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 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 of their life 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?



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