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History as Fiction Designed to Unite Us

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 21, 2009 by


[This article is excerpted from Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.]

Today, history is regarded, if not as one of the social sciences, then at least as an independent discipline that deals in facts, not fancies; in edification, not entertainment. But it was not always thus. Harry Elmer Barnes reports that before the 18th century, "there had been either no attempt to cite sources or else the citations had been hopelessly confused; there had been no general practice of establishing the genuineness of a text; there had been little hesitancy in altering the text of a document to improve the style."[1] And even after the 18th century itself had begun to fade into history, the new standards Barnes describes had still not really become universal. On the contrary: "Prior to the French Revolution," Hayden White writes,

historiography was conventionally regarded as a literary art. … The eighteenth century abounds in works which distinguish between the study of history on the one side and the writing of history on the other. The writing was a literary, specifically rhetorical exercise, and the product of this exercise was to be assessed as much on literary as on scientific principles."[2]

In point of fact, until late in the 19th century, most historians regarded themselves neither as social scientists (a concept that did not even exist before the 19th century) nor as humanistic scholars, but rather as literary men, men of letters. The stories they were telling were true, of course, but nonetheless they were telling stories, just as though they were novelists, and their job, as they saw it, was to tell their stories as vividly and poetically as any novelist. Peter Novick reports that

George Bancroft, William Lothrop Motley, William H. Prescott, and Francis Parkman … each, in at least one of their major works,employed the organization of the stage play, with a prologue, five acts, and an epilogue. Sir Walter Scott was, by a wide margin, the most popular and imitated author in the early-nineteenth-century United States, and the florid style of the "literary" historians gave clear evidence of his influence.[3]

And not only did the most representative 19th-century historians think of themselves as litterateurs, most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature. As Novick puts it,

[t]he "gentleman amateurs" wrote not to keep the pot boiling, or out of professional obligation to colleagues, but because they had an urgent message to deliver to the general reading public. "If ten people in the world hate despotism a little more and love civil and religious liberty a little better in consequence of what I have written, I shall be satisfied," Motley wrote.[4]

More specifically, most of the 19th-century American historians were convinced that, as Peter Charles Hoffer writes,

by celebrating our history we might heal our political differences. Look to the Founders, these historical boosters argued; praise, exalt,and honor them. Ignore their faults and failings, for the message must be an uplifting one to which everyone can subscribe. The greatest of the Founders, George Washington, became at the hands of the itinerant bookseller and preacher Mason Weems an unblemished paragon of virtue, whose "great talents, constantly guided and guarded by religion he put at the service of his country."[5]

Of course, in order to transform George Washington into "an unblemished paragon of virtue," Weems had to exercise a bit of literary license,even making up one of his most famous anecdotes — that of the young Washington and the cherry tree — out of whole cloth.

'Parson Weems'
Fable' by Grant Wood
"Parson Weems' Fable"
Grant Wood's 1939 painting illustrating Parson Weems telling the story of George Washington's honesty

But Weems was far from alone in employing such techniques. As Hoffer puts it, "Against the vast profit perceived in this approach, what reader could object to the historians' rearrangement of their subjects' language, or to their selective use of facts?" Hoffer calls attention to "an 1835 edition of Washington's letters, edited by Reverend Jared Sparks,"in which the editor "regularly altered Washington's words" and "sometimes pasted one piece of a document into another document entirely."Yet, so far as readers and other historians were concerned, "[i]t did not seem to matter …. After all, the entire purpose of editing the letters was moral instruction, and ministers like Sparks long had the tradition of cutting and pasting Scripture in their sermons." [6]

Hoffer also suggests that we take a close look at George Bancroft's "monumental ten-volume History of the United States, the last volume of which appeared in 1874. Bancroft's History was to become the standard work on American history for generations. … When he died in 1891, he was the most honored of our historians, and his works were widely read." Bancroft "believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make his readers proud of their country's history," Hoffer tells us,

[a]nd when it suited his didactic purposes, he fabricated. He "felt free [as Bancroft himself explained in the preface to his great work] to change tenses or moods, to transpose parts of quotations, to simplify language, and to give free renditions." If the purpose of history was to tell stories that taught lessons, such "blending" could hardly be objectionable, and for contemporary reviewers, it was not.[7]

Hoffer notes that Bancroft was also sloppy about crediting his sources. For example, he "made no real distinction between primary sources and secondary sources. When a secondary source cited a passage from a primary source, Bancroft felt perfectly free to reuse the language of the secondary source in his own account without identifying it as such. He cited the secondary-source pages, but copied or closely paraphrased rather than quoted." After all, a work of history was a work of literature, was it not? All that really mattered was whether the passage in question fit into the flow of the style, whether it fit artistically into the work — not whether it was accompanied by some sort of footnote!

It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted — the historian as dispassionate seeker after truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist or sociologist than a novelist or playwright. Still, there were holdouts. The long tradition of historical works written by novelists and poets and offered frankly, not as scholarship but as lovely letters, died particularly hard. In the 1890s, just as the new social-scientist paradigm was at last coming to dominate the historical profession, Edgar Saltus, a then very popular and successful writer who is now utterly forgotten, was putting the finishing touches on his best known and most frequently reprinted book, Imperial Purple (1892), a specimen of what Claire Sprague calls "a genre almost non-existent today — history decked in the colorful impressionism of the magazine essay of the last [19th] century."[8] Before his death in 1921, Saltus would also do for Russia's Romanov dynasty what he had done for the Caesars of imperial Rome in Imperial Purple. The Imperial Orgy was brought out by Boni and Liveright in 1920.

A few years later, the renowned poet Carl Sandburg would begin publishing an even more ambitious work, though one quite as free of footnotes or bibliography as Saltus's works had been — a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. "The two volumes of The Prairie Years were the publishing event of 1926," reports James Hurt, "and the four volumes of The War Years were an equal success in 1939." [9] As late as 1969, Richard Cobb, whom John Tosh describes as "a leading historian of the French Revolution," could write of the historian that "His principal aim is to make the dead live. And, like the American 'mortician,'he may allow himself a few artifices of the trade: a touch of rouge here, a pencil-stroke there, a little cotton wool in the cheeks, to make the operation more convincing."[10] Only five years later, in 1974, the late Shelby Foote, who made his early reputation as a novelist, published the last volume of what The New York Times called his "2,934-page, three-volume, 1.5 million-word military history, The Civil War: A Narrative," a work characterized by "punctilious, but defiantly unfootnoted research." It was immensely popular, earning "considerably more in royalties than any of his novels had earned," and winning him an invitation to serve as a consultant and onscreen expert for the "smash hit" Ken Burns documentary on the war, a job that made Foote into "a prime-time star."[11]

It is difficult indeed to ignore the many similarities between the historian's task and that of the novelist. As Hayden White writes, "[v] iewed simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another." Moreover,

the aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of the writer of a history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of "reality." The novelist may present his notion of this reality indirectly, that is to say, by figurative techniques, rather than directly, which is to say, by registering a series of propositions which are supposed to correspond point by point to some extra-textual domain of occurrence or happening, as the historian claims to do. But the image of reality which the novelist thus constructs is meant to correspond in its general outline to some domain of human experience which is no less "real" than that referred to by the historian.[12]

To achieve this common end of "providing a verbal image of 'reality,'" both historians and novelists tell stories. "The late R. G. Collingwood insisted," White reminds us,

that the historian was above all a story teller and suggested that historical sensibility was manifested in the capacity to make a plausible story out of a congeries of "facts" which, in their unprocessed form, made no sense at all. In their efforts to make sense of the historical record, which is fragmentary and always incomplete, historians have to make use of what Collingwood called "the constructive imagination," which told the historian — as it tells the competent detective — what "must have been the case" given the available evidence ….

"Collingwood suggested," according to White, "that historians come to their evidence endowed with a sense of the possible forms that different kinds of recognizably human situations can take. He called this sense the nose for the 'story' contained in the evidence or for the 'true' story that was buried in or hidden behind the 'apparent' story."[13] Journalists, those historians in a hurry who provide what legendary Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham famously called the "first rough draft of … history" (and whose rough draft not infrequently becomes the final draft), make a very similar distinction. You either have a "nose for news," they say — good "news sense," good "news judgment" — or you don't. If you do, you can see the story contained in the evidence, the true story buried or hidden behind the apparent (or, sometimes, the official) story.

The important point here is that describing any historical event,whether one that took place yesterday or one that took place a century ago, by telling a story is inescapably an act of imagination. As White sketches the problem,

traditional historiography has featured predominantly the belief that history itself consists of a congeries of lived stories, individual and collective, and that the principal task of historians is to uncover these stories and to retell them in a narrative, the truth of which would reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived by real people in the past.[14]

Yet, "real events do not offer themselves as stories …."[15] In fact,

the notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really represent itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see "the end" in every beginning? Or does it present itself … either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude?[16]

In short, "stories are not lived; there is no such thing as a real story. Stories are told or written, not found. And as for the notion of a true story,this is virtually a contradiction in terms. All stories are fictions. Which means, of course, that they can be true only in a metaphorical sense and in the sense in which a figure of speech can be true."[17]

A metaphor is a lie that conveys truth — or, at any rate, what the maker of the metaphor regards as truth. "Men are pigs." "The world is a ghetto." "The years are gusts of wind, and we are the leaves they carry away."[18] Taken literally, all these statements are untrue. They are falsehoods, lies. Taken figuratively, however, each of them conveys an arguable truth about its subject. A novel — a long, elaborate lie, involving the events in the lives of wholly imaginary human beings — is a metaphor for human life in the world as we know it. In this sense,every work of fiction is philosophical, because every work of fiction conveys an at least implicit statement about or judgment upon the human condition.

This does not mean that every fiction writer is also a philosopher or even philosophical by temperament. Consider, in regard to this issue, the testimony of three fiction writers who are also, in some sense, philosophers: Jean Paul Sartre, William H. Gass, and Ayn Rand.[19] According to Gass, "fiction, in the manner of its making, is pure philosophy," and "the novelist and the philosopher are companions in a common enterprise, though they go about it in different ways."[20] "The esthetic aim of any fiction," he writes, "is the creation of a verbal world …, often as intricate and rigorous as any mathematic, often as simple and undemanding as a baby's toy, from whose nature, as from our own world, a philosophical system may be inferred …."[21] Moreover, "the world the novelist makes is always a metaphorical model of our own."[22] Nevertheless, "[t]he philosophy that most writers embody in their work… is usually taken unconsciously from the tradition with which the writer is allied." Alternatively, "[h]e may have represented, in just the confused way it existed, the world his generation saw and believed they lived in …."[23]

Rand agrees. "The art of any given period or culture," she writes, "is a faithful mirror of that culture's philosophy." This is so because "[s]ome sort of philosophical meaning …, some implicit view of life, is a necessary element of a work of art." Art is "the voice of philosophy."[24] Indeed, in a sense, art is the language we employ to express philosophical ideas.

Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units — so art converts man's metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man's direct perception. The claim that "art is a universal language" is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true ….

The philosophical ideas that are "in the air," taken for granted, during the lifetime of a fiction writer need not, cannot, be the only source of the philosophical ideas that find their way into that fiction writer's fiction, however. Another source, one drawn upon by many novelists, is religion, which Rand calls "the primitive form of philosophy."[25] Still another, drawn upon inescapably by every fiction writer, is the individual writer's "sense of life."

"A sense of life," Rand wrote in 1966, "is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence."

Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics,man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value-judgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him — most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him. What began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion — an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense of life.[26]

According to Rand, "[t]he key concept, in the formation of a sense of life, is the term 'important,'" and it is crucial that we understand, she says, that

"[i]mportant" — in its essential meaning, as distinguished from its more limited and superficial uses — is a metaphysical term. It pertains to that aspect of metaphysics which serves as a bridge between metaphysics and ethics: to a fundamental view of man's nature. That view involves the answers to such questions as whether the universe is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not,whether he can achieve his goals in life or not. The answers to such questions are "metaphysical value-judgments," since they form the basis of ethics.

In the end, "[i]t is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as 'important,' those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man's subconscious and form his sense of life."[27]

And what has all this to do with fiction writing? Everything, for, as Rand puts it, "[e]sthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is important?" Another way of saying this is that "[a]n artist … selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant — and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence."[28] Thus, particularly among those fiction writers who are unphilosophical, but to some extent among all fiction writers, "[i]t is the artist's sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style."[29] Accordingly, Rand defines art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."[30]

Needless to say, then, by publishing a novel, a novelist displays his metaphysical value-judgments, his sense of life, for all to see. As Rand puts it, "nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man's character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work …."[31] Sartre saw the same phenomenon. Literary artists, he wrote, are noted for "the involuntary expression of their souls. I say involuntary because the dead, from Montaigne to Rimbaud, have painted themselves completely, but without having meant to — it is something they have simply thrown into the bargain."[32] They could hardly have done otherwise, however, Sartre notes, for

[i]f I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or the sea or a look on someone's face which I have disclosed, I am conscious of having produced them by condensing relationships, by introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in relation to my creation.[33]

For when it comes to "the unique point of view from which the author can present the world," it is always and everywhere true that "if our creative drive comes from the very depths of our heart, then we never find anything but ourselves in our work."[34]

But of course, all this is true of historians as well. Most historians are no more philosophically minded than most fiction writers. On the contrary, they are notoriously "sceptical of abstraction," as John Gray put it not long ago in the New Statesman.[35] Yet every work they produce has philosophical implications, provides support for various general ideas — ideas about the nature of government, for example, and the utility of war, and the way national economies work. Where do these ideas come from, in the works of unphilosophical historians wary of "loose generalization" (as Gray puts it)? Some of them are inherited, so to speak, from earlier practitioners of the historian's particular area of specialization. Some are absorbed unthinkingly from the culture in which the historian grows up and matures. Still others are provided by a sense of life. For every historian has a sense of life, just as every fiction writer does — a set of "metaphysical value-judgments" built up subconsciously over years of living until they provide a sort of "automatic response to the world" and an automatic answer to such questions as "whether the universe is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not, whether he can achieve his goals in life or not." How any given historian has inwardly answered such questions will exercise considerable influence over what that historian regards as a realistic view of government, war, and economics — and, thus, how that historian treats these subjects in his or her work.

It is little wonder, then, that Roy A. Childs, Jr., ever an assiduous student of Ayn Rand, offered the following definition of history in his influential essay, "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism": "History is a selective recreation of the events of the past, according to a historian's premises regarding what is important and his judgment concerning the nature of causality in human action."[36] Childs saw clearly that the historian proceeds much as the fiction writer proceeds, and obtains similar results. Nor was he alone in doing so. John Tosh writes that "[i]n many instances the sources do not directly address the central issues of historical explanation at all. … Questions of historical explanation cannot, therefore, be resolved solely by reference to the evidence. Historians are also guided … by their reading of human nature ….[37] The legendary economist and social theorist Ludwig von Mises notes that any historical writing "is necessarily conditioned by the historian's world view" and stresses the importance of what he calls "the understanding" in making sense of historical evidence.

The historian's genuine problem is always to interpret things as they happened. But he cannot solve this problem on the ground of the theorems provided by all other sciences alone. There always remains at the bottom of each of his problems something which resists analysis at the hand of these teachings of other sciences. It is these individual and unique characteristics of each event which … the historian can understand … because he is himself a human being.[38]

More recently, the historian John Lewis Gaddis has proposed that every historian approaches his subject with certain assumptions, based on personal experience, about "how things happen" in the world — assumptions about "the way the world is," [39] the way the world works. "Sorting out the difference between how things happen and how things happened,"Gaddis writes, "involves more than just changing a verb tense. It's an important part of what's involved in achieving [a] closer fit between representation and reality."[40]

But if the historical enterprise can be difficult to distinguish from the fictional enterprise (particularly in light of the concept, introduced some four decades ago by Truman Capote, of the "non-fiction novel"),what does this imply about so-called "historical fiction"? Is there any reason a reader should place any more confidence in the work of an historian than in the work of an historical novelist? The answer is that everything depends on what historian we're talking about, what novelist we're talking about, and what kind of historical fiction we're talking about.


[1] Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938), p. 241.

[2] Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 123.

[3] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44–45.

[4] Ibid., p. 45.

[5] Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud — American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesisles, Ellis, and Goodwin (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), pp. 18-19.

[6] Ibid., p. 19.

[7] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[8] Claire Sprague, Edgar Saltus (New York: Twayne, 1968), p. 72.

[9] James Hurt, "Sandburg's Lincoln Within History." Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter 1999), p. 55.

[10] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (London: Longman, 1991), pp. 23–24.

[11] See Douglas Martin, "Shelby Foote, Historian and Novelist, Dies at 88." The New York Times 29 June 2005.

[12] White, op. cit., p. 122.

[13] Ibid., pp. 83-84.

[14] Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. ix — x.

[15] Ibid., p. 4.

[16] Ibid., p. 24.

[17] Hayden White, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 9.

[18] The last of my three examples of metaphor is attributed to the French poet, novelist, and playwright Philippe Auguste Mathias de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838–1889). The second example is taken from the title of a hit popular song of 1972, written and performed by the rhythm and blues band War.

[19] Sartre published works of technical philosophy (Being and Nothingness), novels (Nausea), and plays (No Exit). Rand did the same (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Atlas Shrugged, The Night of January 16th). Gass's case is a bit different. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell and calls his meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein there in the 1950s "the most important intellectual experience of my life." (Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. 248) He earned his living as a philosophy professor for nearly fifty years, first at Purdue, latterly at Washington University in St. Louis, from which he retired in 2001. His publications have all been literary in character, including novels (Omensetter's Luck), short stories (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), belles lettres (On Being Blue), and literary criticism (Fiction and the Figures of Life).

[20] William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Knopf, 1970), pp. 3, 5.

[21] Ibid., pp. 7-9.

[22] Ibid., p. 60.

[23] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[24] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: World, 1969), pp. 79, 50, 28.

[25] Ibid., p. 23.

[26] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

[27] Ibid., pp. 34-35.

[28] Ibid., p. 46.

[29] Ibid., pp. 43-44.

[30] Ibid., p. 22.

[31] Ibid., p. 55.

[32] Jean Paul Sartre, Literature and Existentialism (New York: Citadel, 1962), p. 32.

[33] Ibid., p. 39.

[34] Ibid., pp. 63, 40.

[35] See his review of Peter Watson's Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud in the New Statesman for May 28, 2005.

[36] Roy A. Childs, Jr., "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism," in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr., ed. Joan Kennedy Taylor (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994), p. 18.

[37] Tosh, op. cit., p. 141.

[38] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Edition. (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 49.

[39] This phrase has long been associated with the American philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-1998). Anyone interested in Ayn Rand's concept of a sense of life would profit from reading Goodman's classic 1960 essay "The Way the World Is," reprinted recently in Peter J. McCormick, ed. Starmaking: Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 3-10.

[40] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 106-107.