When History Reads Like a Novel

Published:June 25, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


As the opening sentence of a book review, this one is not terribly impressive:

If you like history written as a novel, then Vicksburg 1863 by Winston Groom is for you. I enjoy reading history that way so it worked for me.

It comes from the blog Civil War Et Al., which is penned by a novelist. And while I realize that these are pet peeves, I am nevertheless frustrated by reviews that worry about what we, the readers, may or may not like. Why not worry instead about what you, the reviewer, liked or didn’t like? That’s more important. And if a book “worked” (whatever that means) only because you happen to like reading history written as a novel, then does that mean it didn’t “work” in some larger sense? In other words, do I have to share your predilections in order to like this book? If so, that’s not a review so much as it’s a casual recommendation from a friend.

(Then what’s a review? you ask. A review means engaging the book on its own terms, not on the terms of what you personally like and don’t like. A review asks whether the book accomplished what it set out to accomplish, not whether you personally liked it—or at least not only or even primarily whether you personally liked it.)

I mean no disrespect to Civil War Et Al. by voicing these criticisms. And anyway, what interests me most about that first sentence are the questions it raises but does not pursue: What does it mean to write history like a novel? Is that even a good thing?

I suspect that for most people, the answer is a resounding YES! Such books are more accessible to lay readers; they’re easier. They’re more fun. And that’s actually pretty important for the encyclopedia. Our authors are historians, but our audience consists mostly of non-historians. That means we have to avoid speaking in a language that only historians understand. And we do that by telling stories. (For better or for worse, I tried to do that with my entry on the Battle of Chancellorsville.)

Which is all well and good, except that sometimes history can suffer. One Encyclopedia Virginia contributor voiced that very reasonable concern in a recent e-mail:

My major overall concern is that these articles don’t become caricatures in which their subjects . . . are presented as they usually are, more for the sake of color and “human interest” than for the very real and very significant roles they played in the war.

I think that so far we have done well to strike a balance between the concerns of history and the concerns of, let’s say, accessibility. (That sounds condescending. I personally don’t need stuff to be accessible; I want it to be. I want it to be well written because I love good writing.) Which only raises another issue. And here I’m going to quote from Stephen Cushman’s excellent Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle, in which he asks some of these very questions where the Battle of the Wilderness is concerned:

But the next question is, do the embellishments and heightenings and shadings and manipulations that Civil War historians have always practiced necessarily help to re-create the war and make it live in the world around us? Much of the time the answer has to be yes. A well-written, briskly paced narrative that reads like a novel or thrilling tale will stimulate the imaginations of most readers better than a collection of dull, dusty records will. But for some readers, and I include myself in this group, the embellishments and heightenings and shadings and manipulations also call attention to the fact that a narrative is always only a screen of language woven from earlier language, and that screen can cut us off and distance us from the particularity of what has happened.

You can’t win, in other words. Or you can do like Cushman, and go to the Wilderness yourself. Cut the language screen down and try to feel what it’s like to just be there.

IMAGE: Confederate entrenchments along Orange Plank Road at the Wilderness battlefield (Library of Congress)