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“A Leaf that Doesn’t Know It Is Part of a Tree”

New York Times Bessner articleA recent arti­cle in the New York Times, “The Dan­ger­ous Decline of the His­tor­i­cal Pro­fes­sion,” by Daniel Bess­ner, ref­er­enc­ing the annu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, reports on the mas­sive falling off of the study of his­to­ry, the teach­ing of his­to­ry, and, inevitably, the decline in the learn­ing of history. 

If you are fol­low­ing the nation­al news to any extent, you are aware of the politi­ciza­tion of teach­ing his­to­ry in schools. 

It made me recall what George Orwell said: “the most effec­tive way to destroy [a] peo­ple is to deny and oblit­er­ate their own under­stand­ing of their history.”

The American Past

When I was ten years old—or thereabouts—there came into my home The Amer­i­can Past: a His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States from Con­cord to Hiroshi­ma, 1775–1945. Writ­ten by Roger But­ter­field, and pub­lished in 1947, it was an illus­trat­ed his­to­ry of the nation, the illustrations—a mas­sive col­lec­tion of images, prints, etch­ings, paint­ings, pho­tographs, and even (to my delight) polit­i­cal cartoons—all con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous from the time being covered. 

The book fas­ci­nat­ed me so I went through it count­less times. It was so impor­tant to me that I still have that same vol­ume—sev­en­ty-six years old!—on my shelves. 

It was through that book that I became inter­est­ed in his­to­ry. Because of the vivid­ness of the illus­tra­tions, and the unfold­ing sto­ries that were there, page after page, my imag­i­na­tion was caught. Indeed, I came to see his­to­ry as sto­ry. No sur­prise, it was not too long before I began to read his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, with Stevenson’s Trea­sure Island pro­vid­ing an indeli­ble influ­ence that stays with me today. At some point, I began to read a lot of adult his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the work of Ken­neth Roberts. There were plen­ty of oth­ers. I still read it. 

So, it is no acci­dent that I write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. The genre came into the world of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture with the pub­li­ca­tion of Sir Wal­ter Scott’s nov­el Waver­ly in 1814. The genre quick­ly became (and still is) wide­ly pop­u­lar. When I went to col­lege, want­i­ng to be a play­wright, I had a dou­ble major, The­atre and His­to­ry. Sur­prise! My first pub­lished work was a play about Nathan Hale, that ear­ly Amer­i­can patri­ot, and martyr. 

Where­as Waver­ly was about a major event in British his­to­ry, my own offer­ings take a dif­fer­ent tack. Books like The Fight­ing Ground, The But­ton War, City of Mag­ic, The Play­er King, and Gold Rush Girl, among many oth­ers, deal with small (if real) events from the past. The inci­dents that fas­ci­nate me are the ones that show up in foot­notes, not in mas­sive mon­u­ments. How else can one dis­cov­er, as I recent­ly did, that there is a town in Col­orado named “Tin Cup.” It still exists. 

I don’t think of myself as (nor do I wish to be) a teacher of his­to­ry, so much as I offer my books as sto­ries that give life to the past, fill­ing his­to­ry with a liv­ing real­i­ty and humanity—not pret­ti­fied but attempt­ing to con­nect young read­ers with the real world from which they emerged. 

As Michael Crich­ton has writ­ten: “If you don’t know his­to­ry, then you don’t know any­thing. You are a leaf that does­n’t know it is part of a tree.” 

Anoth­er way of say­ing this is that, by def­i­n­i­tion, unless a per­son has a past, they can­not have a future. 

His­tor­i­cal fic­tion is one way of pro­vid­ing that past. 

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