Historical Comprehension: Identifying the Central Question of a Historical Narrative
Historians recount events from the past, but that is not all they do. They interpret the evidence available about the past in an effort to gain understanding and develop meaning. This interpretation distinguishes historical writing from writing a recollection of events experienced. Historians use questions to guide their research and analysis. Thus, the reader of a historical narrative should be able to identify the question or questions that the narrative addresses.
Consider the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, a renowned historian of the American West. The questions he asked and ways he interpreted the evidence shaped how historians looked at the history of the American West for seventy years (although many current historians dispute his interpretations). Read Turner's article "The Problem of the West," published in The Atlantic Monthly in September 1896. What questions did Turner address in this article? What historical evidence did he use to support the answer he developed? Find examples in the article that show interpretation of evidence to develop meaning. How does this article illustrate the work of a historian?