Today in class we talked about what I call the “Historiography continuum.” As a poet-friend of mine said,
“In the fight between dichotomy and continuum, dichotomy wins. It has to! Think about it!”
By which he meant (besides wanting to be intellectual and funny at the same time, a task at which he succeeded admirably), that when we make choices to do one thing rather than another, out of many possible positions on a continuum, we always wind up making dichotomies.
Today we talked about this dichotomy, illustrated by the picture here. In essence, at one end we have a history textbook, which is about as close to a consensus-agreed version of history as it’s possible to get. It’s pretty sanitized, exceedingly careful, and not at all controversial or out of the mainstream.
Closer to the dividing line between factual and fictual, we have one man’s vision of THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, which is pretty ambitious for anyone. Then comes Ken Burns’s Civil War, and a book about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. All of these books (and stories) are factual, but they grow more and more controversial the farther down the line they go.
Somewhere pretty close to the line is the miniseries about John Adams. It’s fictive, but it’s based closely on the real life of a famous person. Then we have THE SCARLET LETTER, and GLORY (DVD). These are based on the lives of real (or presumed real) people, but they’re more fictional and invented than Ken Burns or a textbook.
Much farther down the line are books like A BREAK WITH CHARITY, which has a strong mix of real and invented characters. FInally comes THE BORNING ROOM, which is based on the historical mores and habits of a real historical time period… but all the characters in the book are fictional.
My students’ assignment for Monday is to try writing a story somewhere on this continuum. They’ll have to make choices about including real characters, real places and real history… or to try to capture the look and feel of a time period. Some are already scheming to write massive and complex screenplays. Others are scribbling quick essays, just to “getirdone.” Either way, they’re excited about the possibilities. I’m guessing they’ll deliver quality thinking in the meantime.