Op/Ed: Fictionalizing history

By Bruce Mowday


Bruce Mowday

The history Americans know, or think they know, is increasingly coming from polluted sources. Last week I was in Gettysburg digging into original historical documents at the Adams County Historical Society and Gettysburg National Military Park for information on my next book, J. Howard Wert’s Gettysburg.

I had several interesting conversations with curators and historians at those sites and one especially stood out where the person was incredulous over the lack of history known by Americans. Their knowledge is being fueled by misinformed social media postings, historical fiction and based-on-little facts television shows and movies. The historian said he and his colleagues gave up trying to correct visitors to the national park about an aspect of the Confederate flag controversy because of the enormous amount of erroneous misinformation disseminated to the public.

The historian and his colleagues, he said, recently lobbied to take a popular work of historical fiction off the shelves of the park bookstore because the book had so badly mangled history. The book was pulled and then returned to the shelves because the book was a best seller. Profits triumphed over history even at a historical park.

Devotes of some popular fiction ask Gettysburg guides to be taken to the spot at Little Round Top where a character in Killer Angles was killed. The character was fictionalized. Recently I was asked the locations of Civil War battlefields in Chester County. No such battles took place in Chester County but a recent historical fiction book gave details about those made-up conflicts. By the way, the author said at a talk that he did his background work on the internet, a place notorious for having incorrect information. During the author’s talk a history teacher sitting next to me whispered, “Your head must be exploding.”

The Gettysburg historian said people can’t discern reality from fiction even when a work is labeled historical fiction. Americans also have a bad habit of making judgements about people in history by their myopic view through a single lense of today’s sensibilities. Today there is an arrogant air of dismissiveness about our Founding Fathers by some who are too lazy or incapable of looking at the whole context of a historical era.

Fictionalized history is causing the country great harm because too many people now believe if a computer screen, television show, movie or book indicates something is true, then that tidbit must be true.

Chester County’s Bruce Mowday is the author of several books and a former newspaper editor and reporter.

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