History as a suspense story

History as a suspense story
Source: Reusableart.com

I've been away from the blog more than usual lately because of my reading habits. Not only am I in the last chapter of "The Sign of Four," in company with my own characters, but I've been reading a great and suspenseful biography.

That's right, a suspenseful biography -- to be exact, "The Last Lion : Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932-1940," by William Manchester (1988, Little, Brown and Company -- I'm reading a Laurel paperback edition).

I am so wrapped up in reading it that sometimes I'll look around, at my own apartment or at Chicago in general, and feel shocked that I'm not back in the house in Britain where I did my most serious study of the years in question. I think that's one of the great reasons to read biography and history -- to see the present with new perspective.

I get so caught up in what might happen, thanks to Manchester's masterful writing, that I start wondering how it's going to turn out. Beyond a basic Western Civilization course, I enjoyed all the studying involved in two more courses in British history alone, plus one in European geography. I know what's happening in these years -- and the present tense feels correct as I read.

Manchester's genius is that he isn't a lecturer. While I'd have loved to have his biography as a resource when I was being graded on my study of Winston Churchill, I enjoy it now simply as a story. I'm as enraptured by Winston's doings as I am by Sherlock Holmes', as enraged by Hitler as I am by Professor Moriarty.

That's gotten me thinking about the word "history." It's related to the French word "histoire" -- the same word the French use for "story." ("Roman," the word for novels -- fiction -- is, of course, related to "romance.")

If more writers were aware of that, we'd have fewer people groaning about studying history. Tell me that story about Winston again -- we need him.


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  • While a biography may have a certain amount of suspense, we know how one about a dead person ends, unless it is a fan fiction one. It's like someone said last night: "Spoiler Alert: The Titanic sinks."

    If we want something with true suspense, pick a live person. "The Final 10 Days of Donald J. Trump" is a free working title to illustrate the point, but there probably are more suitable ones.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you, Jack. I know how this Churchill book is going to end, that's true. But what I don't know is all of the tiny things that went on during this time period, 1932-1940, and affected the bigger things during the same years or later. I'm not comparing this to a "whodunit" story -- it's more like a "how'd you escape" story.

  • Of course there is no suspense in what we know. So we're not going to hold our breath wondering whether Abe Lincoln becomes president. But since our own knowledge of history is far from complete, there still might be an element of suspense in the narrative of an historical figure's life.. What did Lincoln see in Mary Todd, a Southern sympathizer, a spendthrift, and a very vain and temperamental woman? Finding that out in a biography, if not suspense, is surely an analogue of it.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    True, but I bet he didn't say "I vanna marry Melania. There isn't any marital property in my Springfield law practice."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Yes, that's a good analogy. I'd heard and read about Churchill being out of office, supporting King Edward VIII, and then getting back into office. I just hadn't known enough about how it happened and why (if that latter is answerable).

  • I have to defend "dull" histories. Biographies and histories centered on heroic figures are easier to make entertaining. Witness how entertaining Ron Chernow's biographies of Hamilton and Washington. But there are also important periods and people in history about whom darkness and confusion necessarily surround. Eric Foner is a good historian and a good writer, but who could make a history of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War delightful or inspiring? The Holy Roman Empire was important in the evolution of modern Europe, but who can suggest an entertaining history of that confused and confusing era. Same for the Middle Ages and the Byzantine Empire. Yet these are important phases in human history, which we should try to understand. Historians may do important work without being entertaining writers.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    I appreciate the quotation marks on "dull," jnorto. The years I'm reading about were far from dull for the world, but they get so glossed over in most histories. I'm enjoying Manchester's research and way with the language as he tells the story of how Winston got out of the political wilderness. This will be the end of the book without being the end of the story -- in itself, a good lesson for when I am writing endings that lead to other stories.

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