The distinction between “correct” and “true,” or what we talk about when we talk about “history.”
In elementary school, I loved few events more than the Scholastic Book Fair. The Halloween costume parade and Field Day were a treat, but they paled in comparison to giving up a whole class period to venture down to the library (or sometimes a requisitioned art classroom) where I could revel in the glossy covers advertising the latest and greatest in kids’ lit. It strikes me now that this is a relatively wholesome way to transform children into consumers, but I digress.
I was a bookworm, always finishing my classwork early so I could head over to the library nook and bury my nose in How to Eat Fried Worms, or an installment of the Boxcar Children. The Book Fair was the logical next step: a whole room lined wall-to-wall with shelves and tables advertising all manner of material for the up-and-coming reader, from the Magic Tree House to Frindle.
Every year, I looked out for the 10 True Tales series, written by Alan Zullo. The conceit was self-explanatory: each book contained 10 nonfiction stories organized around a theme. Some topics were intense, but unobjectionable: Young Survivors of the Holocaust, Surviving Sharks and Other Dangerous Creatures. But zoom out a bit, and a recurring focus emerges: Teens at War, Battle Heroes: Voices from Afghanistan (and a similar book for Iraq), D-Day Heroes. Many of these books are essentially nationalist military histories, recounting deeds of heroism committed by intrepid GIs as they fought for the American way at home and abroad. Reading the series as a kid, I hung onto every word, picturing the battles that Zullo narrated at the pitch of fiction. Children don’t read books with a critical eye to ideological framing; Zullo called these men heroes, and I believed him.
Teens at War is typical of the series. The description from Zullo’s website starts out alright: “Ever since the American Revolution, teenagers have risked their lives to serve in every war this country has fought.” A paragraph later, though, some out-of-pocket framing emerges: “In warfare, most underage soldiers showed their zealous spirit and raw courage, but few were properly prepared for the horrors they would experience.” We’ve now entered what seems to be a pro/con list for letting children serve in the military, although we’re never quite told whose judgment is being applied. The next sentence describes these minors, as young as 12, as “warriors.” Scholastic’s publisher’s description labels their military service “patriotic” and their stories “inspiring.”
With the benefit of hindsight, I see 10 True Tales as pretty gross. But, ideological window-dressing aside, these books are, in an objective sense, accurate. The series boasts that it is “based on true events ripped from the headlines or taken from little-known moments in history.” And that’s the problem: these books are sold to kids as “history” because the events are “true,” which tacitly implies that their rhetorical framing as heroic, inspiring narratives is also somehow “true.” Zullo admits to dramatizing events and recreating dialogue (which sometimes includes racial slurs, “for realism”). But there is still a false consonance between factual veracity and narrative validity in how these “true” tales are presented. And while a kids’ author like Zullo might seem an unlikely point of entry for a screed on the blurry line between historical fact and truth, this is exactly where much of the trouble lies: to make the past accessible, works of popular history conceal the process by which masses of historical documents are converted into ideologically active stories. To understand this process, it’s important to ask: apart from telling a “true” story, what does history do, and what is it for?
The American historian Hayden White spent 10 years researching and writing in order to offer a possible answer in his 1973 book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book studies a number of influential historians and philosophers, tracing the development of the discipline and the idea of “history” across the 1800s, but its analytical framework is fundamentally atemporal. It is a study of history as a rhetorical practice of writing and storytelling, or a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse,” in White’s own heady phrasing.
White is concerned with how history, as a linguistic construction of the past, is created through a specific mode of thinking which he terms the “historical consciousness,” or how past events are strung together to create a recognizable historical narrative. Historical consciousness manifests in the formal aspects of a historian’s narrative, evident in their choice of “emplotment” (what sort of dramatic plot arc does a historical narrative take? Comedy? Tragedy?) as well as their historical “grammar” and “syntax”—in other words, the process by which historians fit the past into a coherent story. This formal question of how histories are structured is fundamental to what White calls the “problem of historical knowledge:” what does it mean to think about something “historically,” and what is the point of doing so?
It’s here that we arrive at the distinction between a “fact” and a “truth”—or, to be snarky about it, the difference between something being “wrong” and “dumb.” Metahistory argues that a historical narrative always implies an ideological perspective by virtue of the way it is told. Any history will have characters, and some of those characters tend to emerge as heroes or villains, at least relatively. Certain historical entities are identified as problems or obstacles, and consequently more or less ideal. To take Zullo as an example: American child soldiers are heroes, and anyone trying to kill them is a villain. Other countries are the problem, and the American military is the solution. A historical story is told through facts, but its “truth” occurs at what White terms the “precritical” level. The historian must decide what kind of story to tell before telling it.
The historical discipline differentiates between “history” and “historiography.” Catch-all definitions are unwieldy, but broadly, “history” is the study of the past, and “historiography” is the study of the historical discipline and its methodology. A “history” is one story, built on specific historical evidence and most often presented as a linear narrative. It attempts to explain why a particular thing happened in the way that it did. Historiography encompasses many histories, and often explains why many things happened the way that they did. It is, as White held, a fundamentally existential pursuit: a particular historiographical viewpoint amounts to an argument about the way the world works. And it’s at this level that history might be “correct” but also “wrong.” Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.
At my parents’ house, there is an entire shelf dedicated to housing a series of nonfiction books that my dad grew up reading in the ’50s called Landmark Books. Published between 1950 and 1970, the series employed well-known contemporary authors, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners and not one of them an academic, to cover a wide range of American historical topics, from Paul Revere and the Minute Men to The F.B.I to a Shirley Jackson-penned telling of The Witchcraft of Salem Village. They’re packaged as factual histories, and their perspectives are exemplary of post-WWII American historiography, with all of its assumptions about American exceptionalism and a triumphalist notion of historical progress.
The 54th book in the series is Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor, written by journalist Hodding Carter. According to one biography subtitled “The Reconstruction of a Racist” (note the implied redemption plot arc), Carter had been a white supremacist until graduating college, after which he fought for an end to Jim Crow. Authorial intrigue notwithstanding, the book is essentially a hagiography of Lee, chronicling his life from birth to death as a “great American who was guided by something he believed to be the most precious quality in life… a sense of honor.” The book is researched: it quotes primary-source letters at length and offers plenty of historical tidbits about Lee’s upbringing. It gets the “facts” right. The problem is that those facts are used to turn Lee into a hero. What is emphasized is not his role as the Confederacy’s military leader, but the admirable “sense of duty and honor” to his home state of Virginia which compelled him to side with the South. “Honor”—a term never explicitly defined—is used to separate Lee’s assumed motivations from his actions, trumpeting the former and downplaying the latter. The book’s penultimate page claims that “gallantry is our common inheritance, whether our ancestors lost with Lee or won with Grant.” As with Zullo, the facts are right, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are ideologically blinkered—relative and debatable.
Hayden White offers a solution to this nebulous problem of historical objectivity (or lack thereof) in accepting that historical meaning is ultimately subjective: it is formed, rather than found. History is not and can never be value-neutral. “The historian performs an essentially poetic act,” he writes, “in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it.” Before explaining what a history means, the historian has to construct that history. The past is only—is always—a product of the present.
This idea was (and perhaps remains) controversial, and critics of White who decry the relativism inherent in his position have raised the polemical “Nazi question:” if historical meaning is constructed, imposed rather than essential, then on what historical grounds is one to challenge fascist historiography or even outright Holocaust deniers? White offers several responses, my favorite being his dry observation that “The Nazis were anything but relativists.” But a more instructive answer is that history is ultimately a moral and aesthetic pursuit rather than a scientific one, so fascist history can and should be dismissed precisely because it’s fascist. White cautions against treating historical revisionists “as if they were engaged in the same enterprise… instead of treating them with the contempt and derision they deserve.”
There is no objective position within history. It’s a destabilizing idea, one that denies history as a neutral proving ground for ideas. It’s impossible to argue, for example, that the collapse of the Soviet Union is proof that socialism is an unviable economic system, or, for that matter, that the Russian Revolution is proof that monarchy is an unviable political system. Those conclusions are theorized, not merely discovered. It may be true that, as The F.B.I. recounts, J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “speed” in high school, and that he chose to put his own life at risk in New Orleans in 1936 when he was among the FBI agents who arrested prolific criminal Alvin Karpi. But those isolated facts only become meaningful or usable as historical “evidence” once assimilated into a broader narrative about the FBI that has its own subjective viewpoint. The book’s ultimate historical stance that “every American, young or old, can be proud of his F.B.I.” is a value judgment, not an objective conclusion.
Like 10 True Tales, the Landmark Books series is for kids, and it’s particularly easy to dunk on with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight. But contemporary histories, even didactic ones, still position themselves as purely expository, containers for information sans angle or bias. My high school history textbook, the American Pageant, certainly did. Like many a history textbook, the AP purportedly offers an accurate history that walks a neutral line through historical debates—as if it were possible to find a stance that is not itself an implicit position. Its 16th edition starts with the “Founding of the New Nation,” and asks, “How did the colonists overcome the conflicts that divided them (assumption one), unite against Britain (assumption two), and declare themselves at great cost to be an ‘American’ people (assumption three—does this even mean anything)?” The answers: “reverence for individual liberty, self-government, religious tolerance, and economic opportunity.”
Along with this self-congratulatory telling is an acknowledgment of the dark side of the early American mentality (or at least AP’s telling of it): “a willingness to subjugate outsiders,” including Indigenous Americans and enslaved people from Africa. A putative commitment to exploring both the good and bad of history obscures that the American Pageant has already made a litany of presuppositions about what constitutes “good,” “bad,” and “history.” At no point is the reader pushed to ask if there is another way to tell this story.
My high school history teachers were progressive. We read some Howard Zinn, and we were taught from the first day of our Civil Rights Movement unit that race is a construct intended to mitigate class conflict. Liberal critiques of American history were common, even encouraged. But dark historical facts never contradicted the fundamental historiographical truth of American progress, of the strength and wisdom of our institutions. Besides, even if they had wanted to (and I suspect they might have), my teachers couldn’t have strayed too far. The textbook was the textbook, and we had an AP exam to take at the end of the year. To my knowledge, only two teachers in the school assigned the Communist Manifesto while I attended. They both taught English.
I took AP United States History over two years, with a different focus each semester: social movements, war and conflict, economics, and finally a history of Revolution-era philosophy. This last focus, known as intellectual history, was particularly interesting to me at the time, and has since become my primary research interest. How did people think in the past? I learned about the enlightenment philosophers: Locke’s and Hobbes’s theories about people in the state of nature, Rousseau’s social contract, Montesquieu’s separation of powers. We were taught that these were the seminal ideas that led to the American state, and, implicitly, that these ideas were superlatively good, if not flawless.
The buck stopped there. With few exceptions, our history of ideas began and ended in the 18th century. You’d think no one had had a worthwhile thought about government since the ink dried on the Constitution. Our philosophical history was strangely ahistorical, because it had been intensely “prefigured,” to use White’s term, intended to contextualize (and legitimize) American institutions more than to stimulate curiosity beyond the clear predetermined takeaways. Ideological questions were presented as done deals. I got As in history, and I believed that the study of history was important, but I graduated high school unable to articulate exactly why. What was the point of asking questions when the answer was the same as it ever was?
In my first semester at Oberlin, I started a history major, and things began to click. Professors could explain clearly why the study of history was important, why it was an urgent task. I learned that the “past” is often not really past, because historical memory is a building block of identity. I learned to look for historiographical slant: If this is the story, then what is its lesson? Hayden White is sometimes taught in Historical Methods, the major’s required methodology course. I finally figured out that the point of history isn’t to be “objective” or unbiased. Historical narratives imply a historical viewpoint, which implies a historical subject, which in turn implies subjectivity.
Reading Metahistory for my own research this year, I learned that academic, source-based history dates back less than two centuries. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote “history” millennia ago, but their historical consciousnesses were drastically different from those of modern historians. For much of its existence, history has been a branch of politics or rhetoric. In the 19th century, the first recognizably modern historians gave the discipline its own autonomy by claiming that it could be purely rational and objective, scientific in the way that the natural sciences were. From there, history has alternately been defended as “science” insofar as historians deny any distortion of the facts, and as “art” insofar as it doesn’t have a unified formal method. Whatever it may be, our conception of “history” is itself historical. There’s no escape.
Which is all well and good. White wrote that the purpose of history is to educate people of “the fact that their own present world had once existed in the minds of men as an unknown and frightening future, but how, as a consequence of specific human decisions, this future had been transformed into a present.” In understanding how we created the present, we become better equipped to create our ideal (defined subjectively, of course) future. Such an understanding of history doesn’t foreclose upon the importance of getting the facts right. History is not fiction; its claims to reveal something about the real world only work if they attend to things that actually happened in that real world. But the facts are the beginning, not the end, of what makes history “true.” Historical narratives exist because someone wants you to see the past in a particular way, and by extension to feel a particular way about the present—and facts, at the end of it all, have very little to do with that.