Nobel Prizes and historical writing

I found out just now that Theodore Mommsen won the 1902 Nobel Prize in Literature for the three volumes of History of Rome, and remembered that Winston Churchill took it out sometime after WWII for his History of the English Speaking People. I find it quite amazing, and highly admirable, that historical writing is able to win this prize.

I also frequently get Mommsen and … now I’ve forgotten his name; someone else who wrote about Rome – oh yes, thanks Wikipedia, Edward Gibbon. Don’t ask me why; could well be because they are both giants in Roman history and I haven’t read either. Bad me.

Somewhat related to this, there’s an interesting article in The Age about Making a fiction of history… – Kate Grenville has written some book (called The Secret River) which includes some ‘real’ events but out of their correct context (geographically, chronologically, and personally). There’s a dispute raging about whether novelists are allowed to claim that their stories are ‘history’ in some sense. Inga Clendinnen is fuelling the fires with a will…. I’m not sure what I think of the whole furore. I think I agree with Clendinnen’s words at the end of the article:

“You’re allowed to play games if you’re clearly on your side of the ravine,” she says. “Thousands of people will read The Secret River and get some knowledge of their past. That’s great – as long as it’s kept in the fiction section.”

Yup. I learnt an enormous amount about Roman history from Colleen McCollough (sp?) and her Rome series – to the extent that I knew stuff at uni that impressed my tutor, always a good thing – but I had to keep in mind that the motivations and emotions she attributed to the characters were her invention, no matter how well researched they were. I like empathy in history, I try hard – althoguh perhaps not ahrd enough – to get my students to feel empathy – but somewhere, there is a line where empathy does not and cannot help, and may be misleading.

Yeh, really not sure where I’m going with all of this.

3 responses

  1. […] From RandomAlex comes thoughts on Nobel Prizes and historical writing “I find it quite amazing, and highly admirable, that historical writing is able to win this prize.” […]

  2. […] I guess this brings up the whole issue of whether movies ought to be ‘factual’ and ‘true to history’ or not, much like the Inga Clendinnen question about ‘historical’ fiction. Having not seen Alexander, I won’t even bring that one up, but… I’m really not sure where I stand with this issue. I like my movies that are based on history to be fairly ‘true to life’ (ack, such tricky waters… I know this brings up all sorts of issues about what we actually can know blah blah blah). That said, if a movie is blatant about the fact that they are not, in fact, striving for accuracy, but for a jolly good movie – and they actually manage a good movie – then I can forgive a fair bit…. […]

  3. […] movies ought to be ‘factual’ and ‘true to history’ or not, much like the Inga Clendinnen question about ‘historical’ fiction. Having not seen Alexander, I won’t even bring that […]

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