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Where Did "History" Start?
No, not THAT kind; the OTHER kind?
They’re still battling it out over Ukraine; only it’s not clear who’s winning…as if anyone but the gravediggers “win” any war.
Many people talk about “the past” as if it were an immutable thing. It isn’t. How much of what we know of the past is “story,” and how much is ‘legend” has to do with how the study/writing of the human pageant evolved. And it all has to do with money.
Regrettably, money is not only the root of all evil. It is the root of our past.
History as we know it has only been a recognizable discipline since the 1800s. There were scriveners before then, but most of them were participants in the events they described. Being a participant doesn’t make a person a lousy historian, just a biased one.
The best histories are written by those born after the last participants of the events they describe are dead.
John D. Beatty
As a minor participant in the misunderstood tragedy of America’s participation in the Vietnam conflict, I’ve heard so many conflicting stories that I know can’t be objective. And objectivity is crucial to writing any history.
Too bad it’s never been that way.
Before the 18th century, the closest we came to having “professional” historians were those hired by monarchs to tell their story in as flattering a light as possible. There were also churchmen—popes, cardinals, and archbishops—who hired scriveners to write similar works to glorify their families, locality, and sometimes their royal patrons.
Objective history was thus rare.
There have been exceptions, like Herodotus (c 484-465 BC), but most chroniclers had an ax to grind or a reputation to spruce up. The first historical scholars with university training got it in Germany. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) was the first to hold a historical seminar that taught not content but a method, a way of thinking about the past and the record. Anglican Bishop William Stubbs (1825-1901) has been called the Father of English History. All three of these historians maintained independence from heavy-handed sponsorship and pioneered the idea of an objective historical method.
As I have said before, there’s are reasons why history is written, and I submit it comes down to two:
To hold up a mirror to the past, or,
To act as a club in the present.
The first of these is the most benign, but it is also the most important because:
History is our only test for the consequences of ideas.
John D. Beatty
Let’s face it: knowing facts is better than feeling something didn’t come out the way a scrivener wanted it to. Reading a book that says an event should have happened but didn’t isn’t objective; it’s an opinion. It’s called presentism in the trade, and it’s pretty pernicious…and regrettably common.
One class of books I refuse to even think about anymore is the expose of this person's “dark secrets” or that event. Many are written for Reason Two: to punish those in the present and, of course, to make money and be invited to speak at events.
The third tongue in cheek reason for writing about history is:
To get dates.
Not that kind of date. Many writers create to secure speaking engagements, seminar seats, round-table and symposium positions, and, the holy grail, university teaching positions. Think of books as a form of a resume.
On Bad Reviews
I get them; a lot. One review you can find for The Past Not Taken: Three Novellas starts with “not for me” and continues for five paragraphs, some of it based on the format that the reviewer got the book in. The platform compelled part of that, but whatever.
The reviewer starts her self-description with “activist,” which says volumes. She spends much of the review criticizing what amounts to a disagreement in form. I described a discipline she didn’t recognize. As an “activist,” she feels I didn’t hit enough social/environmental/feminist/whatever “justice” hot buttons in my stories about how history is written.
Well, at least it wasn’t a five-paragraph, foaming-at-the-mouth defense of the 1619 Project, my critique of which is part of “The Past and the Prologue,” the third novella. My question has always been, though, when a book is “not for you,” why go through the process of finishing AND writing a two-star review? If you don’t like it, set it aside—even MINE. Unless you have to review a book for some reason—especially an indie book—think of the labor the writer had to go through. One bad review could tank the whole effort.
What do YOU think? Is it possible to be unbiased in either book reviews or in history? Where did “history?” start? Does it matter? Drop me a line or comment on this e-mail.
Is It Possible To Get History "Right," And Do We Want To?
Who Put The Ram In The Rama Lama Ding Dong?
On 23 April in:
1564, William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-Upon-Avon. And he died on the same day in the same place in 1616. He survived much of the Tudor reign and is said to have practically invented modern English.
1941, Ray Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York. Blame him for all those Nigerian banker widows in your e-mail because he invented email.
And, it’s NATIONAL TAKE A CHANCE DAY. So, take a chance and buy one of my books!