Making History

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

History is not one thing, but two. It is the past, and it is the story we tell ourselves about the past. Hilary Mantel explains the distinction: “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.” [287] How that method has evolved over the last three millennia is the subject of Richard Cohen’s book, Making History: The Storytellers who Shaped the Past.

In this wide-ranging (though of necessity not exhaustive) book we are told that Herodotus is the Father of History and also “the father of lies.” He earned Plutarch’s epithet for passing on fables even he didn’t believe were true. He couldn’t resist a good yarn, Cohen tells us.


Thucydides scorned his predecessor’s sensationalism but was not above putting words in speakers’ mouths. He justified the practice, saying, “I have therefore made the speakers express primarily what in my opinion was called for under the successive circumstances….” [44] More broadly, as Cohen puts it, Thucydides was “torn between what he wanted to believe and what he knew had taken place.” [47] He wrote his History to be faithful to the records (such as they were, which is another story). Yet he wanted his History to instruct his readers about the dangers democracies faced, as he perceived them. And why not?

Roman historian Polybius scorned both his Greek predecessors, writing, “It is not a historian’s business to startle his readers with sensational descriptions. [Take that, Herodotus!] Nor should he try as the tragic poets do, to represent speeches which might have been delivered (Take that, Thucydides!)…. It is his task first and foremost to record with fidelity what actually happened.” [59] Easier said than done. How can one record faithfully when, of necessity, one must leave stuff out?

These and other questions form the central themes of Cohen’s book.


Edward Gibbon

History “is something that needs to be rewritten in accordance with the changing reality of the present.” So said Nobukatsu Fujioka, Japanese history textbook “reformer.” [573] In one  way, the statement seems to represent a certain truth. Why else do historians continually rewrite the past if not to make it more relevant to modern readers? Yet Fujioka’s words contain hints of a more sinister motive: to whitewash Japan’s atrocities in WWII. Is history on one end of a continuum with propaganda on the other?

Sir Edward Gibbon may be the most renowned historian in the book. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire synthesized the Roman imperial past for European readers. Yet Gibbon, according to Cohen, wrote the history with an eye toward the lessons it could impart to the leaders of Britain’s own imperial project. Despite a slant that might be expected to date it, Gibbon’s work is still read and appreciated today. Having the slant, an interpretation, is what makes a work of history compelling in the first place–as long as it is based on thorough research and open-minded inquiry.

Niall Ferguson

What about the case of Niall Ferguson, the so-called enfant terrible of the Oxbridge historical establishment? His books–cranked out at a pace that can only be described as prodigious–seem aimed at defying orthodoxy, shooting down accepted interpretations. Devil’s advocate or not, Ferguson’s books make serious arguments based on…well, prodigious research. They stake a claim for truth. The final word on their subjects or not–and they can’t be–his books provoke thought, more research, and new analyses. More disinterested historians–“storytellers who shape our past”–have their place, but so, assuredly, do the contrarians and the revisionists. As historian Veronica Wedgewood averred, “The whole value of the study of history is for me its delightful undermining of certainty, its cumulative insistence of the differences of point of view…. ” [504, emphasis added]


Can history (the telling of the past) be objective? For professional historians, the answer is no. In Cohen’s telling, the more relevant questions are: Can historians maintain fairness to the historical record, an open mind when approaching evidence, and awareness of their own biases. Some, including many Marxist historians, are not even especially concerned to temper their bias. Leon Trotsky tried to write the history of events he participated in, a fact that would seem to be disqualifying. Yet he claimed be objective without pretending to be impartial. As Cohen has it, he distinguished between neutrality and objectivity, deeming the former a kind of milquetoast abdication of political responsibility. [364]

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, a professional Marxist historian of the academy, was no less shy about embracing his partiality, while approaching sources no doubt more rigorously than the revolutionary. Hobsbawm had no difficulty admitting that his Marxist loyalties were bred in him by early experiences in Nazifying Germany. His later actions, he said, were “a tribal matter,” born of a need to “prove myself by succeeding as a known Communist, and in the  middle of the Cold War….” [381]

Other Marxist historians who make it into Cohen’s book are hardly mindless Hegelians, fitting data into a preconceived notion of history’s ultimate purpose. They are just as concerned as Leopold von Ranke‘s dictum to “tell how it really was,” [247] They have helped advance this project by expanding history’s scope (and depth) to include subject matter previously overlooked or ignored: peasants, working men and women, their living and work conditions, their mental and material world.


Marc Bloch

The expansion of the purview and methods of the historian is another theme in Cohen’s book.

In the twentieth century, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the journal, Annales d’histoire economique et social, or simply The Annales, and inadvertently a new historical school of the same name. Bloch, Febvre, and the their followers elevated material culture as a prime subject of historical inquiry. Fernand Braudel, in his study of The Mediterranean in the age of Phillip II, was among the first to consider longer sweeps of time, the longue durée, in which made geography and climate central factors of study. (Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari are hardly Annales school descendants, yet their work confirms the necessity of examining the longue durée.) Cohen avers that, in any case, the Annales, whose name refers to a specific type of historical source, might better have been called Total History. Everything is a possible subject of inquiry.

Individual historians have expanded history’s range, too. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle broke new ground in military history by focusing more on mechanics and technology of warfare than on generals and strategy. His overall approach helped readers better understand “what it felt like to be a soldier” in three different battles across five centuries. Women historians, since at least Mary Wollstonecraft, opened up women’s domains to historical study. Classical scholar Mary Beard has done this and more for ancient Rome, going so far as to examine laughter in ancient Rome.


Cohen does not examine the tilt toward quantitative history which emerged in the 1960s logically out of the Annales school, but he does give voice to historians who reacted against it, primarily Simon Schama. “The academy is under siege,” he lamented. Historians writing purely for each other was killing the vitality of the enterprise. They must also write accessible, narrative history that will actually be read. [643-644]

Alessandro Manzoni

The concern for readable history has been around since at least Herodotus. Even the chronicler of the longue durée, Fernand Braudel, described himself as ecrivain, not historien, according to Cohen. [338] Britain’s mid-twentieth century face of the historical profession, A.J.P. Taylor, described himself as a straight narrative historian: “I like telling stories. …No use writing history if you can’t make it as exciting as a good novel. Actually, it’s more exciting. …Better not write books at all, if they’re just going to gather dust on the shelves of a library.” [456]

Does historical fiction have a role to play in illuminating the past for modern readers? Cohen spends a chapter considering the question. Dozens of novelists receive mention, if not full discussion, including Sir Walter Scott, Alessandro Manzoni (I read and wrote a paper on his I promessi, The Betrothed, for, yes, a history class in college), Toni Morrison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. These authors illuminate the past for a wide audience and, what’s more, create an interest in learning more. Yet, Cohen identifies the ways their narratives of necessity mislead, including by eliding inconvenient facts and playing loose with chronology.

Many novelists believed their art revealed truths nonfiction history could not. Cohen quotes Joseph Conrad at some length: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on reality of forms and observations of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting–on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer the truth.” [265] Tolstoy likewise chose fiction (and free use of philosophy, too) for his telling of the Napoleonic invasion, Straight history, he said, would “force [him] to be governed by historical documents rather than the truth.” [271] Graham Greene was a correspondent in Indo-China, writing “history’s first draft,” in the common formulation which Cohen adopts. His dispatches were so heavily altered by layers of censorship and editing Greene could hardly recognize his reporting in the final product. (It was “so much fiction,” in Cohen’s words.) Greene switched to fiction, the better to report the truth of what he saw and experienced.

Harvard’s Jill Lepore makes a colorful and fitting analogy: “Historians and novelists are kin. But they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes.” [287] Hah!


Jill Lepore

Lepore’s definition of history as a “long and interesting argument, where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else” is fitting, too, as a description for the historical enterprise. [287] Argument, evidence, narrative: the three legs of history’s stool.

Storytelling requires picking and choosing what persons and events, technologies and trends, etc. will be included, and which left out. There may not be a novelist’s story arc, but the historian does need to identify a beginning and end. The historian must imbue meaning in the story he tells. He cannot avoid taking a slant on events, interpreting their meaning, making an argument. He must be fair and balanced when he approaches the evidence, but he cannot avoid taking a stand on their significance. He cannot be neutral.


But the story is built on a foundation of evidence. Pace Tolstoy, historical documents do not limit one’s access to truth; they enable it. Historians shape their story but only within the range that the documents allow. Imagination, as yet unmentioned in this post, is required to fill in gaps in the data and even to follow Ranke’s most fundamental dictum, “to tell what actually happened.” Today, historians and their readers want to know how it was and what it felt like.

Not all historians need be storytellers or grand synthesizers. There is room–nay, a necessity–for what French historian Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie calls the trufflers, researchers who hunt for hidden gems in the record. (Their opposites, paratroopers, descend into unknown territory to explore as far and wide as their resources allow.) [349] A truffler–and a quantitative historian–might not write a bestseller, may produce a work read by only colleagues in the academy. Yet, if his work adds to the understanding of what actually happened, it will find its way into the more widely read work of the synthesizing storyteller. That’s how history works.


Historical truth will never be “objective” and it will always be slanted. But with a conscientious reliance on evidence and an adherence to standards of methodology, new histories will add to our understanding of past–with later histories, more or less convincingly, explaining how this or that emphasis was misleading and needs to be reconsidered. History is the story we tell ourselves about the past in response to previous versions of the tale. It is a continual process of retelling of events that already happened and do not change to a continual stream of readers who will never stay the same.


Cohen, Richard. Making History: The Storytellers who Shaped the  Past. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

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