Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Mess of History

When writing history – even of baseball - the challenge is to stay true and authentic. That means refusing to place into the historical record anything known to be false or inauthentic, for any reason. Every writer of history must find in their research enough information to recreate the experience, and then present that information in a way that engages the reader.

The guidelines for this are pretty clear; don’t make stuff up or intentionally misrepresent the facts. While it is not always possible to uncover every piece of information that might be pertinent and the veracity of each piece of information may never be completely known, the research process demands that one makes a concerted effort to do so anyway and never succumb to the temptation to fill in the blanks with fiction. While historians may differ in their conclusions historical disagreement is far different from making things up to account for gaps of research or to make a re-telling more colorful and lively.

Unfortunately in recent years the clear line between was is acceptable and what is not has become blurred, and many of book titles that have most egregiously blurred that line have been commercial and critical successes. Increasingly, I read historical accounts of baseball and other sports history that I view with the same suspicions I do the achievements of a hitter on steroids. Too often I encounter books that create dialogue that did not exist and invent entire scenes that never took place. Readers, unfortunately, are usually oblivious to the use of these methods. Over time they learn to expect a certain level of detail that, even though it is false, makes work that adheres to a higher standard somehow seem lacking.

This kind of historical abuse is becoming more and more and more commonplace. I am aware of one current title’s success that is due in part to the author’s ability to put thoughts and words into the minds and mouths of his subjects, something I only know because my own research has covered the same ground. I wish this experience was uncommon, or confined to the genre of sports. Unfortunately it is not. Many of the most successful books of history recently published – including some best sellers now considered classics – make use of these same techniques.

The damage done by this approach is profound. Not only does the true historical record become murky as subsequent accounts repeat spurious information, but the commercial success of such titles places ever more pressure on the writer of history to indulge in these same practices.

I know this is true from my own experience. Several years ago, while writing about a non-sports topic, an editor strongly suggested I include scenes and impressions and dialogue the editor knew did not exist. The clear implication was if did so my work would be more successful and make more money. When I refused the editor was shocked and made it clear other writers had not resisted similar requests.

Real history does not often unfold like scenes from a movie script, all crisp dialogue and clarity. It is more often a mess, a mass of often confusing and apparently contradictory evidence. The task for the writer of history is to guide the reader through the unkempt rooms of the past, finding order and logic and truth in chaos, anticipating questions and providing answers before they are even formed, so at the end of the experience the reader sees clearly what was previously obscure.

As I have embarked on historical projects like the history of a team, a biography of an athlete, or even the story of a ballpark, I try to keep this in mind, believing that the truth always tells the best story, and that if I do my job well and completely it needs no embellishment or added drama. Fortunately, so far my experiences like the one I described above have been the exception, and readers have generally responded with a generosity I find refreshing.

That was why it was particularly gratifying earlier this spring when Fenway 1912 was awarded the Seymour Medal, named after Harold and Dorothy Seymour, baseball’s pre-eminent historians, by the Society of American Baseball Research as the best book of biography or history for 2011. That experience was repeated again last week when SABR also awarded Fenway 1912 the Larry Ritter Award, named after the author of the seminal oral history The Glory of Their Times, as the best book of the Deadball Era, making Fenway 1912 the only title ever to win both such awards.

It’s nice to know someone is still paying attention.

The column originally appears in Boston Baseball July 2012. For more information see Glenn’s website at www.glennstout.net

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