Does History Really Have A Story—And Does It Matter?
It should if you want someone to be interested in it.
If we’re still here, sound off. The Russians are getting weird.
This column is written three weeks ahead of the date you get this. As I see the news out of Ukraine, that old Cold War Feeling of incipient dread keeps coming back to me. Many of you remember; many of you probably feel it. It’s one of those things Baby Boomers recall but that the following generations can’t relate to.
Story and History
From a tweet to an encyclopedia, writing anything requires that the work had a point, something to show or prove. If it does not, who will know what it’s for? Those who get your history from movies expect some recognizable plot, a point that the characters want to reach, or a problem they need to resolve.
So it is with history in any form. The biggest problem with writing history is that the end of the story isn’t a mystery. Everyone knows what happened at Gettysburg, so why have a movie about it, or an infinite list of books or even a dedicated magazine (Yes, there is)?
The point for all the media about any historical event is the story.
The story is what characters need to tell.
John D. Beatty
Plot begets story and vice versa.
The story is the who, what, and where. The plot is the how, when, and why.
There’s a story in history to tell, and the plot is the mechanism by which historical narratives are told. Many historical writers start out wanting to say something about the stuff they know about intimately but can’t make a story out of it. Other writers start with a story but are unclear on the plot. Yet others can’t make heads or tails out of either.
One problem that’s becoming more and more prevalent in historical writing is that scholars aren’t taught how to write. Oh, they learn the mechanics of grammar—sometimes—but these days, the number of historians who have read a physical book from end to end is diminishing. Thus, they don’t learn what a story is and can’t create one.
The best training for writers is to be locked in a library for 25 years.
That and the themes of history have to bend to the will of the screaming cancellers. Academic history has always had a problem with relevance, but it’s getting worse. No one is concerned with race, culture, and ethnicity in 18th century New England fishing communities outside academia, but theses like this keep coming out of the ivory tower. And believe me, Trans Culture in Grant’s Army of East Tennessee, Spring 1862, will be a non-starter on Google.
Most modern academic history books—many derived from master’s theses and doctoral dissertations—have minimal appeal or usefulness outside academia. And the reason, I submit, is a lack of a narrative story.
The story holds the consumer’s interest because it gives direction to the text, movie, or whatever other media it’s on. The story pulls the consumer down a path they want to go on. The story describes a world to be viewed, emotions to be felt, ideas to be expressed, events to be witnessed.
And the story makes the consumer want to go there.
I have also argued that history teachers aren’t taught to tell stories but recite dry facts out of the text. That’s why so many people hated history in school—because it was dull. Many of you are now thinking, “yeah, but I love history anyway.” That was because you had someone in your life who made the past relevant: maybe even your past.
It’s hard to teach history to people who don’t have one.
Children, teens, and young adults haven’t been around long enough to know the value of the past. Baby Boomers are often decried because we won’t get out of the next generation’s way. But some of us remember when the Berlin Wall went up, and when Armstrong landed on the Moon, and when the Berlin Wall came down. Sure, many don’t care about having lived those events. But some others had fathers who served in WWII, whose mothers ran for candy during the Berlin Airlift, whose uncles were in the Civilian Conservation Corps, or had grandmothers who survived the Great Influenza.
More importantly, these people talked to their children and their nieces and nephews about what they did and what happened to them. They mattered to the children, so their past mattered. They told their story and made the past matter.
The ONE accomplishment of the 1619 Project is that their story is said to matter even if it’s wrong.
Not all history books tell their stories well.
I know; shocking, ain’t it? For all those books on the shelf, at least half are repeats of someone else’s story. The best of them uniquely tell their stories from a different perspective, a new angle, or based on new or otherwise unused evidence. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell which half you’re reading until you’ve read the other half of the books. Yeah, it’s a trap.
Few history teachers do their jobs well.
Because they lack stories to tell. In grade school, history teaching is usually pretty abstract; basic facts are taught every other week by people who also have to teach arithmetic and English and penmanship and art and science. By the time students get to junior high/middle school, the recitation of simple facts continues four times a week with little continuity other than what’s in the text.
Unfortunately, many students get turned off then, especially if there’s no one in the home to make it all matter. They’re either history enthusiasts by high school or hate the dry recitation of President This and King That led those in This War or That one.
I was first shown a history book in an academic setting in 3rd Grade. We were handed a reader with cavemen dressed in predictable skins, then moved on to Egypt, Greece, and Rome in about fifteen pages. Miss Anderson, the teacher, followed the lesson plan she was given, but she also had to teach us arithmetic and English and penmanship and art and…
Yeah. But I learned most of my history outside of school.
History and Fiction
While it’s not a history book, The Liberty Bell Files: J. Edgar’s Demons tells a story of a time and place before the Internet, before the World Wide Web. Yes, there was a world before all of that.
Yes, I’m plugging another book. That’s what this column is designed to do. Get over it.
The Liberty Bell Files story The Liberty Bell Files is told by a first-person narrator named Dave. He’s just come out of the FBI Academy in 1980 and has been assigned to a peculiar outfit called the Special Projects Division in Quantico, Virginia. To put it mildly, the SPD is nothing like what he was expecting. It doesn’t work like other FBI offices. When it isn’t doing the bidding of the Director, it works on the Liberty Bell Files, a collection of reports on possibly subversive but mostly not organizations and people collected by the FBI for over thirty years.
You see, J. Edgar was one of those peculiar and dangerous people who reached the pinnacle of power in an organization with tremendous resources and turned those resources loose on his fear, his own private Hell. History tells us that this is so, as Hoover spoke not to the Attorney General but to the President for the longest time. He inherited an organization that had the permission of every president to break any law in any state or territory—or violate the Constitution—in defense of the Republic. That organization was, by Dave’s time…you guessed it…the Special Projects Division.
Once again, The Liberty Bell Files is $0.99 in e-book, as little as $6 in paperback, and can be had in autographed form. You might like it.
On 2 April 782, Charlemagne was born in what is now Liege, Belgium. Remember him? Holy Roman Emperor? Trust me on this one.
On 2 April 1917, Jeanette Rankin began her first term in the US House of Representatives, the first woman elected to that office. The first thing she had to do was vote against Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Germany, which came that same day.
And 2 April is National Ferret Day. Don’t ask me; I just report ‘em.
Do Turning Points In History Really Exist—and Who Cares?
Who Put The Bomp In The Bomp Bah Bomp Bah Bomp?
Until next time…