Do Historians Write Non Fiction?

#1
I just had a browse through my book collection, and realised that the only books that I really liked, and reread, the the memoirs of blokes who'd Been There. And wrote first hand accounts. The books only suitable for lending and propping doors tended to be by Historians. Using their imaginations to "tell us what it was like."

I came to the conclusion that the Historian is a writer of fiction, who uses the occasional source to lend veracity to his Story. And, as "all art is propaganda" it's probably biased too.

Am I being too harsh on historians? Discuss
 
#3
Well seeing im one of those Historians, suppose id better say something, i wrote my book from the memoirs and interviews i had with the veterans, as it was about there Battalion, it had to be with their words, it contained many accounts which would never have seen the light of day in many cases.

As is my next book, why have a dry book, now some write that way, not my bag so to speak. However i think your a wee bit harsh (or is that your reason) on Historians, do we throw away or burn books from all the way back to Roman times, as they dont have first hand accounts.

One of the finest books on WW1 was written by someone who wasnt born then, who tells us what it was like, does that get binned, the work of Holmes, Keegan, Middlebrook???
 
#4
gennithmedic said:
I just had a browse through my book collection, and realised that the only books that I really liked, and reread, the the memoirs of blokes who'd Been There. And wrote first hand accounts. The books only suitable for lending and propping doors tended to be by Historians. Using their imaginations to "tell us what it was like."

I came to the conclusion that the Historian is a writer of fiction, who uses the occasional source to lend veracity to his Story. And, as "all art is propaganda" it's probably biased too.

Am I being too harsh on historians? Discuss
:roll: No, you aren't being harsh on historians, its just that your conclusion is flawed because it appears to be based on total ignorance of what a historian is, what they do and how they do it. Unless you amend it to read "some historians", of course; like any other group they range form very good to pretty shite. That aside, I suppose all the folk who write first hand accounts are as pure as the driven snow, with no hint of poor memory, narrow perspective, bigging themselves up or other ulterior personal motives? I can think of a couple of first hand accounts that turned out to be fiction when exposed to some criticl analysis.

Oh, and as a matter of interest, how do you manage to put all these first hand accounts into context without referring to some historian's work or other? :p

exMercian
 
#5
Actually, I strongly agree. History's a literary trope, rather than an account of 'what really happened in the past'.
 
#6
Rumpelstiltskin said:
Actually, I strongly agree. History's a literary trope, rather than an account of 'what really happened in the past'.
Ferk me, there's more broad brushes flying about in here today than a painters & decorators...

exMercian
 
#7
The writing of history is obviously non-fiction by definition, but there has to be an element of conjecture. Historians make reasoned conclusions based on the evidence they have studied and many of them disagree with one another. Their writings are very often coloured by their politics too, it's up to the individual to come to his or her own conclusions. Short of time travel it's the only way of knowing about our past.

All IMHO of course....
 
#8
exMercian said:
Rumpelstiltskin said:
Actually, I strongly agree. History's a literary trope, rather than an account of 'what really happened in the past'.
Ferk me, there's more broad brushes flying about in here today than a painters & decorators...

exMercian
Sorry, I was being lazy. But:

History hasn't been a straightforward account of events since monks stopped writing chronicles. And even then, the choice of events listed reflected the theoretical, political and cosmological viewpoints of the monks themselves. More space would be devoted to comets and miraculous portents than to major political upheavals, for instance.

As legal_eagle said, history is written in the present, for the present. It can only ever reflect the concerns of the present. 'History' is in a constant state of flux, reinterpreted according to the needs of the moment.
This is true not just of Western academic history, but across cultures- Bedouin genealogies, eg.

What is true of Western history is that it is a literary medium. As the historian Peter Gay said, 'Style is not the dress of thought but part of its essence.. style is the art of the historian's science." Gay uses Burckhardt and Gibbon as examples, but the same is true of Holmes in Dusty Warriors, say; a conscious decision to use gritty first-person narrative to create an illusion of immediacy and verisimilitude.

As soon as pen is put to paper, or finger to keyboard, literature is created.
Or rather, a narrative is constructed. And it is this reliance on narrative- a relatively recent stylistic device- that is the hallmark of modern, Western 'History'. Narrative necessitates not just the inclusion of facts, but the exclusion of fact too- otherwise, you just get an unreadable, context-less mess of events. This is what makes history literature...

Historians such as R G Collingwood and Hayden White (who I've badly paraphrased above) both lucidly attacked the 'positivistic misconception' of history as a straightforward account of past events, and emphasised its fundamental 'literariness'. I would personally add that I'm sceptical than fiction can ever be solely fictional, but that's another story..
 
#9
Oh, and to address gennithmedic's point...

A while ago I read 'Arnhem Spearhead', written by an ex-para. In the introduction, an academic military historian notes that the author got some of his dates wrong, and claimed to have worked alongside units that weren't ever in theatre.

So who was right, the historian, or the guy who was actually there?

Fcuk knows...
 
#10
Historians have their uses, apparently. But they are only human. I reckon that an historian tells you more about the times and culture in which he writes than about the subject he is addressing. For example the Marxist historians. David IRVIN was renowned for finding new evidence. But he twisted it to fit his viewpoint.
As for innaccuracies in first hand accounts, I'd say it lends creditability. Anyone who claims to have utter clarity of recall is probably a liar, or very mistaken.
If am a being charitable I would say that historians could introduce people to the subject. But their opinions are entirely worthless, and there attempts to bring the subject alive are utter FICTION.


So there.
 
#11
bet them breasts have more brains than you
 
#12
As for innaccuracies in first hand accounts, I'd say it lends creditability
Can you explain the logic of that?

gennithmedic said:
But their opinions are entirely worthless, and there attempts to bring the subject alive are utter FICTION.


So there.
You're being a bit harsh there. For starters, you're applying double standards big style. We all pass our own judgements on todays news stories whilst only knowing a tiny amount of the facts behind each one. If you believe that historians write nothing true at all, then you have to conclude the same of all other forms of non-fiction. Which means denying that there is any sort of objective truth, which in turn leads you into postmodernism and immorality.

Sorry, I've waxed pretentious for long enough. What I'm basically trying to say is that historians are no different to knowledgable writers on any subject. You can (and should) take their ideas with a pinch of salt but you can't reject them outright.
 
#13
Rumpelstiltskin said:
Oh, and to address gennithmedic's point...

A while ago I read 'Arnhem Spearhead', written by an ex-para. In the introduction, an academic military historian notes that the author got some of his dates wrong, and claimed to have worked alongside units that weren't ever in theatre.

So who was right, the historian, or the guy who was actually there?

Fcuk knows...
The historians (there were actually two). Because according to my copy of Arnhem Spearhead, the errors they (and you) refer to were actually picked up by then General John Frost. You might have heard of Frost, I believe he was at Arnhem too. All the historians do is point out exactly what Frost was referring to and then agree with him that "...these and other minor inaccuracies add to rather than detract from the authenticity of Arnhem Spearhead, since they show that the author has relied on his own impressions and experiences and has not adulterated his account by bringing it into line with other sources." Even then, the errors are easily verified as such with some basic cross-checking.

That's what historians do, they take misremembered/sloppy/ inaccurate stuff like your "recollection" above and provide a properly analysed/verified/referenced version for them as can be arrsed to look.

Shot yourself in the foot a bit there, didn't you? :p

exMercian
 
#14
gennithmedic said:
Historians have their uses, apparently. But they are only human. I reckon that an historian tells you more about the times and culture in which he writes than about the subject he is addressing. For example the Marxist historians. David IRVIN was renowned for finding new evidence. But he twisted it to fit his viewpoint.
As for innaccuracies in first hand accounts, I'd say it lends creditability. Anyone who claims to have utter clarity of recall is probably a liar, or very mistaken.
If am a being charitable I would say that historians could introduce people to the subject. But their opinions are entirely worthless, and there attempts to bring the subject alive are utter FICTION.


So there.
Cheers for that, good of you to confirm my assessment that what you actually know about historians can be written in the corner of a postage stamp. As a result you are talking unadulterated shite, unless this is a poor attempt at a wah, of course.

However, to address your points specifically:

- ref historians and the times/culture they come from, you seem unaware that historians have the vital importance of objectivity hammered into them during their training in order to offset it as far as humanly possible.

- David Irving was not a Marxist historian, he was an apologist for National Socialism and his status as a historian was destroyed by....academic historians who analysed all his stuff and identified the falsehoods and twisting of the evidence to which you refer. Note the irony there, you proudly crowing about something that originates from them useless historians. :roll: Typical that you cite a discredited example too, altho it fits in quite well with your general cluelessness

- ref inaccuracies in first hand account, who said anything about anyone having perfect recall, apart from you? As for them being mistaken, see my comment to Rumpelstiltskin above, and the glaring illogicality of your position pointed out by overpromoted.

- you keep dribbling about historian's attempts to bring things to life being FICTION and such, so how about providing us with some specifics. Like which historians and/or books/subjects you are actually on about, and what exactly you mean by bringing to life. Unless you're making it up as you go along, of course.

- if I was being charitable I'd say that you are in fact the type of throbber who doesn't let knowing the square root of fcuk all about something get in the way of pontificating about it.

So there.

exMercian
 
#15
Rumpelstiltskin said:
Sorry, I was being lazy. But:

History hasn't been a straightforward account of events since monks stopped writing chronicles. And even then, the choice of events listed reflected the theoretical, political and cosmological viewpoints of the monks themselves. More space would be devoted to comets and miraculous portents than to major political upheavals, for instance.

As legal_eagle said, history is written in the present, for the present. It can only ever reflect the concerns of the present. 'History' is in a constant state of flux, reinterpreted according to the needs of the moment.
This is true not just of Western academic history, but across cultures- Bedouin genealogies, eg.

What is true of Western history is that it is a literary medium. As the historian Peter Gay said, 'Style is not the dress of thought but part of its essence.. style is the art of the historian's science." Gay uses Burckhardt and Gibbon as examples, but the same is true of Holmes in Dusty Warriors, say; a conscious decision to use gritty first-person narrative to create an illusion of immediacy and verisimilitude.

As soon as pen is put to paper, or finger to keyboard, literature is created.
Or rather, a narrative is constructed. And it is this reliance on narrative- a relatively recent stylistic device- that is the hallmark of modern, Western 'History'. Narrative necessitates not just the inclusion of facts, but the exclusion of fact too- otherwise, you just get an unreadable, context-less mess of events. This is what makes history literature...

Historians such as R G Collingwood and Hayden White (who I've badly paraphrased above) both lucidly attacked the 'positivistic misconception' of history as a straightforward account of past events, and emphasised its fundamental 'literariness'. I would personally add that I'm sceptical than fiction can ever be solely fictional, but that's another story..
I see. So historical writing has now gone from being a literary trope to a constructed narrative. Ref the firsy bit, lumping disparate stuff together like that is a bit dodgy IMO, altho I agree to an extent with the bit about the flux and reinterpretation. More importantly, I beg to differ with the bit about "history hasn't been a straightforward account of events since monks stopped writing chronicles." Most military history (which is what's actually under discussion here I thought) falls squarely into the narrative category, and in all the university history departtments I've been in narrative history is a big no-no. Gay's comment thus overlooks the role of critical thinking and comparative analysis in general historical writing, and your ref to Holmes is a bit disingenuous because he doesn't generally use the style he adopts in Dusty Warriors. The problem with narrative military history is that the general lack of analysis not only frequently overlooks vital background context, it also lets popular myths and all that go with them pass unchallenged. But that's a different argument. :)

With ref to Collingwood and Hayden White, your paraphrasing of their thinking doesn't match my admittedly limited understanding of it. More pertinently, neither are military historians, the former was as much a philosopher as a historian, I believe the latter works in literature rather than history and is a relative post-modernist to boot... :)

exMercian
 
#16
exMercian, I didn't realise we were discussing military history solely- gennithmedic didn't limit his original point to military history, though I suppose, in context, that was what he meant.

I would have thought that all (sweeping statement: most?) history is narrative , in that it tells a story. Any history of the Somme (for example), unless it's a dispassionate list of casualty figures, units in theatre, movements of materiel, etc, recounts a constructed narrative of 'what happened' by selective use of the raw data. Surely? This isn't necessarily a Bad Thing, but is just a reflection
of the nature of its creation. History is written, by writers, for readers- at least in the West. How is it not a literary genre, then?

re Dusty Warriors, I'm not saying that military history, where the first-person element is flagged up more than is the case with most academic histories, is less worthy than academic history; just that it highlights something present in all historical works. If there's a difference between the two (subgenres?), it's that academic history often assumes an omniscient authorial voice... but that's still a literary trope.

And yes, I am coming at this from a PoMo viewpoint, but I'm genuinely baffled at what you think history is, other than a form of literature.

And yeah, I guess you were right about Arnhem Spearhead- I don't have a copy to hand- which I suppose tells us something about personal recollection vs access to documentary sources :D
 
#17
Dear exMercian,
thank you for spending so much time and energy on my "unadulterated shite." I hope I bought colour and meaning to your existence- and can only marvel at the thought of what will happen should you read something magnificent.

I loved the idea of squads of historians having the "vital import of objectivity hammered into them." Up and down the hills of the Brecon Beacons- with pick helves perhaps? Or just university degrees before they end up office temping or McJobing it? Teacher if really unlucky.

Your righteous fury blinded you to the full stop between "Marxist Historian" and "David Irvin" I offered two examples, chosen from polar opposites to illustrate a point. It seemed a bit more constructive than ranting and abusing people. By the way Irvin was discredited by an Austrian court. Herds of historians had singulary failed to stop him in the way that Austrian prison time managed.

Most of the people on this thread had raised the point of Inaccuracies, your good self included- "no hint of poor memory." Did you forget, dear?

Maybe I was too hard on the historian trade, however. I find that a good bibliography saves me a lot of wasted time and effort looking for the Real Stuff. First hand accounts from the Doers!

Does George MacDonald Fraser qualify for the title "Historian" with his Flashman books?
 
#18
gennithmedic said:
Dear exMercian,
thank you for spending so much time and energy on my "unadulterated shite." I hope I bought colour and meaning to your existence- and can only marvel at the thought of what will happen should you read something magnificent.

I loved the idea of squads of historians having the "vital import of objectivity hammered into them." Up and down the hills of the Brecon Beacons- with pick helves perhaps? Or just university degrees before they end up office temping or McJobing it? Teacher if really unlucky.

Your righteous fury blinded you to the full stop between "Marxist Historian" and "David Irvin" I offered two examples, chosen from polar opposites to illustrate a point. It seemed a bit more constructive than ranting and abusing people. By the way Irvin was discredited by an Austrian court. Herds of historians had singulary failed to stop him in the way that Austrian prison time managed.

Most of the people on this thread had raised the point of Inaccuracies, your good self included- "no hint of poor memory." Did you forget, dear?

Maybe I was too hard on the historian trade, however. I find that a good bibliography saves me a lot of wasted time and effort looking for the Real Stuff. First hand accounts from the Doers!

Does George MacDonald Fraser qualify for the title "Historian" with his Flashman books?
Don't flatter yourself, minimal time and energy expenditure at this end, although I see it took you a while to get back to me. Did you have trouble finding an adult to help you? Most historians might not spend much time tabbing up and down the Brecon Beacons, altho some do, but at least they grasp the idea of keeping their traps shut when they don't have a scoobie what they're on about...

Ref Irvin, FYI an Austrian court sent him to jail for Holocaust denial. His reputation was destroyed later when he tried to sue an author for accusing him of the same and the defence engaged a team of historians to go through his work with a fine toothcomb; this provided absolute proof that shat all over his denials. So once again, it was historians that conclusively exposed Irvin for what he was.

Ref McDonald Fraser, no he doesn't for Flashman because that's historical fiction. Like a lot of folk you assume that just because someone writes about something in the past or has a first degree in history, that makes them a historian, when that is not necessarily the case. And you won't find many history PhDs temping or McJobbing however comforting you find the idea.

Anyway, back to Fraser. His book on the Border reivers does though IIRC, and his memoir "Quartered Safe Out Here" is very good. The problem with relying on first hand accounts like that is that they are the equivalent of a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle. They can be an important piece or a trivial piece, but it is only ever a piece and not the whole picture. If you're happy staring at one piece at a time then crack on, but that doesn't mean the folk who can assemble the whole puzzle are irrelevant as you seem to think. But if you insist on thinking otherwise while revelling in your narrow ignorance don't let me spoil your fun.

[edited to add] Oh, and you seem to have forgotten to provide some details of all these historians who you decry for "bringing things to life" or their works.

exMercian
 
#19
Sorry for the delay, O Master. Had to escape the grown ups and wallow in the pit of ignorance for a bit, before crossing swords with the Mighty Historians. Anyway your Pilgrim requests an audience...

With regards to Irvin having his reputation destroyed AFTER he had be sent to an "Austrian Jail" I think you may be wrong there. The Historians had 20 odd years to shoot him down, but failed. Only after an Austrian court (wonder if they had a jury?) sent him off to be buggered in prison for a bit, with a blaze of TV infamy, was he stopped. Pity the court didn't order him off to scrub the floors of a local death camp with his toothbrush. Supervised by survivors!

I chose MacDonald Fraser for a reason. As well as being a literary genius, the man has written Historical Fiction- Flashman, straight history- "The Steel Bonnets" and his autobiography "Quartered Safe Out Here." All are good. Flashman inspired me to start reading- and guided me to bits of history forbidden to me by political correctness. The Bonnets is a bit dry, but is readable. Quartered Safe gripped me for 48 hours and showed me how much in debt to the Burma Star men I am.
It's the difference between Herodotus and Caesar. The former's writings are very well written, but when you realise that Julius Caesar is speaking to you directly, about the great things that he undertook... Its the difference betwen listening to a well informed Man In The Pub and being honoured to have a quiet chap with an old gent on Remembrance Day.
I would rather have one piece of a jigsaw that I shall be inspired by for the rest of my life, than an incomplete, second hand, overview.
Of course, if you imagine that Historians have a God Like ability to look down over utter chaos, and give a detailed narrative then good for you, but please avoid me.
Forgive me but I cannot find an example of Historians bringing history to life. The herds of schoolchildren avoiding History A Level will back me up.

On a more sensible note;
To return to Flashman- would it be fair to say that he is the modern day Myth. Did the study of history begin with stories about great heroes- who may or may have not existed- leavened with historical knowlledge? I know which I prefer.
 
#20
I think your view of historians may be coloured by Thomas Hardy's perspective "War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading"...

The question is history fiction, really is unanswerable absolutely. However the impact of theorism and "joining up" facts by narrative can lead away from empirical facts into a area of literature. As Carlyle said "History is a distillation of rumour." rumours tend to only survive if they are juicy, repeatable and can be attributed to great men, or at least great characters. Hence the best-selling status of those compenia of modern military "history", "Try not to laugh..." and "Don't cry for me Sergeant Major".

I myself was force-fed EH Carr's "What is history" as a student and now violently reject the view that history "should be politically relevant". In fact I now try and scrape the scales of political commentary off my history and try and identify the killer facts, the philosophy and the human themes. I do like well-written history but I do dislike historians who choose to twist history to accomodate literary conceits.
 

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