Facts and Fictions of History

What is history? Is it simply a record of past events, or is it more than that? Is it true? Can it be false? Is it open to interpretation? All of these questions are important and relevant to the discussion. The primary thing to remember when reading or studying history though, is that no one individual can claim to have the authoritative angle on it. Just as police do not (or should not) rely on a single witness to re-construct a crime, so historical events cannot be understood properly by reading a single book or source.

A common misconception about history is that it is based primarily on fact. A film critic recently made this error when he wrote:

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with learning about the world from fiction. That is, after all, one of the great uses of literature: To introduce us to people, things, and places we haven’t experienced firsthand. Ideally, this knowledge is enhanced and refined by the real-life information we glean from news stories, documentaries, and whatever personal experiences we might have. That is to say, we let the things we learn about politicians and police officers in the newspapers and in our daily lives color — and where necessary, correct — the impressions we get from fiction.

Notice the first statement: “there’s nothing wrong with learning about the world from fiction.” In this critic’s mind, “fiction” is stuff like movies, novels, and stage plays. For him, “fiction” consists of made-up stories, but “real-life information” consists of “news stories, documentaries, and personal experience.” This is the height of naiveté. He is making the (false) assumption that news stories, documentaries, and personal experiences all are “true” in the sense of being “factual.” In other words, while he admits that valuable information can be learned from “fiction,” the really important information comes from non-fiction sources. Not only is this a confusion of “factual” with “truthful,” it is a confusion of “fact” and “fiction.” Just because something is said to be “based on a true story,” does not in any way make it true. Historian Hayden White states it plainly:

Stories are not lived; there is no such thing as a real story. Stories are told or written, not found. As for the notion of a true story, this is virtually a contradiction in terms. All stories are fictions. Which means, of course, that they can be true only in a metaphorical sense and in the sense in which a figure of speech can be true.

A story is simply a helpful way to relate and connect a series of events. It is neither true nor false. This is why we so often read the word “alleged” in news reports. It isn’t until after the trial that what has been “alleged” comes to be accepted as “fact” or “fiction.” However, even this careful approach has been shown to be wrong time and time again, convicting an innocent man of a crime he did not commit.

The problem of “history” gets involved here as well, because a major source for historical works are the newspapers of that time. If our modern newspapers contain layers of errors and allegations of truth (and they do), what makes us think newspapers of the past were any different? No journalist or historian is omniscient. John Tosh writes: “The most important published primary source for the historian is the daily newspaper… [but] they recount only what people found worthy of note about their own age—which may not be what interests us today.” Imagine trying to construct a history of your own family based strictly on letters and correspondence and you will begin to understand the difficulty of constructing an accurate historical “story.” In the words of screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” And that goes double for professional film critics…