Wednesday, January 2, 2013

History Meets James Freed: Taken With a Grain of Salt

Happy New Year, history fans. I'm not one to make resolutions, but I have been meaning to return here to History Books. So after many journeys to Hogwarts, Westoros, and partially through the Wheel of Time, I am back. Thank you for believing!

Let's go back to 2006. This is around the time, during my reign at Indiana Wesleyan University, that I had the distinct pleasure of meeting James R. Freed. He was unlike anyone I'd ever met before. An identical twin, his brother had the social graces and friendliness that James often lacked. A politician from his handshake to his sweater vests, James would intertwine fact and fiction with the same breath. Talking to him was like a game. I had to try to decipher all the truths from the half-truths. It was something my peers found very annoying but that I found absolutely fascinating.

I found myself thinking of James while reading through The Last Apocalypse, a book by James Reston, Jr., that follows the earth-altering events around the year 1,000 AD that ushered in the dominance of Christianity in Europe. Reston begins, of course, with the Vikings. So why would events that happened over a thousand years ago make me think of James Freed?

To answer this question, I must dive into the controversial introduction to Reston's book where he boldly proclaims that he will use and cite oral history as fact. Why not? Most written histories began as an oral tradition, at least in the ancient and medieval worlds, right? He warns that this particular history book will be deprived of foot notes.

How dare he!

After reading many accounts of the Vikings, especially Adam of Bremen's, I had grown accustomed to, even relied upon, the fine print at the bottom of the page that set records straight and squelched exaggerations. For Adam, bless his heart, was quick to canonize any old priest that walked through Bremen, praising his unmatched deeds and glorifying how many thousands of barbarians he converted. And every hero in the sagas and in poems was a massive man, brave, and unbeatable in battle. I, as many students of history, have come to rely on the authors and editors to lay out in the introduction or whisper in the footnotes, "Don't take this all at face value."

So how do we judge Reston? He is presenting history in its truest form: flawed and skewed. Every written history leans this way or that. To the victors! But for cultures like the Vikings who didn't or couldn't write down any narratives, history is unclear, littered with myth, and altogether a chore to pick through--not unlike talking with James Freed. He's doing what we all do at times: sprucing up the truth. Dressing it up to make it more interesting. There were times during our conversations where I would laugh at the ludicrous things he would say only to discover later that it was partly true. It gave me a new respect for him, for being a good story teller and a speaker. That's what it comes down to: oral history was not just about keeping a legend alive. It was entertaining. So what if Olaf didn't sail to England with 90 ships and 9,000 men! Doesn't it make a better story?

And thus we get caught in that old web of how history is shaped and understood. Reston takes a ballsy approach. But is it the right one? The goal of modern history is to uncover facts, and, even more so, to discover more interesting truths within the facts. I like the way Reston writes. It is simple. It's cohesive and fluent, unlike a lot of academic writing that is choppy and impossible to follow. But I find myself reading a passage with scrutiny, looking down the page for guidance only to find a blank space below the text. Maybe it works. Maybe I am just trapped in our modern view of historiography. But I don't think so. You can only take so many grains of salt before you find yourself with high cholesterol. . .due to your high sodium intake. . .damn it, I thought I had an awesome analogy there.

1 comment:

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