In my childhood, history was a series of to-be-memorized dates and events strung together in a classroom and important only as a means to pass an upcoming test. Perhaps the re were some stories here and the re thrown in the cracks between dates and events, but somehow I didn’t come away with anything memorable (probably because the stories weren’t on the test). It all went in one ear and out the o the r, with some vague impressions of major events lingering in a misty timeline of US-centered history.
My first brush with history in a novel form was the book The Worst Hard Time, which related several true stories of experiences from the dust bowl era. Suddenly a part of history came alive to me. My grandfather had lived through this time on their Kansas farm. I felt the pangs of despair as I read of a mo the r unable to save her baby from the lethal dust-filled air despite draping the crib with damp sheets. I felt the trapped desperation of people unable to grow food or to relocate, but doomed to suffer and die from a man-made natural disaster. I felt hot anger against progressivists and speculators who had caused the disaster but not really suffered its devastating results as those did who fell prey to their schemes. I felt a new found appreciation for before scorned government programs intended to prevent the death and suffering experienced at this time from repeating in the future.
Another time, while reading about the life of Thomas Jefferson with my kids, I learned that this founding father had an affair with a slave woman who was a half-sister to his deceased wife, and that he himself had children with her who were considered and treated as slaves. These facts and others I read in some sections a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me, opened my eyes to both the shortcomings of idolized American heroes and the techniques employed by many historians to present the m as infallible icons. I also became aware that I knew very little history unrelated to US history, and realized than history isn’t benign, but charged with many subjective views.
I am currently reading Gone With the Wind, and this novel is presenting ideas and concepts to me in ways that no history book has ever done. Without asking outright, the story poignantly asks questions like, “What immoral acts were committed against southerners in the name of ending slavery? What alternatives could the re be to war? How does the actions and effects of the Civil War compare to o the r civil rights actions that have happened since the war?” Questions like these are asked through the novel side by side with o the r questions of individual morality and actions.
In an engaging way, classics and historically-based literature can show us the way of life in different times, help us consider the motivations of parties involved in notable conflicts, make real the impact of events on individuals and nations. The Ku Klux Klan is rarely referred to with any sort of understanding or compassion as it is in Gone With the Wind, or the motives of its participants (such as powerlessness created by the governing Yankee officials who had stripped many southerners of many rights such as the right to vote or rely on officials for redress of wrongs) given any consideration. A novel can do so in a non-threatening way, without personal argument, but through a relation of experiences leading to actions. Before reading this book, my understanding of the Ku Klux Klan was limited to the disgusted, condemning variety of information and images about the m.
I am beginning to understand that every subject can be found in classic works, if one is reading between the lines of the story. There is math, science, language, and geography. History, in particular, is prevalent in many classics. Of course not all pictures of the past are historically accurate, and neither are the “facts” related by historians in history textbooks. I understand better now why the study of original documents is an important way to discover history, rather than relying only on the interpretations of o the rs. I am grateful for the expanded vision that classics have offered me about history and look forward to many more discoveries through reading classics.