Sunday, December 24, 2006

Popular History Vs. "Real" History?

Dmitri Rotov at Civil War Bookshelf has a post discussing James McPherson-type narrative history (which he seems to deny is “history”) versus “the discipline of history.” Although it’s a thoughtful post (and although he’s kind enough to quote me – thanks!), I must say I still don’t get it. To explain why, let me start by quoting from Dmitri’s post:

“On the contrary, the overwhelming experience of history begins at some point after the facts, dates, and (yes) storyline have been mastered. Fail to master those, and you cannot begin to engage this as hobby or discipline. The reading (and listening) experience called history rests on combinations of details that never stop surprising, delighting and challenging.

“History taught as story cuts out the legs from under those who might eventually learn to love history - perhaps even study or write history - and converts them into readers of nonfiction genre narrative, usually second rate literature with appallingly low history content.

“The question is how many of those nonfiction readers cross over to discerning history readers: direct mail specialists call this the "conversion rate" and I personally think it is miniscule. . ..

“Well, it is not history except that it uses historical materials more or less the way a novelist would use them. It is genre literature written to entertain - not in the way a crossword puzzle does, or even a detective novel, but in the same way a Western works - black hats, white hats, a struggle, a showdown, the end.

“I am selfishly concerned that a generation of people with no historical sensibility to whom McPherson and Goodwin have been portrayed as "historians" is making my life miserable. If McPherson and Goodwin were represented to newbies as the starting point in a long journey, then I should keep quiet. But if held up as representatives of this discipline called history they merely encourage newbies to read more authors like DKG and McP. They become a gateway to more Goodwinism, not to history.”

History as Narrative

To begin with, I just don’t understand why narrative history isn’t “history.” Herodotus called his work “Historiai” – “Inquiries” – because he was for the most part recording tales told to him by locals in response to questions he asked in the course of his travels. What he produced, naturally enough, was a series of dramatic narrative stories.

Even if you do not consider Herodotus a true “historian,” no one doubts that his successor, Thucydides, was. And yet he, too, recounts the history of the Peloponnesian War in chronological terms, using techniques (such as reconstructed speeches and dialogs) that would be condemned if used today, to create “you are there” excitement.

And so on with all the great Roman historians, such as Livy (whose histories are called “The Annals” because they tell their story in chronological format), Sallust and the superb Tacitus. All tell riveting stories in largely narrative and chronological format. All intentionally strive to relate their stories in ways and using techniques designed to heighten dramatic tension and get their readers to “experience” the past. And talk about black hats and white hats! Livy described his task as “putting on record the story of the greatest nation in the world.” Nobody reading the Annals is going to mistake Tarquin the Proud for one of the good guys.

Is Narrative History Dangerous?

Putting aside whether narrative history is “history,” I am also confused by the sense I get from Dmitri’s post that narrative tales of the past are somehow dangerous (“convert[ing people] into readers of nonfiction genre narrative, usually second rate literature with appallingly low history content”). I have no idea what the empirical evidence shows (or even whether there is any), but it certainly is at odds with common sense and, in my case, personal experience.

As even Dmitri concedes, you can’t begin to understand or appreciate “real” history (as he understands it) until you master “the facts, dates, and (yes) storyline.” But how do you do that? By reading your Livy – or your James McPherson. You may decide that Hannibal crossing the Alps, or Lee invading Pennsylvania, is not your cup of tea, and that you want to play video games instead. But you presumably learned something and know more now than you did before you read them. Can that possibly be a bad thing? And if those stories don’t grab you, you’re never going be reading monographs anyway.

And how else does one become interested in history? I’d guess that most classical history professors were inspired by “simplistic” accounts of Thermopylae, or Horatio at the Bridge, or the Rape of Sabine Women, or Hannibal Crossing the Alps.

I have not reviewed a list of the histories in the libraries of, say, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, but I’d guess their libraries were heavy with narrative histories, including narrative histories that in some respects were wildly inaccurate – far more inaccurate than anything in McPherson. (I think it’s widely known that Jefferson’s views of early English history, for example, were downright bizarre; I assume he got those views from somewhere.) And yet they seem to have turned out all right, because, I suspect, the histories they read inspired them, even though those histories may not have satisfied Dmitri’s rigorous standards.

Those ancient stories inspired me (I am not a historian, but I wound up majoring in Classics in college). Barbara Tuchman’s dramatic narrative The Guns of August inspired me to read a good deal of World War I history. And McPherson and Ken Burns were the starting points of Civil War reading. They didn't do me many any harm.

Finally, I’m not aware that “popular” historians such as McPherson explicitly or implicitly tell their readers that they should not or need not read more on the periods or topics they cover. I presume most readers of McPherson stop with him, feeling they’ve gotten a sufficient feel. But is it fair to blame McPherson for that?

I don’t mean to give Dmitri too hard a time. When you’ve read deeply in a particular area and realize how complex it is, it can be frustrating to see more broad-brush accounts that, in your view, miss subtle but key points that have changed your analysis or perspective. But is that a legitimate reason to condemn narrative histories that are sufficiently dramatic and entertaining to lure tens of thousands of readers, who will surely learn more from the experience than they would reading a romance novel or playing video games?

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