Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Philbrick tells the stories of history

What writing historical fiction comes down to is making history into stories.  Some of those stories feature actual historical personages and events; some feature composites; some are drawn entirely with imaginary characters; many feature core interactions between the imaginary and the real.  But this is only one kind of storytelling that is drawn from, and dependent upon, history. As engaging as literary historical fiction is for me to read, I am equally drawn to the work of historians who are able not to make history into story but to tell the story of history.  Stephen Ambrose is one name that comes to mind.  Even better is David McCullough.  But there's no one more accomplished at this right now than Nathaniel Philbrick.  From his very first historical volume to his latest--the just-released Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution--Philbrick has interpreted the significant moments of American history fundamentally as stories to be told and understood.

If that sounds like mythmaking, trust me that Philbrick does anything but.  Because when I say he tells the story of history, I mean he tries his best to tell the true story--which is almost always more engaging than the myth.  Sometimes, in his mission to tell the truest story possible, Philbrick comes up against an impasse of data: stories, even stories from eyewitnesses, that contradict each other.  This occurs more than a few times in The Last Stand (2010), his volume on Custer and the Battle of The Little Bighorn.  Usually, Philbrick is able to sort through the clutter of exaggeration and personal bias in order to render to his readers a reasonable approximation of what probably happened.  Occasionally, the best he can do, the most honest thing he can do, is to simply bring the contradictory accounts to the reader's attention and admit that knowing the ultimate truth won't ever be possible.  But none of this ever gets in the way of his telling a great story.  Although he's an honest historian--quite a painstaking one, actually--Philbrick employs the moves that all great storytellers do: He develops his characters; he provides their back stories; he juxtaposes their points of view; he keeps you in suspense.  His books, nonfiction history though they are, have a clear narrative tone: that is, the tone of Philbrick's consciousness as he processes all that he knows and needs to tell you.  (He is not afraid to employ the first person.)  Finally, he shows readers how the current of events lead, as if inevitably, to the one crucial action that made history.  It might be the Battle of Bunker Hill; it might be the Battle of The Little Bighorn; it might be sinking of the whale ship Essex (the event that inspired Melville's Moby Dick); it might be the voyage of the Mayflower.  And as when I finish reading a great novel, when I reach the end of one of Philbrick's books I feel sad that I must leave these characters and that time that he has brought alive so well.

Philbrick was not trained as an historian but as a sailor and a student of literature.  (He was an All-American sailor at Brown and later earned a master's degree in American literature from Duke.)  Following his years of education, he did not start working as an academically based historian but as a journalist and freelance writer.  The grounding in journalism surely fed Philbrick's instinct for getting the facts straight (he is a dogged and impeccable researcher), and for cutting through and from disputing accounts to arrive at reasonable conclusions.  Likely it also fed his instinct debunking common public misunderstandings about the people and events that have helped forge America's identity.  Meanwhile, his training as a freelancer surely taught him a thing or two about storytelling, about wrapping up facts into a package that readers understand and are moved by.  I teach writing as my job full-time, and I read dozens of books a year, and I don't know if I can think of a cleaner, more seamless prose writer than Nathaniel Philbrick.  I can't think of a writer whose sentences do so much work and with such seemingly little effort, so little obvious dazzle.  I would announce Nathaniel Philbrick as one of America's most expert writers of creative nonfiction--his style is that good, his books are that winning--but I'm afraid that would make readers suspect the truth of his histories.  Fear not; if nothing else Philbrick writes fair and balanced histories.  He received the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his breakout volume, The Heart of the Sea (2000), and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in History for Mayflower (2006).  While I was writing my Nantucket-themed collection of short stories, I found his first historical book--Away Off-Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People--the single most reliable source for information about and descriptions of the island and its social strata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But Philbrick is not only devoted to facts.  He's even more devoted to telling stories.  I can't wait to get to his new book on Bunker Hill.  I know I'll learn a great deal about an event I thought I already well.  Most of all,  I know I'll get lost in it and regret leaving it when there are no more pages to turn.  


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