The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

QOTD: History vs. History Via Literature

I do not believe in history. There, I said it. It never happened. Not in a “the holocaust isn’t real” diluted way, but rather in the “every textbook got it wrong” way. I remember in middle school I was really interested in what had happened throughout the timeline of America. I always wanted to know who did what, and how we settled where, and why we live the lives that we live today. And then I discovered fiction. I discovered the books, or poems that were written in those time periods, and I started seeing a bit more of an honest approach to the literary history of the time, that I did not see in the text books.

It wasn’t until mid-way through high school, where I truly started to question the books that we were reading. It wasn’t that the teachers were attempting to indoctrinate us into some type of cult-ish, we-are-who-the-book-says-we-are type of thinking, but rather, people had been paid to tell a certain story, and while the accuracy of the story was defined by years of research, I felt that if they weren’t there to see it take place, they couldn’t possibly understand the accurate version of the story. Research can only get a person so far.

It was around this time that I also discovered the works of Dickens, and Blake, and Donne, and George Elliot, and the Bronte sisters. Their words all felt so brutally honest, that I began to feel as though, while three of the four (if you lump the Bronte sisters together) were writing fictional tales, they weren’t afraid to show the true darkness of those time periods. William Blake, as a fairly unknown poet of his time, was not afraid to talk about London as he saw it. He was not worried about any backlash from the church as he told tales of children as chimney sweeps who, when stuck inside the piping, would simply be burned until their bodies disintegrated, and un-clogged the chimney system. Donne, a former man of God, was not afraid to talk about the struggles he had in the church, and how he had lost his faith over too many questions. Bronte and Dickens were not afraid to talk about a world where people were not all happy, and where the realities in Jane Eyre, and A Tale of Two Cities felt so much more matter-of-fact than any textbook description of England during those times.

I’ve had countless debates with history teachers over the years. They have been trained to believe the research. I have been brought up to find honesty in the fiction of the period. It’s a battle that has gone on since the earliest novels were written. So, who is right?

That leads me to today’s Question of the Day: Do you believe in History, or History via Literature? Explain.

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

2 comments on “QOTD: History vs. History Via Literature

  1. dlsimmons00
    May 2, 2013

    I’m tempted to think that these are two different things. While I agree that history as it is taught by textbooks is often deplorably biased and flat out wrong, it also isn’t supposed to convey the same things as a work of literature. History should be about what happened, literature should be about what it felt like.

  2. dlsimmons00
    May 2, 2013

    So, I guess my response is that I believe in both. I want to know what happened, as close to objectively as possible, and I want to know what it was like on the ground.

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