On one of the interminable (but surprisingly addictive) Napoleonic history arguments on the The Miniatures Page, one poster stated: “The historian’s craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event.” To which another poster replied: “Funny, I thought historians pursued truth. Stories are the pursuit of fiction writers. And most American journalists…”
I personally agree with the first poster. Truth is an elusive quality because it so hard to define. For example, one would think pursuing the truth of whether Kevin went to the shops at 6.00pm on 6 May 2007 would be simple. Surely all you need to do is find some evidence that either he did, or he didn’t? But:
- what do we define as ‘the shops’- a particular shop, a number of shops?
- does ‘went’ mean he actually got to the shops, or just left to go to the shops, or started for the shops but ended up somewhere else?
- is 6.00 the time he left or arrived?
- do we accept him going at 6.10pm as still being truthful?
- was the date based on Kevin’s timezone, or the original writer’s (unlikely, I guess … but you never know)?
- does online shopping count?!?!
Even if one could define this particular truth, does the fact of Kevin going to the shops have a relationship with any other ‘truths’ being pursued? And tied together with those other ‘truths’, do they have a bearing on some larger question? Or is this particular truth being pursued in isolation, and so it is just a red herring from the main issue? Come to think of it, what is the ‘main issue’ – have we identified the correct main issue to pursue the truths about?
I actually think focussing on telling of the story is as important, if not more so, as focussing on pursuing some elusive truth. Good historical story writers (whether historians who are skilled at telling a good story, historical novelists or even American journalists!) can fire the imagination. Whether absolutely truthful or not, they can have a great effect on people’s views of what happened in the past, and what their future actions might be as a result of those views (whether minor or major, good or bad).
I don’t think precise but fusty academic historians can lay claim to such influence. After all, how many ordinary people’s view of Napoleon is based on the work of academic historians, compared to being based on Bernard Cornwell or CS Forester?