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George Orwell Taught Me to Write History


George-Orwell at the BBC 

Orwell (his real name was Eric Blair) supported his fiction by writing essays. He sold the same article as often as 20 times to different publications in order to eke out a living. He also worked in a grocery store and a bookstore. He was a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and was shot through the neck by a sniper. He died of tuberculosis at age 46. He produced nine books and his essays are his best work. They are why I write the way I do.   

The essay is form in search of content. It is the paint and canvas of the wordsmith. Orwell was a political activist because he lived in a world of war. But he also wrote about books, travel, poverty, dirty postcards, shooting an elephant, and making the perfect cup of tea. As a journalist, Orwell rarely reported. He "argued out his ideas" on paper, a scholar notes. He was afraid that the world was running out of truth, and despite poverty and ill-health, he could not stop typing. He was "driven by a demon," Orwell once wrote, that he could neither resist nor understand. Perhaps , he added, he merely wrote out of "the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention." Born into a different world, he suggested, he might have been only a clever reviewer of books and movies.

 Born into a different world, I might have stayed a teacher, or perhaps been a preacher or a reference librarian. But Orwell urged me on. I write about history because, living in Portsmouth, it surrounds and it consumes me. History shows us what other people did with their brief lives and what life did to them in return. The people I write about, for the most part, have had their chance. Their time has come and gone.  The people I am writing for still have an opportunity to fix what is broken and to love what is unloved, before their time too fades away.

I focus on small, local, seemingly obscure topics as often as possible, because it is only through the microcosm that the cosmos can be seen. Our brains are just too tiny to take on the mystery of why we are here. But we can, for a moment, glimpse our purpose, one puzzle piece at a time. A well-crafted essay is a distant voice embedded in a compressed space. It can be a signal beacon on a vast and fearsome ocean.

History tells us that we are not alone. We are part of a continuum. The problem with history is that so few people get to know it well. We make judgments based on what we think happened in the past. But we rarely take the time to dig for details. We too often assume that our forebears were just like us or nothing like us at all. We lack context. We cherry-pick the stories that suit our modern needs. Or worse, we know nothing about the past at all.

My job, as I see it, is to be your guide. I agreed to spend the lion's share of my life buzzing around in a time machine. I confer with people who are experts in local history. I poke underground, read old letters, comb dusty archives, and peek into closets.  I am not unbiased. In fact, I am full of opinions, but they are opinions based on decades of familiarity with the local past. When new facts are revealed, I occasionally change my mind. I evolve. Like your financial advisor, I can be wrong, dead wrong. But I will never say anything unless I believe it is the truth.

So when I tell you that the founders of New Hampshire's only seaport were investors out to make a fast buck, that is what my research indicates. When their investment did not pan out -- when there was no gold or precious stones -- the founding investors quickly pulled out of the deal and stranded their impoverished workers here. That is how this city began. Portsmouth expanded and thrived due to an intermarried cluster of wealthy and powerful merchant families. They built fine houses and acted like snobby members of the British gentry. They kept slaves, buried those slaves, and built roads over their graves. When I tell you that people from out-of-town were the ones who largely preserved our historic museum buildings, I'm not being irreverent. It's what happened.

Our mercantile forebears would have loved to see this city booming as it is today. That was always their goal. They were proud of the city's heritage, but they were happy to trade the past for a dollar. And they often got the story wrong. They saw people as either heroes or villains, and they revered wars and white men in wigs. Like Orwell, I am much more interested in "the common man" and "popular culture" than in passing on romantic legends and parroting glorious myths. We learn nothing valuable if we imagine, as some historians have done, that Portsmouth -- or any place we love -- is some shining unchanging city on a hill. If our preserved buildings are merely a nostalgic backdrop, then we might as well live on a movie set. What I love are the warts and blemishes, the unheralded heroes and heroines, and the uncovered facts. Like every essayist, I am in this game to expose lies and unveil the truth.  

"I know what you're doing," a reader said to me not long ago. "I see why you are writing. You want to hand a man a trophy, and at the same time, to pull down his pants."

That's probably it.  The truth can be comforting, but it is also embarrassing, and sometimes shocking.

We are not going to be a great or a failed city based  on the height of our buildings or the number of our monuments, plaques, parking lots, hotels, historic houses, and skating rinks. It isn't about decibels or drain spouts, festivals or fences, window frames or walking trails. The "built environment," as scholars call it, is only a touchstone to what matters. To be a truly great and enlightened city, we need to understand what really happened here in the past and why it matters so much. If I can help make that mystery clearer during my brief stay here, then my debt to Mr. Orwell is paid.

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALSand AMERICA'S PRIVATEER: Lynx and the War of 1812. .  


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