Charge of the Light Brigade — History and Literature
What is the relationship between history and literature? Is one subordinate to the other? What can we learn, for example, from the stories you read (be specific)? Does knowledge of history make a story more powerful, more “real?” Does history create literature and, in turn, literature creates history?
The discipline of history is both an art and science, designed to uncover the knowledge of culture, society and motivations of past civilizations. In such, it is beyond the idea of rote memorization of names, dates, and places and focuses more on the establishment of a verifiable past based on appropriate documents, interpretation, and an overall understand of the society in question and its relationship to other societies and future trends. The study includes who wrote what and in what time frame, bias, preconceptions, and audience (Bently, 1994). Literature, on the other hand, is also a process of artistically utilizing the written word in several genres (e.g. nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc.), but with less stringent research requirements and greater allowances for opinion, fantasy, and speculation. To say that both are interrelated, though, is an understatement. Both not only chronicaol events but give the reader a greater insight into actual individual implications, feedback, and the way grand events impact individuals on a day-to-day basis (Frisina., 1999).
Literature is a medium which allows the witer to take events, be they maco or micro-events, and place them into the human context — or living history. While individual reactions may or may not be indicative of the broad base of society, literature has the power to make one “feel” events as opposed to reading “about” them. One example might be Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. Certainly there is historical fact within the novel, the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and disasterous entry into World War I. However, instead of a broad societal picture, Pasternak’s novel uses a familial grouping to allow the audience to “feel” the events, the pain, the anguish, and hopelessness, and the way that overt, political events impacted the individual (Rosenberg, 1995).
The paradigm of literature creating history or history creating literature is akin to the chicken and the egg maxim. In some cases, historical events are a basis for literature: poems such as The Charge of the Light Brigade, novels like Doctor Zhivago and Gone with the Wind. However, other novels and pieces of literature have the power to incite, to critically analyze what is happening in society, and to influence historical events; (e.g. Candide or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). One must be cautious, however, since it is the victor that often writes the history of an event, and certain aspects of literature tend to glorify and magnify events into almost mythical proportions.
Why does Acton see the principle of nationality as dangerous to liberty? Why does he see nationalism as a threat to minority groups? Can you give a relatively recent historical example of the actuation of Lord Acton’s fears?
Lord Action (1834-1902) was an English historian, educated and writing during the most nationalistic, imperialistic, and aggressive years of Victorian England. Indeed, his tenure was contemporaneous with the version of “the sun never setting on the British Empire.” As an educated man elevated in 1869 to peerage by Queen Victoria as well as a liberal Roman Catholic, Acton was able to comment on numerous trends he observed as indicative of the age of colonialism. Acton was able to view Europe both through the eyes of an educated man and a philosophical liberal — he criticized the doctrine of papal infallibility, and also understood that the prospect of gross nationalism engendered fascism and totalitarianism and a movement away from democracy and republicanism. His famous phrase, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was indicative of his view that hyper-nationalism could be used as not only an excuse for genocide, but as a means to control and usurp power based on absolutely nothing tangible.
In recent history, one can find a number of post-World War Ii events that begin with the Western military retreating or completely pulling out of certain areas. This, of course, is based on a number of items: regulation of nuclear proliferation in space and a rethinking and slowing of events that, at the appropriate time, could have established a greater role for democracy as the world learns global responsibility. What Acton called “The Unbidden Guest,” could describe the Western World, the United States in particular, since 1945. As a consequence of the Cold War and Soviet exploitation of those educational and communication facilities, the United States has used its political power in a number of “police actions,” specifically to proper up pro-Western Administrations, while finding reasons to disavow those who tended to align themselves with Cuba or the former Soviet Union. Indeed, some would say that the Iraqi War is nothing more than a continuation for the “Operation Freedom” police action, transferred into a more robust and defendable action (Hill, 2000, 15-51; Siegel, 2004).
Bently, M. (1999). Historiography: An Introcution. New York: Routlege.
Frisina, K. (1999). Beyond the Gateway – A History and Literature Celebration. Retrieved from Harvard University: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~histlit/centennial/100-years.html
Hill, R. (2000). Lord Acton on Nationalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rosenberg, S. (1995, April 7). The Story of Love, History, and the Doctor. Retrieved from San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/e/a/1995/04/07/WEEKEND12827.dtl
Siegel, R. (2004, September 10). “Folly of Empire.” Retrieved from NPR.org: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3911613
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