The Bewildered Historian

“IN case,” as Mr. S. J. Perelman once postulated, “you’ve been spending the last couple of weeks under water,” you may not have realized the extent of the flood of historical works now pouring from the presses. They are of all kinds, although, naturally, the greater part are concerned with the recent war, its causes, events, and sequelae. We are living in history and, as Lincoln said, we cannot escape it. But the urge to write in an historical vein is by no means confined to telling the tale of recent or contemporary matters. History is in the air, like germs. Lady novelists just cannot refrain from writing about fair but robustious ladies of the Restoration or Regency periods. A gentleman novelist will turn naturally to the Civil War or the Whiskey Rebellion or the French Revolution. Even the cloak-and-sword novels are creeping up on us again.
To the conscientious reviewer facing the present mass assault by the historians, one thought about the writing of history quickly assumes the proportions of a general truth. This great truth — and I state it without fear of contradiction — is that nobody knows how to write history. Every historian as he takes pen in hand finds himself surrounded by flocks of dilemmas. Examples are of little use to him, however helpful they may be to the sonneteer or the playwright. There are no rules for the historian. He can try any method he likes, and he probably will.
Every historian is, in a sense, a schoolmaster. He writes primarily to inform. Literary elegance alone will not suffice. He must add to the sum of human knowledge, or wisely reduce the areas of human ignorance, if his product is to merit the designation of an historical work. However, his audience does not consist of adenoidal adolescents, forced against their will to face a pedagogue. He must contrive to please a reading public — his paying customers — which is at liberty to buy his output or reject it. Therefore he must use his utmost ingenuity to coat a bitter core of exact information, which will bear the closest and most searching scrutiny, with the sugar of grace, suavity, and wit which, in themselves, will attract a large number of general readers.
The exact information, the barren fact, is the historian’s first and greatest grief. Jesting Pilate was wise when he decided not to stay for an answer to his famous question. It takes a long, an indefinite time for facts to establish themselves and acquire a genuine validity. Here the World War II historians are at a grave disadvantage. As eyewitnesses or merely contemporaries, about all they can do is to provide source material for future historians to assess and use.
Take, for example, the case of the “Battle of the Bulge" as seen by three competent, on-the-ground observers, each in a position to follow the thinking and doings of High Command. Trial lawyers, those omniscient men, are fully aware that no two witnesses ever observe even the simplest incident alike. In his admirable review in this issue, Mr. Earle shows how Captain Butcher, General Eisenhower’s aide and diarist, saw the battle as a triumph for the Supreme Commander s strategical sagacity. To Colonel Ingersoll, in Top Secret, the battle was magnificently won by General Bradley, whose genius was sorely handicapped by the delays and blunders of Field Marshal Montgomery. Now comes Mr. Alan Moorehead, a competent British journalist, whose book on the latter stages of the war, Eclipse (Coward-McCann, $2.75), is excellent reporting; he sees it quite otherwise. According to him, the Battle of the Ardennes (“Bulge” to us) was won, first, by the superb fighting of isolated and surrounded American units; and, secondly, by whose genius? One guess! Montgomery’s? Right the first time. Thanks to the surrounded soldiers, “Montgomery was able to fight what I believe to be his greatest battle.” And there you are.
So the writer of history must struggle to determine the fact — as well as he is able — in the knowledge that probably his findings will be wrong. But if he does his job as well as he can, — to be called a sloven for his pains a generation later, — he still has nothing but a World Almanac calendar of events. So he turns this way and that, and tries one method after another to relieve the gloom of his X begat Y narrative. Generally he relies on Background. Background is the historian’s football, as modern instances demonstrate. I have seldom seen background kicked more forcibly into the foreground than in the case of a recent history, Mr. Fletcher Pratt’s Empire and the Sea (Henry Holt, $3.50). For the bulk and body of his work, Mr. Pratt trots safely along under the cloak of Captain Mahan and gives us a condensed and modernized Life of Nelson. But, instead of insinuating his background, weaving it into the web of his chronicle, his new method is to present background in packages. To each chapter he adds either one or both of two sections called “The Worm’s Eye View” and “Wrong End of the Telescope.” The former is made up of extracts from letters and other writings by minor actors on the Nelsonian stage, the latter of clippings from newspapers of the period, published for the most part outside of England. These are intended to present a lively picture of how the historical events and personages appeared to their contemporaries.
The same effect has been attempted by many and more stately historians who have introduced contemporary opinions to illustrate and support their own contentions. Historians of our Civil War — Rhodes, Ropes, Freeman, and others — have relied largely on contemporary newspapers to tell us, not what took place, but what people at that time thought about what they thought, was taking place. It is somewhat confusing, but it is better than a mere calendar, good only for reference purposes.
To come back to Mr. Alan Moorehead of Eclipse, who confesses the historian’s dilemma in his Foreword. At first, he says, he planned to tell the story “of the collapse of German Europe sociologically and politically, psychologically and even emotionally. I was after atmosphere more than fact. . . .
“I had not written fifty pages before I realized that my fine Tolstoyan scheme was entirely out of reach. Even if one had the talent you cannot write a book about war like that — not at least while you are still living in the war or immediately after it. You can write a novel like A Bell for Adano. You can write a straight history which, at so short a perspective, is not much more than a catalogue of events. Or you can write a book of your own personal thoughts and adventures.
“And so as I went on I found that I was falling between two — or rather three — stools.” This reminds one vaguely of Mr. Dali diving from his furlined bathtub through the plate-glass window — a scene of strange confusion. “More and more I was forced to hang my story on the framework of the actual military events; all my ideas and impressions, all my atmospherics, could never make a pattern of themselves. The story itself was too big. But having gone so far one had to persist, and now that the thing is finished and done with I am not sure what you would call it. A commentary, possibly.”
Thus the bewildered historian. The professional critics will leap with glee if they find him wrong by as much as a day in his chronology. Two such mistakes and he is damned. The general public, on the other hand, cares little or nothing about accuracy within a decade or two, but delights in picturesque detail and vivid description; the life and the society of the times, the kind of wigs or togas they wore, who was the mistress of whom, which courtier made the sly remark about This One, whether or not the noble deathbed speech of That One was ever made, the burning question as to the absolute poltroonery of X, known in History as The Peerless Hero. Particularly they want a well-written commentary on the humanity of times past. They seek amusement; and if they receive instruction, so much the better.
I have no idea where the balance between fact and amusement background lies or should lie. Certainly bare fact is a dull body. A boy or girl, or adult, for that matter, would learn some history and some “literature” painlessly in seeing the superb movie, Henry V ; a visit to the Liberty Bell or Williamsburg might start a slight rustling and agitation in dormant brain cells. Pure background, if well presented, often leads us to seek out the facts for ourselves. Facts alone seldom encourage further research.
Recently I have seen some background pieces which illustrate the power such documents have in stimulating the imagination so that historical characters cease to be lay figures, so many stuffed shirts, mere costumes in a book, and become people who lived, breathed, felt as we would have felt in their places. These are the Edwards Lithoprinted Facsimiles, Series A, Documents of the American Revolution in Six Parts (J. W. Edwards, Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Set, $6.90). These are splendid facsimiles of originals in that extraordinary collection of Americana which is owned by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. As a visitor to that library, I have had the pleasure of holding many of the original papers in my hand, priceless documents from the Gage Papers, the Papers of Sir Henry Clinton, those of General Nathanael Greene — and from many other collections dealing with the period of our Revolution. Not everybody can go to the Clements Library; so at least a portion of the library is brought to the public in these facsimiles. The various sections consist of papers admirably reproduced, covering: —
Part I Lexington and Concord
Part II Burgoyne at Saratoga
Part III Arnold’s Treachery and André’s Capture
Part IV The Amenities of the Surrender at Yorktown
And so on. Each part is fully and attractively presented in a separate folder.
Our history has perhaps no chapter of tragic drama on the grand scale more convincing than the treason of Benedict Arnold. Taking the documents from this folder, you can see written with quill pen on the paper of the time “cipher” letters from Arnold to André, written in a “book” code as yet undecoded, and letters in the clear from André to Arnold, together will] clear copies of some of Arnold’s letters, one of them written by Arnold with his left hand, in which the whole miserable business is disclosed. You feel uncomfortably near to that bold, proud, venal man as you read these letters in which he rationalizes his treason as a service to his country and his King.
André, you feel, was a guiltless intelligence officer serving his cause to the best of his ability. The last of the papers in his folder is the letter which he wrote to Sir Henry Clinton, his commanding officer, before his execution. The letter is, of course, well known to students of the period, as is the pen-and-ink sketch of himself which the condemned man drew at the same time and which is at present in the Yale University Library. Yet I think that those who see it in this form will note the firmness of the writing, the even lines, as well as the courtesy and courage of the text. And André will mean more to you if you have seen his unfaltering penmanship than if you have merely read the words in bold print. This is the kind of background material which might induce the more phlegmatic reader or student to inquire further into the facts of an historical incident which had been heretofore only hearsay.
Here is Major André’s letter; —
Your Excellency is doubtless already apprized of the manner in which I was taken and possibly of the serious plight in which my conduct is considered and the rigorous determination that is impending.
Under these Circumstances I have obtained General Washington’s permission to send you this letter, the object of which is to remove from your Breast any Suspicion that I could imagine I was bound by your Excellency’s Orders to expose myself to what has happened. The Events of coming within an Enemy’s post and of changing my dress which led to my present situation were contrary to my own Intentions as they were to your Orders and the circuitous route which I took to return was imposed (perhaps unavoidably) without alternative upon me.
I am perfectly tranquil in mind and prepared for any Fate to which an honest zeal for my King’s Services may have devoted me.
In addressing myself to Your Excellency on this occasion, the force of all my Obligations to you and of my Attachment and Gratitude I bear you, recurrs to me with all the Warmth of my heart. I give you thanks for Your Excellency’s profuse Kindness to me, and I send you the most earnest Wishes for your welfare which a faithful affectionate and respectful attendant can frame.
I have a Mother and three Sisters to whom the value of my Commission would be an object as the loss of Grenada has much affected their income. It is needless to be more explicit on this Subject; I am persuaded of Your Excellency’s Goodness. I receive the greatest Attention from His Excellency General Washington and from every person under whose charge I happen to be placed.
I have the honour to be with the most respectful Attachment,
Your Excellency’s
Most obedient and most humble Servant
John André Adj. Gen.
His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, K. B.