Novel History

Maybe my case is not that unusual?  But when I was in school (thru high school), I believe that I only took history classes when I had to. I don’t think I really got any pleasure out of them. I recall paging through review books, to get the lowdown on main events, so that I would do respectably on the tests. In English, at least I recall one teacher (in junior high) who kind of gave off sparks, and got me interested. But in history, nary a one do I remember.

In college, as you might guess, I was not inspired to take any history classes at all. But since then, I now realize I’ve creepingly worked my way into an interest in — and a reading acquaintance — with history. I still, even now, don’t think of my self as “reading history”. (I am, rather, a novel addict.) But here (roughly chronologically) are some ways in which I’ve managed to learn a bit about the past, with interest …

Books on the history of certain major technological advancements. I’m especially thinking of David McCullough. I know I’ve read his The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, respectively. I’ve also read books by others on the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and the first trans-Atlantic telephone cables. (The latter being Voice Across the Sea, by Arthur C. Clarke, who this time is not writing science fiction.)

What one might call “popular history”. I’m thinking right now of the writers Barbara Tuchman (e.g. The Guns of August, on the start of World War I) and Collins-Lapierre (Freedom at Midnight, about the Indian independence movement).

Various readings about the history of mathematics. I’m especially interested in the work of Archimedes, who figured out such matters as the area between a parabola and a straight line, with methods that can be hard to understand today, but which were in some ways as powerful as calculus, which didn’t emerge until almost 2,000 years later.

The New York Review of Books is my favorite periodical.  (Yes, even including the New York Times.)  I have been recently catching up on several months of past issues.  (I used to allot this journal to my subway reading, but for obvious reasons that option was not a good one during the past year.)  Here, from the April 5, 2018 issue, is an example of their coverage of books of history: one about George Washington’s relationship with Native Americans.  (Spoiler: “[Washington] was the only prominent founder to invest his enormous prestige in a just solution to America’s Native American dilemma”.)

 

Unconventional views of history. I’m particularly thinking of David Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which presents events not from the “winner’s” perspective — the way one usually gets history — but from the point of view of those downtrodden over the centuries: Native Americans, Blacks, women …

Podcasts. My favorite podcast is the ongoing History of the English Language.  This non-trivial endeavor began in 2016, and now comprises 146 hour-long episodes, not to mention “bonus episodes” (for Patreon contributors), stand-alone audiobooks, etc. The creator/narrator, Kevin Stroud,  takes the broad view, demonstrating how developments in the English language cannot be understood without investigating political, economic,and social developments. True to my affinity for “non-standard” history, Mr. Stroud does not even have a degree in linguistics! He is only driven by curiosity, dedication … and an obvious love for his subject.

I have just recently come upon Mike Duncan’s podcast, The History of Rome. Begun in 2007, this project was completed in 2012, after 179 episodes running a total of 73 hours. I hope my interest in this will hold … in that case I have a lot of enjoyable listening ahead of me.

Heather Cox Richardson is an historian. On her Facebook page (and also, some days after their Facebook appearance, posted to YouTube) she makes two one-hour videos every week. Tuesday is devoted to current political events in USA. On Thursdays she speaks about topics in American history, particularly as they relate to our present situation.

Recent example of HCR’s video talks:  On March 11, 2021, a fascinating discussion of how the Republican and Democratic parties have essentially reversed roles policy-wise, since the time of Lincoln (who, as you possibly might find surprising , was a Republican).

HCR is one of the only people, for whom I would say that their videos are more interesting to me than their prose output. (I normally avoid informational videos as much as I can, since — despite YouTube, for example, allowing one to speed them up — I get impatient, and would usually much rather scan through a written document, pausing where I want/need to pick up information.)

My last category, books about history by writers who are primarily novelists, consists (at least so far) of only one book: Son of the Morning Star, by Evan Connell. I read this some years ago, and it has managed to “haunt” me, so that I just gave it another read recently (an unusual event, since I’m typically eager to go on to the next book). I believe that it is quite unusual for a novelist to write a history book. (Note that I am not talking about an “historical novel” here, but rather bona-fide historical non-fiction.)

The special quality of this book starts, for me, with its title. This is the story of George Armstrong Custer, known especially of course for his “Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). Custer was, after his death and the loss of all his men in that battle, originally greatly admired, as a tragic fallen hero. But as Connell says, nowadays his “stock sells for nothing”.  Nevertheless, Connell chooses to name his book so as to cast a romantic kind of glow upon him. (“Son of the Morning Star” was a name conferred upon Custer by the Arikara Indians, apparently from the appearance of Venus at dawn, during a battle in which Custer figured.)

Connell, while I believe sticking to facts, nevertheless takes liberties with his narration that conventional historians would normally not allow themselves to do. He dwells on apparently minor figures for pages at a time, just because he finds them interesting. (As do I.) He digresses to discuss Native American artistic practices:

A gunshot was represented by fan-shaped lines diverging from the muzzle, just as European artists tried to represent a shot, except that this symbol might appear without the gun — indicating that a shot had been fired at a certain time or place. Similarly, a club or a bow or a whip might be shown in contact with an enemy although the owner might be some distance away, meaning that this weapon did at one time strike the foe.
They had no concept of perspective and almost never attempted to foreshorten. In a trail of hoofprints passing out of sight the farthest would be as large as the closest for the very good reason that whether a horse is close to you or far away his hoofprints will be the same size.

Connell pauses to muse on the images that we have of Frederick Benteen, an officer in command of a battalion at Little Bighorn:

In not a single photograph does he look formidable, not even very military. He appears placid, gentle, benevolent, with feminine lips and prematurely white hair. Only after contemplating that orotund face for a while does one begin to perceive something rather less accommodating. Embedded in that fleshy face are the expressionless agate eyes of a killer. One might compare them to the eyes of John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid. Now, this sinister absence of expression could be nothing more than a result of myopia, a condition afflicting him after the Oklahoma winter campaign of 1868-9 when he lent his protective goggles to a regimental surgeon. Still, in Civil War photographs he has almost that same look.

Connell does not bind himself to the chronological narrative of the typical historian. For instance, he begins his book with the shock of the first revelation of the Little Bighorn battle to the outside world.  Initial assumptions had to be soon reversed:

… a party of at least sixty United States cavalrymen — or what resembled cavalry, proceeding by twos, with a guidon flying — rode into view. A second cavalry unit then merged with the first and Lt. Roe understood that they were hostile Indians dressed in Army clothing.

About this time Lt. Bradley returned from the other side of the river to say that the dark objects on the hillside thought to be buffalo skins were, in fact, dead horses. What had been mistaken for skinned buffalo carcasses were the naked bodies of Custer’s men. Bradley had counted 197 dead soldiers.

I would be grateful to find out about other works of history, written by authors who normally are novelists. At least up to now, history books by conventional historians just do not seem to do it for me …


WELL —  now that I have put all my sources for historical information down in one place — maybe I have been able to compensate just a bit, for neglecting the normal, formal history book?

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Filed under Book reviewlets, Ol' reliable MISC category

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