No True History

By Eilene Lyon

We recently watched The Abolitionists, by American Experience.  It is an excellent and high-production-value 3-part series about the role played by the anti-slavery movement in the lead-up to the Civil War.  One thing that struck me was the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in the film.  I’ve read books and articles on Lincoln, seen documentaries, even gone to Ford’s Theater, but the angle taken in The Abolitionists was new to me. For a real eye-opener, I went to Newspapers.com and read some 1863 articles from South Carolina about Lincoln. (If you’re game, click on the links below this story)

If you’ve read the novel, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, you’ll find the characterizations of John Brown and Frederick Douglass in this program a bit varnished, by comparison.  But fiction has the advantage of playing with personality.  Writing non-fiction portrayals is more constrained.

Imagine writing a biography of someone you know very well: a parent, a sibling, your BFF.  You need to convey the events that shaped them, and attempt to explain why they have done the things they’ve done in life.  You would want to describe their physical traits, mannerisms, personality quirks, etc.  When you finish and ask the subject to read it, do you think they would feel you’ve captured their true essence?

It’s not easy, is it? (I sympathize with anyone who’s ever been interviewed for a newspaper or magazine article.  It can be torture to read the result.)

Take that same task and apply it to someone who’s been dead a long time, someone you’ve never met.  The world he or she lived in was entirely different from your own experience.  No matter how much personal material you have on hand in the form of photos, letters or journals, you can never really figure out what made them tick.  Every characterization will fall short or wide of the mark.  Someone else working with the same material will infuse their own biases and come to different conclusions.  Sadly, there is no such thing as “true” history.

This is why I sometimes fear to express my interpretations about the ancestors, and others long gone, whom I write about.  Am I being fair to them?  Does it matter?  What do you think?

True_history_of_Abraham_Lincoln

Mr_Lincolns_gold

3 thoughts on “No True History

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  1. I don’t know very much about Abraham Lincoln. Nor do I know much about the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA — but the little I do know makes me believe that they’d be turning in their graves at what’s become of the republic they founded.

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  2. History is difficult to write about. It’s like taking a photograph. In the act of taking a photograph, you are automatically cutting out everything but that sliver of the world in front of you and that sliver of time. Nothing else fits into the picture. When anyone writes about history, they do the same thing. Everything cannot fit into a book or a film so you have to choose what to include, what tells the story. By choosing what to include people often frame who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” The “bad guy” kills the “good guy”. Yes, that is fact. When that’s the only fact shown, the “bad guy” looks like a killer. If the writer chooses to include that the “good guy” killed the “bad guy’s” two brother and sister to take their land — then the story changes, the history shifts and it becomes unclear who is the “good guy”. Reading a lot of history books on the same thing doesn’t give you a better understanding of all the facts; however it will give you a better understanding of the most popular facts, the ones that get retold time and time again. I don’t think there is an easy answer to this conundrum. Truth depends too much on point on view.

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