History versus Literature: facts and impressions

History versus Literature: facts and impressions

I - History versus Literature: facts and impressions introduction. Introduction.

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Both, historians and men of literature, tell us stories, but historians naraate about the past while writers and poets may choose either past, present or future as a subject of their works. They both deal with facts but the difference in depicting these facts by lies in the following: historians do not tend to necessarily awake our interest and fix the historian facts in the minds of mankind; writers and poets use all the possible and impossible instruments of literature in order to hold up a reader and awake an impression in his mind, an attitude towards what is described in his work.

Historians simply present the facts just in the way they happened in reality without beautifying or decorating those. They are like photographers who just take pictures of everyday life,  not concentrating on whether this or that event is more or less interesting. For a historian every single happened event has its meaning, in spite of that an ordinary man would not even open a newspaper to read about that.

As for writers and poets they tend to choose the greatest historical individuals or events which played a significant role in the world’s history and thus may attract attention of readers. They let these great events run through their perception and describe these just as they see it. They are like artists who leave impressions on our minds so that these important people or events stay in our memories forever.

II. History.

The goal of every historian is a true presentation of facts and as well conclusion of their consequences, their influence on the further course of history. A true historian must be unbiassed and make the historical facts clear, just as they happened, to ordinary people.

For example, the American Civil War as a subject of research of any historian might interest him as any other war, regardless of the nationality or citizenship of the historian himself. He might ask how this war affected the phenomenon of slavery in the United States at that time, whether the slavery was abolished or not, but not whether this war had a positive or negative effect.

As for the World history, historians studying, for example, the World War II might ask how the world was divided and how the forces of every country, which took part in this war, were then allocated. And the answer to this question would be a simple presentation of facts, statement describing this allocation itself and the consequences of this war each country had. But not a single word judging about those who started this war or who was the most cruel.

A historian does not judge, but simply presents the facts in every detail, so that others could perceive this information fully and make their own judgements and assessments. He must not use any techniques to show who was a bad or cruel leader or on the contrary which of the world leaders was best, but a historian presents facts and we judge.

Every historian chooses his own subject: a certain period of time in the world history, a certain event or a certain historical individual. This choice is not just a random but a deliberate one.

A historian studies many sources, among which there are secondary ones. It is not a secret that every more or less significant historical event was described by at least dozens of historians but the interest to those is not lost yet anyway. The reason for that is that each historian is still a man who also has his own opinion about this or that, and thus he presents the historical facts in his own manner. There are many debates about number of historical events and having read the works of many others, a historian develops his own way of presenting these facts and asks already another question which was left out by other historians.

In case with the World War II a historian might study all the already existing secondary sources in countries which actually were at that war; that might be works of other historians, who studied this subject.

Once having chosen a subject a historian studies primary sources about either an event or a historical figure: these might be newspapers from that time, letters of people who lived at that time, any source originating from that period of time and written by people who lived then. But a historian must read these sources thoroughly remembering that his task is to present facts and to remain unbias. The primary sources are called so because these sources come “from the first hands”, without touches by others interpreters.

A historian might visit the palace where the Yalta conference took place during which the decisions about world division were taken, study all the available sources there: the copies of the documents signed by the world leaders, newspapers communicating about that conference and its results etc. He may also study the same sources in the countries themselves which were affected by this division.

A historian leaves personal emotions or impressions of authors aside and chooses only pure facts. A historian might also interview the participants of these events but again his task is “purifying” of the story and separation of the person’s emotions and his own impressions from the facts.

A historian studies all the available sources and thus compares all the facts he found in order to determine a true fact, a clear and objective one. And the conlusion a historian makes must be based on these sources, supported and confirmed by correcponding sources. As a result a historian must present an objective, unbiased information.

Having conducted his research and found out the facts he needed a historian publishes his work which can be in form of either an article or even a whole book. But this does not mean that any person thinking of himself as of a historian may find out some facts in any historical event which he thinks are worth of being discussed and accepted might publish his work. Before such a historical research is published it is reviewed by peers who must make a decision whether this article or book can be published. The peers evaluate the veracity of the facts cited by the researcher, they examine whether these facts have enough identifying evidence in order to be claimed as true ones. Because some topics have been already studied by many significant historians, they also make sure that a historian does not repeat what is already well-known.

In our case, for example, a historian should conduct a really profound and detailed reasearch to be published. He might draw attention to the facts which were not studied well enough but which are of a great significance and caused events which were not discussed by others as connected ones. But I sstated above there must be a sufficient proof.

III Literature.

As for writers they have another goals, although they also have to and they want to deal with historical events. They let all these events pass through their consciousness and then present them to the reader the way they see and understand them.

For example, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in form of an allegory describes the times of Stalin in Russia. All the historical figures are shown as animals. Orwell tells us a story about farm where animals decided to be in charge of everything and get rid of their master, a Man. Pigs, as the smartest animals, are the leaders and they organize all the others. It seems that everything is running quite successful, everybody is equal but later on this idyl disappears. The pigs lead the way they like and make use of all the benefits they can have. As a result this perfect society falls into pieces and the true nature of the leaders is revealed.

Having chosen pigs as leaders Orwell wanted to show to the reader what kind of people the Russian leaders really were. He clearly expresses his negative judgement of them and convinces the reader that he is right, using necessary literary instuments. Orwell does not just mention facts, he shows his opinion towards these facts. He draws our attention to the story and awakes our imagination. He expects his readers to analyze the described facts and judge about these just as he did.

Another example could be a novel “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje. It is a story about four individuals wounded by war. They are lost in this world, although they are quite young. The war took away their identity, their love, everything. Describing this tragic story the author shows his negative perception of any war and his negation of any war. Drawing scaring pictures from those days Ondaatje convinces us what a horror any war is.

A very interesting point is how the author actuall ycomes up with an idea to write a book on a specific subject. Orwell traveled quite a lot and was a witness of many hostorical events. He fought in several wars and one of the wars, The Spanish Civil War, made him hate communism. During the World War II, while working a journalist for BBC he wrote his “Animal farm”. He observed everything in real lifewith his own eyes and presented his views in his book. He was against communism and so was his decision to show what certain communist leaders really are.

As stated above Orwell used a technique of allergy: he didn’t write the names of those whom he criticizes but the description is so vivid, that it is very much clear whom he wrote about. The choice of animals was not random but proved. The life of animals is presented just as life of humans and we can easily recognize the great leaders of Russia in these pigs who only seem to be smart, but in reality they are cruel, selfish tyrants.

This book helps us to understand how Stalin managed to capture the minds of people. Orwell brings to light the “positivity” of Stalin and his companions. He makes us understand how people really lived: they simply did not have a choice but to accept the proposed way of life. Orwell reveals the whole truth about the politics of Stalin. We get a clear impression what the life of Russian people was like; and we can make our own judgement already – the tyrrany of Stalin enslaved the whole country.

As for Ondaatje, his method of choosing a subject is really special: he simply hears somebody telling a story about somebody and gets inspired. Not always he conducts a profound research in order to write a good book, but this happens randomly: either a research or just a clear impression from the heard story. So happened with this book “The English Patient”: a story about a plane crash in desert awoke his interest and he started his research. He studied many sources, although his goal was not to know every single detail about deserts or plane crashes.

As stated above the novel tells about four individuals and each of them has his/her own story. One story would not be enough to show what a horror any war is. With the advent of every new hero the author increases the effect of narration and thus convinces us in correctness of his judgement of war. He describes ordinary people, like us, and it makes us perceive this story as a real one and thus feel the tragedy more realistic. This choice of ordinary people is not random but it let us understand that any person can suffer from any war, that war causes not only physical wounds but also spiritual ones which are very hard to cure.

This story can not leave the reader indifferent. We suffer with each charecter and go through their lives. By the end of the story there is no doubt in the reader’s heart that any war is ruthless and can take everything away, so that one will not be able to feel himself as a human being any more. The way of writing used by Ondaatje, his stylistic instruments create a really vivid picture of the war.

These two novels are not just ordinary ones, not marked by anybody, but quite in contrary they were not left without attention.

“Animal Farm” made its author famous. The critics, peers have appraised the way Orwell pictured Stalin and the way he governed. This book brought him his first success and him prosperous. The allegory used by Orwell was his right choice and it earned him the admiration not only by critics and other writers who know their subject very well, but also by readers who enjoy this book nowadays too.

“The English Patient” won his author the Booker Prize, as well as there was made a film on this book. This Prize was earned by the writing style of its author, one could describe it as lush, subliminal prose. But it is not always easy to make a film out movie. The plot then must be really interesting for the director to want to work on it. The structure of a book (numerous flashbacks, for example) was worth of film-makers’ attention. The development of the plot, gradual learning and perception of the characters (from darkness to the light) pressed just the right buttons in readers’ and audience’s consciousness.

Thus we may conclude that the difference in tasks of historians and writers lies in the following: a historian is an unbiased photographer who presents us the facts and their consequences without making his own judgement whether these are good or bad, positive or negative, while a writer is a person who perceives the events, let them run through him and presents these to the reader giving his own evaluation of these facts as well as convincing readers to accept his point of view using different literary instruments. A historian does not make a choice among historical events thinking which would be more intersting for us, while the writer wants to attract our attention and describes the historical figures and events which from his point of view might interest a reader.

Therefore we may not judge about a historical event by reading a literary work (novel, poem, story etc.) on it, as well as we may not say that historical articles or books are boring and they do not awake our interest. Each of these disciplines has its own goal and depending on what we want to get we choose either a historical or literary work.


1.                 Johnson, Joni. World history & literature – A Simultaneous Look at World History and Literature. Blue Earth Publishing, 2002.

2.                 Marshall, Jane. The Writing of History: History as Literature. 1987, Volume IV. Retrieved from the Web 09 June, 2004. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1987/4/87.04.03.x.html

3.                 Roosevelt, Theodore .History as literature. Charles Scribner’s sons, 1913. Retrieved from the Web 09 June, 2004.  http://www.bartleby.com/56/1.html

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