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George Orwell Taught Me to Write History

George OrwellHISTORY MATTERS  

I never cared much for American history in school. My mind does not cling easily to dates, names, or dots on maps. I struggled with concepts like "Federalism" and "Whig" and "Manifest Destiny."  (click title to read more) 

 

Back in my day, history class seemed little more than a litany of wars, land grabs, and white men in wigs. The memorable people were heroes or they were villains. Everyone else was part of some faceless horde. And, believe me, you did not want to be part of a faceless horde in early America, especially if you were female, Native American, poor, young, old, handicapped, ill, non-Protestant, or a member of any ethnic or racial minority.

In college I was a literature major who leaned toward the so-called "classic" English writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Swift. There was a lot of history involved in my studies to be sure -- more wigs and territorial wars -- yet this was British history, not American, and it seemed more colorful, ancient, and romantic.

But I was also a budding journalist. I've been writing a local newspaper column of some sort since middle school. Journalists focus on being accurate, writing fast, and making a living. Literature majors focus on fiction. They care about plot and action, well-developed characters, descriptive settings, and powerful messages. Literature majors usually end up as teachers, while fiction writers usually starve.  I had my head in the clouds, you might say, my heart in the past, and my feet firmly planted in the daily doings of New Hampshire.

My only college history course was on the Catholic popes of the Middle Ages. Talk about colorful and corrupt. They made Watergate look like a girl scout cookie sale.  Who knew that in 897 A.D. the cadaver of Pope Formosus was taken from its tomb in Rome, propped up in a chair, convicted of perjury, and thrown into the TiberRiver?  The story that Pope John VIII was actually a woman named Joan is pretty shaky, but no less real than the fictional story of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. In fact, the more I got interested in history, the more often well-known "facts" exploded into fiction. But History professor Charlie Clark had gotten my attention with lively tales of greedy war-mongering popes. The border between history and fantasy had turned to Jell-O.

Cadaver synod of Pope Formosus  

CONTINUE Why I Write History 

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