Books: The people who teach us history aren't always historians
'Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past'
By Richard Cohen
Simon & Schuster. 753 pp. $40
When documentarian Ken Burns debuted "The Civil War" on PBS in 1990, columnist George F. Will declared the nine-part series a "masterpiece of national memory" in which "our Iliad has found its Homer." That was high praise for a 37-year-old New Hampshire filmmaker fresh out of the used-record-store business, and it was a bit demoralizing to me, a young U.S. historian fresh out of my PhD studies at Georgetown. With Burns's opus, my chosen profession had just pole-vaulted into the Golden Era of history film documentary, while I was still using library card catalogues and reading dead people's mail. Book writing, I feared, would be condemned to play second fiddle to "Ashokan Farwell," the haunting violin theme that packed such an emotional wallop in "The Civil War."
Ironically, it's a new book — "Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past" by the British historian Richard Cohen — that has me thinking again about the magnificence of "The Civil War," and more broadly about the whole endeavor of my profession. Sprawling and wildly ambitious, idiosyncratic and also consistently readable and engaging, "Making History" dives deep into the way history-driven scholars and artists — from Burns to Shakespeare to Herodotus — have shaped the collective memory of humankind. Championing both famous and largely forgotten historians as well as storytellers, filmmakers and photographers, Cohen's volume offers memorable anecdotes and reasoned judgment as it explores themes including the foundational mythos of the Old and New Testaments, the Roman era, the contributions of history-maker historians from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, Black American history from George W. Williams to Ibram X. Kendi, historical works from medieval texts to the New York Times Magazine's recent "1619 Project," and the failure of Japan to prosecute war criminals after World War II.
A former London publishing director and the author of "How to Write Like Tolstoy," Cohen clearly prizes narrative flow over ivory-tower historical analysis, stressing novelists' and playwrights' ability to conjure the atmosphere of past times and places instead of just recording facts. In that regard, he places Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" as the most vivid way to understand the Napoleonic Wars — a view that might have been shared by Tolstoy himself, who refused to call his masterpiece fiction while also denying that it was a historical chronicle.
Cohen's valorization extends to more recent historical novelists such as Shelby Foote, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Gore Vidal. He even creates the genre "History as a Nightmare" and anoints Soviet novelist and political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn its master practitioner. To his credit, Cohen also quotes novelist Vladimir Nabokov dismissing the entire novelists-as-historians trope: "Can anybody be so naïve as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels?" Nabokov asked. "Certainly not. . . . The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales."
To me, Cohen's core philosophy seems to echo novelist Hilary Mantel's 2017 declaration, which he quotes, that "history is not the past — it is the method we've evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. . . . It's what's left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it." Somewhat lazily, the sieve that Cohen consults too often seems mined from the "History" section in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" - pithy epigrams from writers like John Lukacs, George Orwell and Leopold von Ranke.
"Making History" doesn't shy from the fact that the sieve has massively favored male voices over female, a situation summed up by Jane Austen in her 1817 novel "Persuasion": "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much a higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." Discussing a Ranker.com list of "Famous Female Historians," Cohen writes that "only recently could such a listing even have been contemplated. For centuries, reading and writing were reserved for the power holders in what worldwide were patriarchal societies." Somewhat ironically, Cohen then holds up Chinese writer Ban Zhao (45-116) and Byzantine scholar Anna Komnene (1083-c.1153) as examples of underappreciated female historians — though both made their names supporting and writing about men: Komnene writing "The Alexiad," a history of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of her father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos; Zhao completing her late brother's history of the Western Han Dynasty and penning the popular "Lessons for Women," which affirmed traditional gender roles while also advocating for women's education.
Moving into the modern era, Cohen rightfully praises two-time Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman for exhibiting no "fear in writing about men" and for being "a natural storyteller, providing lively narratives rather than delighting in fresh archival material." Having descended from two of the most prominent Jewish families in New York, Tuchman knew the world of politics and statecraft at an early age, but she wasn't "a historian's historian," Cohen says. Instead, she was something far worthier: "a layperson's historian" who made the past interesting. Anyone who has read Tuchman's descriptions of 14th-century life in "A Distant Mirror" would be hard-pressed to disagree.
Among Cohen's strengths is his sheer enthusiasm for his favored writers, which has persuaded me to finally read Sir Walter Scott's "Rob Roy," to purchase Hilary Mantel's 1998 novel, "The Giant, O'Brien," and to make plans to delve into the writings of the classicist Mary Beard, whose BBC TV series "Meet the Romans" and "Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed" Cohen adores. Likewise, Cohen has also shamed me into realizing I've never read Leon Trotsky's "My Life," which is now on my to-do list.
Toward the end of "Making History," Cohen assesses the impact of contemporary photography and film. There is a fine riff on how both the dastardly Joseph Stalin and the knighted Dwight Eisenhower had people cropped out of photographs - literally cutting them out of history to serve their political purposes. At the opposite pole, Cohen stresses how indelible images and video of the JFK assassination, the 9/11 tragedy and the murder of George Floyd have been vital to building collective memory. That's why Burns's documentaries are very much to Cohen's liking — they're a distillation of academic history into emotion and poetry, injected into the American bloodstream through the shared medium of TV. Fittingly, Cohen uses a line from the television series "The West Wing" to drive his point home. In the words of fictional president Josiah Bartlet: "Modern history's another name for television."
Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown chair in humanities and a professor of history at Rice University, and the author of "Cronkite."