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About History: A Horse Of A Different Color
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
Cantering up on his white charger, Washington stared at Lee with un expression so wrathful thai few of his aides would ever forget it.
”What is the meaning of this, Sir?” the red-faced commander-in-chief demanded.
Lee turned his glance aside and began to mutter something none of the witnesses could quite make out. Before he had finished, Washington whipped out his sword, waved it aloft, and with a violent curse, shouted to the retreating American troops to stand and fight. The rout was stemmed.
So reads one description of the dramatic climax of the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. How true is it?
That question—How true is it?—is one that bothers the editors of this magazine all the time. From the beginning, we have promised our readers history that will be both lively and accurate. We have stubbornly eschewed historical fiction, whether it be invented dialogue, colorful details without factual foundation, or episodes wholly devised by an imaginative contributor. We are committed to telling the truth about the past—yet if there is one motto embla/oned on our editorial ensign it is that good history should make the past come alive. We like the way it was put by a nineteenth-century American historian named James Handasyd Perkins:
I may listen with infinite tedium to one man’s account of a merry meeting, or a pitched battle, for he will hut give me the fact that men and women laughed, and danced, or that two parties fell to and fought; while to another, who shall paint me the very men and women, and how this one was dressed, and that one held her head, and the other stepped ofl with a partner having a cork leg, or who shall make me see the red-coated soldiers, and hear the swearing sergeants, and watch the cool yeomanry, holding their lire till they see the white of their enemies’ eyes—to this man I could listen if I had not slept for forty-eight hours.
The trouble is, of course, that when all is said and done the past is irretrievable. What happened to you yesterday? Nobody can give more than a faltering and partial account of his own recent past. The ordinary moments arc swept indifferently into history by the second hand on the clock, and even as they go, a haze of uncertainty rises around them. It grows denser as time goes by. As for the extraordinary moments—the surprising, disappointing, terrifying, or ecstatic moments that we will “never forget”—they are so meaningful to us that out of them we build our personal myths, and in a few weeks or months or years we no longer know what really happened; we only know how we tell the story.
This human bias is damnably apt to affect historians, too, and the best of them have always been skeptically aware of it. Herodotus, the father of history, liberally salted the opening chapter of his Persian Wars with “according to the Greeks” and “according to the Persians”; and a modern wit, brooding perhaps on that, came up with “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.” Henry Steclc Commager argued in our pages not long ago that ideally the historian should not make moral judgments on the behavior of earlier générations; but he recognized that such detachment is almost beyond human capacity. The scholar who can write well ol the American or French or Russian Revolution without caring who won has yet to appear. Meanwhile, historians continue to give accounts of past events that veer toward their own prejudices, and this doesn’t do much to burn oil the log enveloping “what really happened.”
Truly, the task of the historian sometimes looks hopeless—yet it is a most vital human enterprise, and one we are all engaged in whether we know it or not. for the only thing that lets us make sense out of our experience, personal or communal, is that, broadly speaking, history docs repeat itself. The future is just a guess; the present instant, taken alone, is as meaningless as a single note isolated from a fugue. Time (lows continuously into the past, and if there is any distinguishable pattern, we can see it only by looking backward. It is when we contemplate the past, and adjust our anticipation of the future accordingly, that we live as human beings.
So we are all historians. One consequence is that there are many différent approaches, in art and science as well as in history proper, to making sense out of the past. We can be thankful that, before photography, most painters were not abstractionists I)Ut did their best to show things just as they appeared. Many diaries and journals occupy a fertile middle ground between literature and history: even the line between history and fiction is not always easy to draw. Henry yielding unabashedly called his extravagant novel The History of Tom Jones, a Founding , and there can be no doubt that it brilliantly illuminates for us the eighteenth-century English scene. Everybody knows what truth is stranger than, but it may be—so claim the artists—that fiction is sometimes truer than truth. Matthew Arnold spoke sourly of “that huge Mississippi of falsehood called History,” and if “truth” is stranger than fiction, one thing that tends to make it so is inaccuracy.