Wipe out

Over dinner a few years ago an historian, whom you know well, told me about a frustrating incident.*

He had drafted a book about an event with controversy surrounding Lincoln's involvement. After exhaustive research and his typical just treatment of sources, our author decided he could not solve the controversy and ended the work with an open question.

He had asked a famous ACW author (again, known to us all) to comment on his final draft. Here was the frustration. The celebrity historian, an expert in selling his own books, told him that one could not end things on an open question, one absolutely had to take sides. It was imperative. Our author had weighed the evidence and found no clear answer but he was strongly urged to settle questions for the reader.

The story reminded me of an interview with another celebrity author, James McPherson, in which he said that it was the job of any history writer to tie up loose ends for the reader. He was referring to the loose ends of evidence, not doing more research. IIRC, McPherson made it the historian's core mission to order the chaos of incomplete and contradictory primary material.

We are not speaking here about an historian telling the reader what evidence he, the historian, finds most compelling and why. No, these two best-selling authors called for writers to develop conclusions that go beyond the evidence.

This is not small beer. It renders history a fable. A fable offers a moral. We pass from history to literature.

The second tier of pop history writers willingly draw morals from conclusions to which they are not entitled. These morals are then recycled into derivative works, to "juice" the narratives, sort the good guys from the bad, to stage manage "characters" who play their "roles" to narrative perfection.

Notice the business books that draw "lessons in leadership" from Civil War pop lit. These "lessons" purport to be drawn from history, but they are drawn from the morals of fables.

I was reminded of this by a recent mass mailing advertising a Gettysburg-based program that trains executives.**

Lessons drawn from fables: can history be more diluted? Yes.

A reader sent this quote from a new Sherman biography, Fierce Patriot:
Let me propose an admittedly unconventional but useful analogy--big-wave surfing. Not nearly so many die as in war, but it does happen. . . . So surfers have learned to cooperate, take turns, share the waves. This too is the way of war.
More, via Amazon:
Streaking down the face of a monster breaker, attached to your board by nothing more than a coat of wax, agile feet, and an awesome sense of balance, and then leaning in at precisely the right instance at precisely the right angle that will send you rocketing out from under just before the whole thunderous mass comes crashing down - or being buried in the attempt - that is the essence, the whole point, of everything else. The parallel with military strategists shouldn't be missed.
Literature here has moved beyond fables and morals. It can use these to build ever newer metaphors, one on top of the other, until all is so far abstracted from history that the record is completely wiped out.

We wind up with "product" that actually destroys history.

* As this was a private talk, I should not mention names.
** Note that the boss isn't flattering someone with a mandatory leadership course. You wonder about the people sent to these courses.