- History as Fiction:The Story in Hendrik Willem van Loon's Story of Mankind
"And if I were a novelist and not an historian, who must stick to facts and may not use his imagination, I would describe the happy day when the last steam locomotive shall be taken to the Museum of Natural History to be placed next to the skeleton of the Dinosaur and the Pterodactyl and the other extinct creatures of a bygone age" (411-12). This is Hendrik Willem van Loon, writing history in a book published for children in 1921 and still remembered as the first winner of the Newbery medal; what he says is doubly ironic.
Historical hindsight provides the first irony. The happy day van Loon imagined has now arrived; but a world without the steam locomotive, which van Loon calls "a noisy and dirty creature for ever filling the world with ridiculous smoke-stacks and with dust and soot and asking that it be fed with coal which has to be dug out of mines at great inconvenience and risk to thousands of people" (411), is not in fact a world without ridiculous smoke-stacks, nor dust, nor soot, nor great inconvenience and risk to thousands of people. The electric engine, van Loon's "clean and companionable servant of mankind," has driven out the steam engine, but not pollution or political corruption; the utopia van Loon imagined and assumed history was inevitably heading toward did not occur.
The mere fact of van Loon's invention of that Utopia creates the second irony. He denies his own disclaimer that history must stick to facts in the very process of making it. In doing so, he reveals a paradox at the heart of our usual conception of history. As van Loon suggests, it is supposed to represent the truth: but if historians are not merely to provide undigested masses of information for no apparent purpose, then the act of writing about the past is not so much a matter of "sticking to the facts" as it is a matter of selecting, organizing, and explaining them. Since the means by which human beings select, organize, and explain events almost always relate to the patterns of narrative, history is a form of storytelling—of events understood to be occurring in those orderly [End Page 70] sequences of cause and effect that we tend to perceive as the most primary and significant source of meaning. It is not insignificant that the book in which van Loon insists that historians must stick to facts and declares that he is not a novelist is called the story of mankind.
Like writers of fiction, historians find meaning in events. But just as the meanings writers find in events (and for that matter, that readers find in fiction) depend on the knowledge and values they bring to it, the meanings historians find in history depend on their own values, their own societal and cultural assumptions. Those historians who insist on their unbiased objectivity merely reveal a cultural bias toward a scientific approach that values "objectivity" more than people once did. Even the mere knowledge of the events that have occurred between the historian's present and the past he is writing about influences his reading of those past events; later events will inevitably be assumed, consciously or unconsciously, to be effects of those past events, which are now understood as causes in a way that those who actually experienced them would find bewildering. In this sense, effects always precede causes, and history is always about the present. As is the case in other kinds of narrative, the stories history tells reveal as much or more about the events of current history and the values of the historian as of the historical subject.
Since historians can persuasively imply such values only by shaping events into acceptable patterns of cause and effect, the stories they tell are much like the plots of fiction. Commenting on the idea that "the difference between 'history' and 'fiction' resides in the fact that the historian 'finds' his stories, whereas the fiction writer 'invents' his," Hayden White suggests that,
This conception of the historian's...