Book Review of Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past by Richard Cohen

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When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns debuted “The Civil War” on PBS in 1990, columnist George F. Will declared the nine-part series a “masterpiece of national memory,” in which “our Iliad has found its Homer.” It was high praise for a 37-year-old New Hampshire filmmaker who was fresh out of the record store business, and it was a bit demoralizing for me, a young American historian, fresh on my PhD in Georgetown. . With Burns’ opus, my chosen profession was just vaulted into the golden era of history film documentary while still using library card catalogs and reading dead people’s mail. Book writing, I feared, would be doomed to play second fiddle to “Ashokan Farewell,” the joking violin theme that so wrapped up emotionally charged in “Civil War.”

Ironically, it’s a new book – “Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past” by the British historian Richard Cohen – it makes me think again of the grandeur of the “Civil War”. and more broadly about the efforts of my whole subject. Extensive and wildly ambitious, idiosyncratic and also consistently readable and engaging, “Making History” dives deep into the way history-driven scholars and artists – from Burns to Shakespeare to Herodotus – have shaped humanity’s collective memory. Cohen’s volume is an advocate for both famous and largely forgotten historians as well as storytellers, filmmakers and photographers and offers memorable anecdotes and reasoned judgment while exploring themes including the basic myths of the Old and New Testaments, Roman times, the contributions of historians. . from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, black American history from George W. Williams to Ibram X. Kendi, historical works from medieval texts to the New York Times Magazine’s recent “1619 project” and Japan’s failure to prosecute post-World War II war criminals.

A former London publishing director and author of “How to Write Like Tolstoy,” Cohen clearly appreciates narrative flow in relation to historical analysis of ivory towers and emphasizes the ability of novelists and playwrights to conjure up the atmosphere of past times and places instead of simply recording facts. In this respect, he places Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as the most vivid way of understanding the Napoleonic Wars – a view that may have been shared by Tolstoy himself, who refused to call his masterpiece fiction, while also denying that it was a historical chronicle.

Cohen’s valorization extends to recent historical novelists such as Shelby Foote, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Gore Vidal. He even creates the genre “History as a Nightmare” and anoints the Soviet novelist and political dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to his master practitioner. To his credit, Cohen also quotes novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who dismisses the entire novelist-as-historian-trope: “Can anyone be so naive as to think he or she can learn something about the past from the clammy bestsellers chased around the book? clubs under the heading historical novels? ” asked Nabokov. “Certainly not. . . . The truth is that great novels are great adventures. ”

To me, Cohen’s core philosophy seems to repeat the 2017 novelist Hilary Mantel’s statement, which he quotes, that “history is not the past – it is the method we have developed to organize our ignorance of the past… that is what is left in sight when the centuries have passed through it.” A little lazy, the saying that Cohen consults seems too often filled with small grains of gold from the “History” section of “Bartlett’s Famous Quotes” poignant epigrams from authors such as John Lukacs, George Orwell and Leopold von Ranke.

“Making History” does not shy away from the fact that the sight has massively favored male voices over female ones, a situation summed up by Jane Austen in her 1817 novel “Persuasion”: “Men have had all the benefits of telling their own story. “Education has been theirs to a much greater degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Discusses a list of “famous female historians,” Cohen writes that “only recently could such a list have been considered at all. For centuries, reading and writing were reserved for those in power in what were worldwide patriarchal societies.” Somewhat ironically, Cohen then cites Chinese author Ban Zhao (45-116) and Byzantine scholar Anna Komnene (1083-c.1153) as examples of underrated female historians – though both gave their names to support and write about men: Komnene writes “The Alexiad,” a story of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of her father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos; Zhao concludes his late brother’s story of the Western Han Dynasty and writes the popular “Lessons for Women”, which reaffirmed traditional gender roles, while advocating for women’s education.

As he moves into the modern era, Cohen rightly praises the twice Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman for not showing any “fear of writing about men” and for being “a natural storyteller who delivers lively narratives in instead of enjoying fresh archival material. ” Descending from two of New York’s most prominent Jewish families, Tuchman knew the world of politics and craftsmanship at an early age, but she was not “a historian’s historian,” Cohen says. Instead, she was something far more dignified: “a lay historian,” which made the past interesting. Anyone who has read Tuchman’s descriptions of 14th century life in “A Distant Mirror” would be hard pressed to disagree.

Among Cohen’s strengths is his sheer enthusiasm for his favorite writers, who have persuaded me to finally read Sir Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy”. to buy Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel, “The Giant, O’Brien”, and to make plans to dive into the writings of the classic Mary Beard, whose BBC TV series “Meet the Romans” and “Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed” Cohen adores. Likewise, Cohen has also embarrassed me to realize that I have never read Leon Trotsky’s “My Life,” which is now on my to-do list.

Towards the end of “Making History” Cohen assesses the impact of modern photography and film. There’s a fine riff about how both the disgusting Joseph Stalin and the knight Dwight Eisenhower got people to crop photographs – literally cutting them out of history to serve their political purpose. At the opposite pole, Cohen emphasizes how indelible images and video of the JFK assassination, the 9/11 tragedy, and the assassination of George Floyd have been crucial to building collective memory. That’s why Burns’ documentaries are very much in Cohen’s liking – they are a distillation of academic history into emotion and poetry, injected into the American bloodstream through the common media TV. Appropriately, Cohen uses a line from the TV series “The West Wing” to drive his point home. With the words from fictional president Josiah Bartlet: “Modern history is another name for television.”

Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University and author of “Cronkite. “

The narrators who shaped the past

Simon & Schuster. 753 pp. $ 40

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