Thursday, May 23, 2013

What is History? An Update on my Manuscript

Rossville, IL
My first blog at this site shared my love of history. (See "I Love History," reposted January 3, 2012, where it can now be read in the blog archives.)  My feeling that history has so many lessons for us, to make each generation wiser than their predecessors by learning from past experiences both good and bad, was a big part of why I wanted to share Isaac's story.  The late 1800s have much in common with the problems we face today, making Isaac's experiences not only interesting but also relevant.

Recently, an internet friend and I were exchanging face book posts about the challenges of teaching young people history.  I shared my opinion that for students who have celebrated no more than 18 birthdays, their frame of reference makes even 20 years seem like ancient times.  I liked his reply so much that I wrote it down.  He said he had learned to appreciate the importance of history from his parents.  He concluded:  "I loved history in high school and could not understand why the other kids...did not understand how important it was.  It [history] is where we came from and points in the direction we are likely to go.  It is a huge puzzle with many pieces which one cannot possibly learn in a lifetime."  For me, his description of viewing history as a giant puzzle, some of whose pieces can be fitted together over a lifetime, seemed a wonderful analogy.

Dressed for Victorian Tea 2010
I believe my appreciation resulted from a natural immersion in family history.  I was raised in the house built by my paternal grandfather and his mother.  We had my paternal great grandfather's Civil War journal, from which I remember my mother reading aloud.  On Memorial Day we put flowers on the graves of paternal and maternal grandparents of several generations, joined in doing the decorations by aunts and uncles whose shared memories made me feel as if I had known the people whose graves we visited.  History was something real for me, not just names and dates from textbooks.

My experience is not common in today's world.  I read somewhere that the average American family lives in a house only five years before moving elsewhere.  Doing genealogy research I discovered that many people do not know their grandmother's maiden name.  Follow the news on television and the internet and you will see how headline events are abandoned within days or hours to report the new headlines in the next news cycle.  Not only is history given little attention, but also current events are quickly treated as irrelevant and forgotten.  Today's children grow up in a very different environment. 

FDR's Museum & Library
Not many families make history an intriguing puzzle for their children like my friend's parents did for him, nor are many children today raised in a home and community where evidence of their ancestors' lives surround them.  How do we make history interesting enough that people want to read about the past?  How do we make the lessons of history more than dates and names, not only for school children but also for adult readers?  That has been the question I asked myself as I wrote Isaac's story.

David McCullough has said, "No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read."  I agree. I have had the benefit of Isaac's own words in his journal from which to tell his story, but my manuscript is not just Isaac's biography.  I researched his community, using, family documents, legal documents, old photographs, tomb stones, and personal interviews to get to know the people Isaac mentioned in his diary.  I also researched the history of that period, becoming familiar with the biographies of famous people in politics, religion, business, and the arts.  I learned about the events that shaped the times.  Only when I had spent incalculable hours of research to become familiar with all of this was I able to put Isaac's story in context.  The challenge was to make the history during Isaac's time "something someone would want to read," as David McCullough said.  I believed that writing the manuscript like a doctoral thesis or a text book was the wrong way to share history with the readers I wanted to reach.

Visit to Isaac's Hometown
My manuscript has an extensive bibliography with footnotes to document the research I have done.  However, I have chosen to bring Isaac and his friends and acquaintances to life, revealing this exciting time through them.  Occasionally, that means I imagined conversations to share important information that would be deadly dull to most readers if presented as text.  For example, the People's Party, which shaped not only the politics of Isaac's time but also laws and social programs years later when the People's Party itself had faded away, evolved from smaller political movements coming together to form a powerful movement.  I could have written a paragraph or a few pages describing each of these separate groups and how they united.  Instead, I imagined a conversation between Isaac and his friend, William Campbell, a member of the Kansas House of Representatives who was a delegate to the organizing convention at which the People's Party was formed.  I know from Isaac's journal the night Isaac went to visit Campbell to "talk politics."  I am confident that they discussed the convention, its leaders, and the mix of political groups that were represented there.  However, I do not have a transcript of their conversation.  Instead, I have my research from original documents, newspapers, and secondary books and articles, and I have my imagination to put that information in the form of a conversation between Isaac and William Campbell the night Isaac went for a visit.

In those few places in my manuscript where imagination joins research to make history more readable to those who are neither scholars nor researchers, I identify in a footnote the sources used to create the scene and indicate what has been imagined, making the content enjoyable to casual readers but also documenting sources for more serious historians.  These passages in the manuscript are limited, but they do raise objections by some who believe my decision takes my manuscript out of the strict definition of history and moves it to some realm between historical fiction and authentic history.

Victorian Tea 2011
I disagree.  History is defined as the study of past events; the branch of knowledge that records and analyzes past events.  Yet, Voltaire said:  "History is the lie commonly agreed upon."  Even the most thorough research about a person or event cannot establish each detail with certainty, and analysis unavoidably introduces the bias and experiences of the analyst.  If only two people are present in a conversation, they will take away from their meeting a different recollection of what was said.  We can try to capture history accurately, but an absolute record of events is nearly impossible.  I have researched the subjects of my manuscript thoroughly.  If I make that research more accessible to readers by occasionally using my imagination to present the facts, while warning them in a footnote what I have done, is it any less accurate than the scholar's text where gaps are filled with analysis and supposition?

History is so important that rulers, politicians, and historians have manipulated it for generations.  As George Orwell said, "Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past."  I believe in the manner in which I have documented the history of a period, most commonly known as the Gilded Age, but presented from the perspective of those farmers and other laborers who lived their lives covered in sweat, dirt, and tears rather than gilt. My efforts will serve no purpose if I fail to make history something someone would want to read.  One publisher did not feel that my method met their criteria for  presenting history.  I remain hopeful that I will find a publisher who shares my enthusiasm for telling Isaac's story and the exciting events of the late 1800s as I have done. 


The Blog Fodder said...

James W. Loewen's Lies my Teacher told Me and Margaret MacMillan's The Uses and Abuses of History certainly agree with "History is so important that rulers, politicians, and historians have manipulated it for generations". MacMillan is a superb historian and eminently readable yet one gets a sense from her book of veiled criticism of writers like Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat, non-academic historians, who make history "something people want to read". I read Jack Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History and came to the conclusion he did. History is so much more than DWM (dead white males), wars and kings. I am glad you have made Isaac's story "something people will want to read".

Talya Tate Boerner said...

Good luck on finding a publisher! I grew up in a house in rural Arkansas, the house my mother still lives in. I love to 'go home'. Some people never experience going home. Sad.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Blog Fodder, Thanks for your comment...and your contribution! I especially appreciate your comment because I know you are such a reader of history. If I were willing to either delete the imagined sections or call my book historical fiction and delete the footnotes and bibliography, it would probably be easier to find a publisher; however, I believe it is "history" and will not stop trying with only one rejection!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Talya, I know you share my feelings for the land and for your childhood home. I believe that gives us a special sense of self and impacts our views of many things--tradition, history, family, friendships, etc.!