A Historian At Work: Using Facts to Build “Stories,” Part Five of Five

Part One — Part Two— Part Three — Part Four — Part Five

Finally, to return to where I started, with the question posed by the student (see Part One). She said the book read like a novel; that it, is read like fiction rather than fact.

I hope by now I’ve established that my work is based on facts and evidence. But what about the “reads like a novel” part of her question?

My response is this: What a nice compliment! I hope my books do “read” like a novel — not in the sense that the contents are fiction, but in the sense that the narrative has pace, action, “characters,” and a “story”-like structure, meaning it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That, I believe, is the best way for me to persuade my readers that “history” isn’t just a bunch of boring facts. Rather, I hope to convince readers that “history” is and can be fascinating, and that one way to understand historical events is by seeing them through the eyes of the people who participated in them.

For example, I opened the beer book with a real person, Phillip Best, walking through the streets of Milwaukee. I wanted to focus the events I was about to relate in the life and times of a real person. Put another way, I discussed a collection of larger historical events and trends: immigration and conflicts (including riots) between immigrants and “natives”; pursuit of the American dream; the prohibition effort of the 1850s; Americans’ attitudes toward alcohol, and so forth — but readers “witnessed” them through the eyes of Phillip Best.

But I also tried to avoid historians’ professional jargon, to use active rather than passive verbs. Tried to describe the scenery and surroundings. Tried to populate the story with real people, quoting their own words whenever possible.

Obviously, it helped that I had access to what amounted to a built-in set of characters: Once Phillip exited the scene, Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch stepped in to take his place. When those two died, other Busch family members became the lens through which we could view events. The last two chapters of the book examined the craft beer “revolution” of the 1980s and 1990s, and I had my choice of real-life “characters” to serve as actors on my stage.

But through it all, I stuck to facts. Whenever I speculated about an event, I was careful to say that “perhaps” something happened. As in this example, again from Chapter One, when Langworthy learns that Phillip Best does not have enough money to pay for the brewvat.

What happened next is a credit to A. J. Langworthy’s generosity and Phillip Best’s integrity. Langworthy was but a few years older than Phillip. Like Phillip, he had left the security of the familiar–in his case, New York–for the adventure and gamble of a new life on the frontier. Perhaps he glanced through the door at the mad rush of people and goods flowing past unabated from daylight to dusk. He was no fool; he understood that business out in the territories would always be more fraught with risk than back in the settled east. But what was life for if not to embrace some of its uncertainty?

I don’t know if Langworthy actually looked out the door at the people passing by on the wooden walkway out side. So I said that “perhaps” he did so.

But the rest of it? I am confident, based on the facts I knew, that I captured the essence of the encounter: Langworthy in fact left the security of the east coast and moved to the frontier of Wisconsin Territory. In doing so, he embraced life’s uncertainty. He knew Phillip’s family had done the same, leaving Europe behind for the United States. I also knew that he let Phillip take the vat, and allowed him to pay the debt later.

In short, I believed, based on the facts, that Langworthy understood the nature of risk and uncertainty — and empathized with Phillip’s situation.

So to recap what has turned into a long (probably too long!) disquisition on the historian’s craft: Historians trade in facts. They learn to trust their judgment about those facts and how to use them. They employ the facts (and lively prose) to construct an engaging narrative, one that is centered around the lives of real people. If the historian telling the “story” is honest and thorough, and careful, readers will know that they can trust that the “story” is true.

That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stickin’ to it.

2 thoughts on “A Historian At Work: Using Facts to Build “Stories,” Part Five of Five

  1. Great discussion. I think this is why Ambitious Brew was such a quick read for me and why I’ve recommended it to people that aren’t “beer people.” It’s approachable history and interesting in the same way that stories are interesting.Much of history is ultimately made up of the decisions of human beings, and that’s the fascinating bit about it for me, at least.

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