Fiction in History
When people first send me an order, I generally include a list of novels which I used when teaching American history. The students also read some material in a standard history text. My thinking on this perhaps was influenced by the great number of historical novels which I read as a young person. I thought it would be good to expose my students to some good literature and give them a view of life at particular periods of history.
History is much more than just names and dates. Most history books attempt to give overviews and place significant events in some relationship to one another, usually in some time sequence which is linear in aspect. We have all seen the time lines, and they are helpful to some extent. This is not to say that such an approach is bad, but it is to say that it is not the only approach or the most effective one.
History is the story of people interacting with one another and how God in His omniscience moves those people to accomplish His purposes. Facts and figures are nice, but they are lifeless and cold. Unfortunately, they are also the stuff of which most tests are made since fill-in and multiple choice answers favor a one right answer syndrome of facts such as names and dates.
After graduating from college, my attention was arrested by a series of books which my father owned at the time. The series was called The Real America in Romance. It was edited by Edwin Markham, the poet, and covered American history from Christopher Columbus up to 1910. The actual publication date of the first volume is 1909, but there are 13 volumes in the set.
My father and two uncles had read the complete set, and soon I was reading them as well. History came alive. Markham has a preface of about 12 pages in the first volume. I will loosely quote from and paraphrase from it at this point.
“The father told his sons the story of his life and the story of his ancestors, that the sons might profit by the experiences of past generations. The young people were informed of days gone by, that they might be strengthened for the days to come. Each individual was thus acquainted with the struggle of his tribe or clan that he might make his thought coextensive with the life of the race. A knowledge of history was recognized as the first step in moral and intellectual development.”
Is not the above a statement confirmed by Scripture? A great portion of Holy Writ is history told in story form about the patriarchs, prophets and others.
Markham again: “Told then by word of mouth, history in the beginning was clad in a living personality and acted out anew in each generation. Without that interest, that dramatic appeal, no teller of tales could gain or hold his audience. The individual’s first capacity as a child is for a story, and the impressions that are permanently retained are acquired in story form. Surely the natural and easy method of acquiring lasting impressions is through the medium of romance.”
The reading of novels is the reading of stories, and stories are infinitely preferable to the dull recitation of facts and someone else’s overview of what went on. Christ told stories, also called parables, instead of just handing out a precept, and we recognize Him as the greatest teacher that ever lived. Would that we would emulate His technique.
Markham: “Romance and authentic history can be blended to their mutual advantage. We obtain not only the educational value of history, but also all that makes fiction morally profitable. Here are set before us the examples of great men of earth, men great in their patriotism and self-sacrifice; and side by side with them are romantic characters typical of the times. Instead of reading about historical characters and events, we see the persons themselves in action, and live with them through the events of their day and generation.”
“The reader loses himself in the irresistible fascination of the story, and the impressions resulting are made on the heart as well as on the intellect. You do not merely read about Columbus: you endure with him his hardships, share with him his disappointments, rejoice with him in his achievements. Thus, the reading of history, too commonly looked upon as downright drudgery, becomes a matter of genuine pleasure.”
“Romance and history march hand in hand; and so well are they blended that while we are reading for mere recreation, we acquire a broad and comprehensive knowledge. Anyone who has thus taken part in life, feelings, and thought of the past has received that true historical education which fits him best for the life of the future.”
“Knowledge acquired in a pleasant and entertaining manner, and associated with interesting details, is retained more readily and for a longer time than knowledge derived through tiresome associations, much unwilling effort, and tedious details. We have no difficulty in recalling stories we heard in childhood and can live them over anew with little mental effort. The history, however, which we really labored to master at the same impressionable age, is generally forgotten with certain exceptions where the atmosphere is highly romantic, the rescue of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas or the trials of Washington and his men at Valley Forge.”
Literature is the handmaiden of history. The set mentioned above is rare today, but with some looking you might be able to find it. Other alternatives are to read works by a variety of authors or find an author who has put together a series such as the House of Winslow series by Gilbert Morris. Of course historical novels are not limited to American history. G. A. Henty, Harold Lamb and Thomas B. Costain come to mind as excellent story tellers who use historical settings and characters in powerful fashion. Good reading!
March 3, 2014 / Frode / 0