Relationship between History and Literature
History and literature are not the same thing. Two sides of the same coin would not even be a fair description. Literature is better described as a product of history. History is what literature speaks about. We write and enjoy literature because it offers us something we can’t get on our own: a window to the past. For non-fiction literature, the relationship is apparent. The books write about what is or about what happened. However history is immense and the space in paper is limited. We are forced, on daily basis, to decide what is good enough to go down in history and what is not. Consequently, a lot of valuable information gets left out. This is where fiction comes in. Fiction is an intimate look into the story of the past.
Think about it this way. Music and movies are two types of fiction that we can arguably call universal. A few rare exceptions aside, everyone listens to some genre of music and everyone has watched at least one movie. We know that people are into pop music this day in age because that is what sounds in the radio. Sure, you might point out a lot of examples of people who hate that style of music. They listen to rock, metal, electronic, or jazz. Yet they represent a small minority of society and the billboard ratings can show you that. 30 years from now these people will probably be listening to the same style of music. They will probably even listen to the same artists. What kind of music will they share with their children?
Now think about the 1960's. What you thought of was more than likely The Beatles. Why do they come to mind so fast? Why are they so present, decades after their last song was published? I would argue that it is because they represent most accurately what society at that age was like. They are called representatives of their time for a reason. They are what most people listened to in their cars, what they played in parties, and the men girls wanted to marry. They set a fashion and people dressed and styled their hairdos accordingly. We know about them still because people from that age identify with them and bring them over.
People can try and explain in numbers and facts how things were like at a past time. They will of course be accurate in describing them. But only music, like fiction, has the power to show what it is that people felt. Music, like fiction, has less of a bias. You can choose facts at your convienence or what you think is relevant. But music, like fiction, only survives if those at the time feel it is true to their souls.
That tells us a lot about why certain works of literature survive through generations. Like music, literature can be masterfully crafted. Still it will be forgotten if can’t make a connection with people at the time. Why people identify with certain pieces of literature and not others then is the next question. My argument here is that because the works that succeed in connecting with society share the same outlooks and assumptions towards life.
If we read records of the economy from some time in the past, we can gather pretty good information. We can know, with relative accuracy, what products people produced, sold, bought, and generally interchanged. We can make statistical analysis and have a general idea of how well people lived materially. How much someone made, for example, changed frequently. It is not something people take for granted. Therefore, they will include that in their non-fiction records, but leave out things they are used to. And what they are used to is what interests us.
How do we find out what they are used to? By reading works of fiction that people identify with, we get an insight to into what they thought was normal. Fiction might produce a novel about a slave-master falling in love with one of her slaves. Slavery? It wasn’t discussed in the historical records because landowners assumed that was they way things were. There is no point in writing about something that everybody at the time knows. But if a work of fiction is to connect with people, it must write about things they can relate to. So one characteristic of popular literature is that it narrates well what people relate to, even if details of the story are not entirely true.
Works of fiction hold greater power to make an impression on us. Yes, we know that the Great Depression happened and a lot about its numbers. I would argue however that we get more from Mice and Men that by the historical records. We see more deeply into the holocaust from Night and The Boy in Striped Pajamas than we ever could from numeric accounts of the number of people killed. Fiction is a deeper look, in contrast to non-fiction broader’s sweep, into the reality of history.