Thursday, September 15, 2016

On Writing History

Writing History

by R. M. de Vienne
            There are two kinds of history: What the British call Public History and Americans tend to call ‘popular history’; and academic history. Unwarranted snobbery finds a home among those who write academic history. But finding original documents and writing footnotes doesn’t elevate academic history above its cousin.
            Though it colors your style, the audience one writes for does not matter. What matters is an honest, rational approach to the subject. Dr. Schulz and I write about controversial religions. Those who read our books have preconceived notions, often wrong. Not every reader is willing to accept new evidence. Some want to write your book for you. One of our readers believed we should cite former adherents’ books and pamphlets. Almost none of them are relevant. They do not cover the era accurately if at all. They are all secondary, sometimes tertiary sources. They do not present an accurate picture. Often they lie.
            Which brings me to my first point. If you write history, don’t lie to your readers. Some historians misrepresent their subject because their research lacks depth. Want an example? Of course you do. How many of you think that Juan Ponce de León went looking for the fountain of youth? It’s a common myth in American history books. But ... buster, it ain’t so. So ... this is what I wrote in a limited circulation school history:

As a result of political moves by Columbus’ son, he lost his governorship in 1512, but the Spanish king found ways to help him. King Ferdinand sent him out to explore new lands. Ponce de León heard of an island called Bimini. The story as it’s often told says he heard that the fabled Fountain of Youth was there. Drinking its miraculous waters would restore health and youth.  Many writers say that seeking this fountain was the reason for his exploration northward. But this story was invented by a man who wanted to discredit Ponce de León. None of the original records mention a quest for a miracle fountain. Many years after de León’s death Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a partisan follower of Diego Columbus, wrote that Ponce was gullible, egocentric and dull-witted. Oviedo told the fountain of youth tale in his book Historia General y Natural de las Indias. It was a literary device meant to make Ponce appear foolish. de León’s real motive was wealth. The king promised that he would hold exclusive rights to the lands he discovered and that he would become their governor.

            Do not lie to your readers by repeating a story you did not verify from original sources. ... Ever.
            When sources conflict, the tendency of some writers is to accept what the majority say, even in preference to an eyewitness. This is argumentum ad populum, one of the major logic flaws. Sometimes the majority view is wrong. Never reject the opposition account without solid reason. And never discount opposition views on an unfounded basis. Age, status in life, and similar things do not, without strong evidence, account for an alternative view. Never adopt a speculation as firm evidence.
            If a character says something different from others, and you do not know why, do not rush into a Non Causa Pro Causa argument. Do not adopt as a reason your speculation. If you cannot find in the original documents a supportable reason for the difference, simply note it. It is fair to balance that person’s testimony against that of others. If you do, only contrast it with eyewitnesses. False testimony comes from repeated use of the comments of one or two people. An example is the endless repetition of J. J. Ross’s claims against Russell. If you take only Ross against Russell and others who attended the trial, Ross is not sustained. However, the bulk of what has been written is derived from Ross because he represented what opposition writers wish the events to be.
            Do not use every document as if it were valid, accurate and the rock-foundation of truth. This is especially so of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. Give them appropriate weight. If they contradict known facts, reject their testimony. Pay attention! This is important. If you accept a newspaper or magazine article, even contemporary with the event, merely because it supports your point of view, you’re a ‘dork.’ Stop it. Check further. Check your facts to ‘the bitter end.’ Bad writers don’t. Good historians do.
            Historians should be ‘truth detectors.’ If the story develops in a way that differs from your pre-conceived belief, you are ethically bound to follow the facts. You are prohibited by ethics from making it up, casting someone in a bad light because you oppose what they believed or coloring the story to justify your own acts and beliefs.


roberto said...


jerome said...

Some very good points made. Go to primary sources if they still exist. And just because people repeat something a lot doesn't make it so. Where did they get it from originally?

Andrew Martin said...

Congratulations to Ms de Vienne! Her essay deserves thorough reading and meditation.

May I support her points by citing another topic I have researched at length?

The sinking of the TITANIC. Most of the myths are wrong. Some appear to have been invented by reporters looking for sensational stories. Some have a basis in truth, which was later distorted in the retelling (or is it "re-tailing"? Whatever sells).

Many surviving adult male passengers may have felt compelled to invent a heroic escape tale for themselves - especially after learning how many women and children never had much of a chance to be rescued. On the rescue ship, one woman survivor claimed to have challenged a male survivor with the words "How did YOU happen to survive when MY husband died?" Two men in particular may have had additional motives for distorting the story of their survival - each left without first locating their females relatives on board - who died. "I has holding my fiancée's hand when we were both swept off the deck, and she was washed away before my eyes; I swam for an hour before finding a life raft" sounds a WHOLE lot better than "I figured all the women had already been rescued, so I jumped into the last boat on that side of the deck."

Don't even get me started on John Harper, the Baptist minister who allegedly swam about urging men to get saved, being washed around by waves (THERE WERE NO WAVES) to preach to men clinging to floating spars (THERE WERE NO FLOATING SPARS).

Some survivors wrote multiple accounts over the years, often changing the details over time, whether through faulty memory, wishful thinking, or other reasons.

I think George Bernard Shaw said it best, in his newspaper debates with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the "Daily News and Leader:

"Why is it that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not sympathy ... but of wild defiance of inexorable Fate and undeniable Fact by an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?"

"...I have been driven by an intolerable provocation of disgusting and dishonourable nonsense to recall our journalists to their senses by saying bluntly that the occasion has been disgraced by a callous outburst of romantic lying."

"More to come" (if you please)

Andrew Martin said...

Please bear with me.

Even "Primary Sources" need to be judged carefully. Reseachers of nautical disasters need only compare the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. In general, they take primary sources by Lusitania survivors far more seriously than those by Titanic survivors. There are exceptions, but here are the reasons:

The Lusitania was torpedoed on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. By late evening of that same day, all survivors had been landed, not from a single rescue ship, but by a flotilla of vessels, after which they were quartered in various residences and hotels in Queenstown and Kinsale.

The Titanic sank early on the morning of April 15, 1912. By mid-morning, all 712 survivors had been rescued by a single rescue vessel, the Carpathia. They were effectively isolated (and insulated) from the outside world until the Carpathia docked at New York City on April 18.

As a result, while the Lusitania survivors were left largely on their own, the entire press corps of New York and the nation descended on the Titanic survivors.

Letters written by Lusitania survivors to family and friends on the night of May 7 and in the days immediately following - without the guidance of press and without three days to compare notes with other survivors - are viewed by researchers as much more reliable than initial press accounts of Titanic survivors, taken after three days' reflection in the company of other survivors, in addition to being filtered through the press.

Please keep these examples in mind as you read the work of Schulz and de Vienne, and reflect on the academic quality of A Separate Identity and their subsequent work. Also, please keep her cautions in mind as you pursue your own contributions to this research.

Semer said...

Thanks for a very interesting post. Anyway, when one reads either of the books, one can clearly see those points in the post in action and that makes the reading more gratifying.
Andrew, thanks for your comments, too.