I have been reading a lot of books about history recently, particularly
specific periods of history which are especially interesting to me.
In other times in my life I read quite a bit of fiction. Initially, it was
American fiction, then British, and then fiction from around the
world in translation. After that, I concentrated on reading poetry,
especially just before and after I began writing poetry myself. There
have also been times when I read biographies, literary criticism. science
fiction, philosophy and books about technology. Those were my changing
interests; I know that each reader has a personal set of interests and a
personal pattern of subjects read at different times in life.
Nonetheless, I seem to have settled on history these days, and specifically
history of the early and middle twentieth century, a time before I was born,
but which was a primary time for my parents and grandparents and their
When I was very young, I read every book I could find about Tsar
Nicholas II and imperial Russia, probably because that was the world both
my parents came (escaped) from by one or two generations. Then I read
about World War I, including the decades which led up to it and the short
interim period following, the time before World War II.
I have always seemingly been able to read very fast, and this has enabled
me to read a great many books and to remember many details in them.
Since I have been able to read a large number of books about a given time
in history, I have concluded that the “facts” and details of history often
depend on the the author of the book, the historian, and his or her attitude
about history itself, the specific subject he or she writes about, and of course,
what is selected to be reported to us the readers.
We all have heard the phrases about “rewriting history,” and the notion itself
is undoubtedly true as we read numerous books about the same time and
place by different authors. As a result of my reading experiences, I have come
to question the “factness” of certain books and essays, and to try to evaluate
the bias or the distortion, if any, of a particular author or historian.
A recent example of “rewriting” history has been the publication of a number
of books about Ulysses S. Grant, preeminent Union Civil War general and
later two-term president of the United States. The commonplace about
Grant used to be that he was a great general, and a heavy drinker, but a
mediocre and ultimately corrupt president. Some recent books and essays
contend that Grant’s public image has been shortchanged, including that
he was a more honest, high-minded and consequential man than previously
judged, especially as president, and despite his undisputed shortcomings,
he was a sincere figure trying to do what was best for his troubled nation in
Another form of “rewriting” history is the speculative historical novel as
perhaps most notably recently practiced by former U.S. house speaker
Newt Gingrich in collaboration with his friend, historian William Fortschen.
Together they have written a number of novels about the Revolutionary
War, the Civil War and World War II, in which the true historic figures speak
and act, as characters do in traditional novels. In most of these novels Gingrich
and Fortsehen wrote the books as if the outcome of each was the opposite of
what actually did happen, speculating what might have then occurred in
Both Gingrich and Fortschen are genuine historians, and base their novels
and speculations on recorded facts, but most serious books about history
are written in a non-fiction non-speculative mode by historians who specialize
in one of more areas of history.
There have always been, as well, so-called “popular” histories written or
ghost-written by celebrity figures and others. These are usually about
historical periods and events which are already well-known and much
written about., Their primary purpose, their authors’ protestations
notwithstanding, is to become bestsellers, make money and capitalize on
or enhance their celebrity. Recent bestseller lists feature some of this kind
of “popular” history.
The bulk of serious writing about history remains with academic scholars
and historians. The books, for example, I have been recently reading about
the period leading up to World War II in the United States, Great Britain
and the European continent are usually focused on relatively short time
periods within the whole era, specific incidents or battles, a few individual
leaders or generals, or a particular group within the whole population.
The two principal Western figures in this mid-twentieth century story are
American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill. Dogged stereotypes of these two men, their relationship and their
role in this period remain in the minds of most American and British readers,
young and old. Many recent books, however, strive to undo, or alter, these
stereotypes. Mr. Roosevelt, we now learn was unquestionably masterful in
charm and a gifted communicator, but not necessarily the man who brought
his nation out of the Depression, or who heroically saved the world from
Hitlerism, It seems, in fact, that he became quite physically ill as early as
1942-43 (or earlier), and made serious strategic misjudgments subsequently.
Winston Churchill did rally the British people in the gloomy days of the
air blitz against London and other English targets, but he was also a man of
irrational and stubborn strategic thinking and petty habits. Likewise, most of
the top generals and other military leaders around them had overblown egos
and were constantly squabbling. Other allied nation’s leaders, many of whom
ended up in London or Washington, DC were less than noble figures, selfish,
out of touch, and like, for example, General De Gaulle, often delusional. Few
of these high figures come out of recent histories as truly heroic figures.
Their excessive and self-indulgent life styles, especially when the general
populations around them were undergoing so much deprivation, were
commonplace. “Inappropriate” sexual affairs were frantic, often superficial
and blatant. In short, the details of these histories (and I am not necessarily
doubting their accuracy) make it difficult to understand how the outcome of
World War II was successful for the Allied Powers.
On the other hand, should we be at all surprised? History has usually been
dressed and overdressed in such simplistic terms that, aside from a few (usually
heroic or deplorable) instances, students of history receive little or none of the
human qualities of the personages who “make” history.
So why read history at all? The answer is that if the reader can navigate himself
and herself through the bias and verbiage of most historians and written history,
there remains the wonder and charm of great stories of humanity and its course
through time.. Although absolute veracity about historical figures and events is
almost always elusive, and apparently subject to constant reinterpretation,
persons do exist and events do happen. Deciphering who those persons really
were and what actually happened is not, in the end, the sole practice of
professional historians, but more accurately and importantly, the challenge and
the quest of any serious reader of history.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
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