Friday, October 17, 2014

Story? Or History?

If a story is repeated often enough, it will become history, with the possibility always there of it growing into legend.  Events, regardless of what they are called, depend for their stature on those who participated in them and those who interpret or, in any number of ways, respond to them.  

Whenever you get to this part of your attempts to deal with history and story in some kind of context that reflects you, chances are you'll be drawn to one of the prime examples stored away in your memory. 

Back into a history of which you never participated, made epic by a storyteller who also did not participated, but rendered into glowing legend.  Henry V, Act Iv, Scene III.  The famed St. Crispin's Day speech, in which Henry, about to engage the French in the Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415, says:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Matters increase in complexity when fiction writers take on events and personalities. Depending on where you went to school and how you were presented the information, the War between the American States had produced enough written and filmed material to keep a historian, a writer of fiction, or a combination of the two, at a Sisyphean task of trying to keep up with all the impressions.  This particular war was over by most accounts in the year 1865.  And Stephen Crane, born in the year 1871, was able to write The Red Badge of Courage, a fictional account of it that was published on October 5, 1895.

A safe approach to writing history or story would seem to be writing only about events that took place in the writer's own lifespan or close to it.  But this begins to teeter in the wind or conflicting logic and past performances.  

True enough, one of the individuals often associated with the origins of history, Herodotus (484-425 BCE) gave us significant descriptions of things he'd seen at first hand, reported things he'd learned from individuals he knew and respected.  But he also indulged in speculation and inference.  One of the reasons why we trust him is his insistence on telling us what his sources were, even copping to the "It is said of the Persians" trope, because he'd not interviewed or observed a Persian.

For reasons you believe you understand now, you were for some time content to ignore history, this in your eagerness to get your hands on and read as many of the things from the past that you could get your hands on, wanting to absorb them the same way you absorb story.  The context in which such things were written only began to emerge as important when you saw beyond the mere presence of a thing to the reason for the presence of the thing.  

Thinking about it now, the likelihood is strong that a particular work of history, Barbara Tuchman's magisterial A Distant Mirror, helped you turn the corner.  And about time.  Published in 1987, this book compared the fourteenth century to the twentieth, made more points of comparison than you were comfortable with, sending you back to play the game of catch-up, in the process understanding things you previously considered facts meant to be memorized rather than used.

If there is no objectivity possible in story, the best you can do is respect the characters you encounter and those you create, understanding that they are a part of a history that was, after all, initiated by humans, who wished to keep some sort of record.  You do not so much write about miscreants and self-absorbed sorts as you do about girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole and boys who have run away to join the wrong circus.  They are your girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole, but in fairness to them, they were looking for what they considered the right rabbit hole.  They are your boys who took any circus that came along, just as you did when Foley and Burke Shows came along.

You derive considerable pleasure in seeing different versions of the same play, differing editions of the same story or novel.  These are the differences that make history of story.

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