of course. What might be Charleston’s role in the strange world that would have been created had the Confederacy won the Civil War? Or let’s imagine another dystopian possibility, this one from the atomic age: What if Charleston had been hit with a nuclear strike during the Cold War? And, for fun, let’s get Tarantino-esque with a story about Charleston as the site of the Western World’s most successful slave rebellion.
Politics are already terribly interesting in the Lowcountry. But, since we can play with time and space, let’s tweak a few things and make it even more interesting. What if dueling remained legal in South Carolina? Sure there would be bodies in the street, but that begs the question, whose?
Or, as Tammy Ingram ponders, what if Charleston had a progressive political tradition rather than being a bastion of conservatism? There’s maybe a surprise ending in this one (spoiler alert!): what if it does have a progressive tradition?
This is going to be great fun. We’re going to get to macro and micromanage history, blowing up what we know and putting something else in its place and then seeing what happens. Of course, as the growing legions of Dr. Who fans know, this is dangerous business. Maybe what you hold in your hands is the most dangerous YEDI ever.
Let’s go unmake some history. And then make it all back up again.
Poole is an associate professor in the College of Charleston’s department of history and author of Monsters in America: Our Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.