Questioning the line between history and historical fiction

Dr. Omar Ali
Dr. Omar Ali

Revolutionary by Alex Myers: A Non-Book Review

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

Revolutionary by Alex Myers is a gem of a historical novel. It’s the story of a revolutionary woman, Deborah Sampson, an impoverished weaver who sought her independence by pretending to be a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War (avoiding the plight of most young indentured female servants who after completing the duration of their ‘bond’ were promptly married). In essence, the book is a fictionalized account of the American historical figure, Sampson, who, in disguise and using the name ‘Robert Shurtliff,’ fought for a year and a half in the war. After being given an honorable discharge after she was discovered to be a woman, Sampson married, had children, and continued to live in poverty.

This latest and gripping account of her life is beautifully-written by Myers, a distant relative of Sampson, and who happens to have been the first openly-transgender student at Harvard University. Anyone who is interested in American History, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary era, ought to read this book for an intimate portrayal of the human struggles of the average soldier during the Revolution.

A number of stellar book reviews of Revolutionary have already appeared in print (including in The New York Times), so instead of re-hashing more of the details of the story here, I’d like to take a slightly different approach to doing this book review (a kind of non-book review). I’d like to—very briefly—consider the related questions of What is history? Who determines it? And … Who cares?!

Ok, so I’m a fan of historical novels (among my favorites is the classic Segu by Maryse Condée set on the West African side of the Atlantic in the generation following Sampson’s soldiering in America). Such novels help bring to life what is often undocumented but perhaps experienced and lived. But because such authors take creative license in telling their stories, they are not considered proper History by Historians—thus the term “historical novel.”

Allow me to elaborate. There is a sharp distinction made among most Historians (those who are officially trained as such) between ‘History’ and … everything else! For most Historians, what is considered ‘History’ is that which can be documented based on written records (archival records, such as letters, diaries, travel accounts, business records, legal testimony, and newspaper articles of the period at hand). But what if the written records hardly exist?

This is where historical novels are sooooooo helpful. Such novels fill in the gaps—the emotional-social gaps that are inextricably part of who we are as people, but fleeting when it comes to documentary evidence. As any Historian will say, documents are subject to interpretation. Yes, of course. Such interpretations are based on ‘a close reading’ of primary sources. But as a postmodern H/historian, I question the line between ‘History’ and ‘historical fiction.’

Did Sampson bear a finger injury from cutting wood (as Myers fictitiously writes)? Or did she actually get the injury from a weaving accident? Myers contends that he creates the fictional account of the finger injury by wood-cutting (see his Harvard Book Store talk) in order to paint a scene that speaks to the limitations that Sampson experienced as a woman—that when trying to cut wood, she injured her finger, and was then reprimanded for doing ‘men’s work.’

To be sure, Myers skillfully builds on the scholarship of the late Alfred Young, in his book Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson (published in 2004), which parses Sampson’s own brief account of her life (which apparently has many tall tales) with what ‘really’ happened. Myers also draws on a number of primary sources beyond Sampson’s own account, including letters and journals of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.

So, what is history? If we are to understand history as the seamless process of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) collective human activity in creating and re-creating culture and society, then there is much (a very big understatement) left out of textbooks, monographs, and academic journal articles of our libraries, bookstores, and available online. History (without the capital ‘H’) is indeed the stuff of ordinary people (you and me); it is also about the non-ordinary among us (the generals, kings, and presidents). But to be more precise, history—as in, discernible historical change (social and political revolutions)—is the interplay of the powerless and the powerful.

This is one way of thinking about history. There are other ways … indeed many other ways, if we are to follow postmodernism and its commitment to multiple (indeed limitless) perspectives and ways of seeing and being.

Until the last several decades, much of what has been regarded as History in the United States in our K-12 public education system, at universities, in the media, and society at large has been based on the perspectives of those in power. Since the 1960s, however, with the transformative power of the Civil Rights movement and other related social and political movements, there has been a shift towards what is called ‘social history’—the history of those ‘below’: ordinary people, poor and working-class people, women, and people of color. Such approaches to historical writing, which more fully embrace oral histories and the use of material culture, for instance, in writing histories, has given us a wealth of insight into the past. Ultimately, however, such histories are written by people who are living in a particular moment in history, and view ‘the past’ through those lenses. Black History, Women’s History, Labor History, and all other kinds of sub-genres of history, complicate the traditional white, male, heteronormative (a fancy word for ‘straight’), and middle to upper-class perspective of our nation’s history. But they remain human accounts, subject to interpretation … subject to history.

This is where the why we should care about history comes in. We make it. So as you read this, and as we discuss the book, let’s think about how we’re making history together. We’ll let the historians and historical-fiction writers of the future play with our words and come up with their own stories.


Omar H. Ali is an independent political movement-builder and historian. He received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received the 2014 Teaching Excellence Award for his unconventional approach to teaching history—which involves much philosophizing and plenty of play!

Alex Myers on Revolutionary

Here is a short video of Alex Myers talking about Revolutionary.   I think you will really enjoy hearing Alex speak about his journey to create a fictionalized look at the life of Deborah Samson.

Give it a look.

Alex Myers on Revolutionary


Our conversation with Alex is Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm.  Shoot me a note about your thoughts as you are reading the book.

A Look at Book Clubs Across America

I got a call this morning from John Opdycke, a Politics for the People book club member asking me if I had read James Atlas’ op-ed on Book Clubs in the New York Times Sunday Review.  I eagerly opened up my Kindle to Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?, which I have included below for your reading pleasure.

Atlas estimates as many as five million Americans are members of a book club.  Two points he make stand out for me—-

“Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

He goes on to say toward the end of the piece that “In the end, book groups are about community. ”

I agree! For me, here at Politics for the People, our book club is definitely about creating and nurturing a community of independents.  We’ve been able to tackle some “tough reads” in the political realm together that would be very difficult to digest/read on our own. Our discussions and posts create new insights and give meaning to our selections for me.

Thrilled to be among the legions of book clubs in all our diversity!

A reminder about our current selection—Revolutionary by Alex Myers.  Our book club call with Alex will be on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm.  Let me know your thoughts as you are reading….


Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?


MARCH 22, 2014

A book club meets in Fall River, Wis., at the home of Sara Uttech.CreditDarren Hauck for The New York Times
 “WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.

By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.

I used to think that the popularity of this institution was a quirk of life in New York, like restaurants where you can get a reservation only by calling a month in advance or parties where every single person you meet is smarter than you are. But the book-club boom is nationwide. Should you live in the Miami area, you can hang with “Book Babes”; in San Francisco, drop in at “The Mind-Benders Book Club.”

And it’s not just a big-city thing: In the event that you find yourself in Waco, Tex., check out “A Good Book and a Glass of Wine,” which has 21 members (women only) and is always looking for new ones. All you have to do is go online.

You can find book clubs that appeal to gender- and sexual-preference constituencies (“The Queer Lady and Lesbian Book Club”); African-Americans (“Sassy Sistahs Book Club”); the young (“The Stamford 20s/30s Book Club”) and the old (every town seems to have a senior citizens club); proponents of porn (“The Smutty Book Club”); and fans of a single author (“The Roberto Bolaño Book Club”). All that’s missing, as far as I can tell, are book clubs officially organized by class: There seem to be no 1 percenter book clubs.

Since we live in a world where you don’t have to actually “be” anywhere, it’s not surprising that virtual clubs have lately appeared on the Internet. ZolaBooks bills itself as a “social eBook retailer” that connects readers; Goodreads gives members the opportunity to read a book together, install books they’ve read on their “shelves” or find “friends” with whom to share discoveries. (I just joined and have “no friends,” according to the site.)

Or you can navigate to lists like — useful this winter — “Best Books to Read When the Snow Is Falling.” These sites aren’t just for oddball bibliophiles: Goodreads claims to have 25 million members and was sold to Amazon last year for a number rumored at $150 million or above.

Some book groups merge the virtual and the “offline community,” as Nora Grenfell, the social marketing manager at the digital media news site Mashable, calls its estimated 34 million monthly unique visitors. The site’s Mashable book club started out as an informal, internal group that met at its offices in the Flatiron district, but after members began to write about it online, followers asked if they could participate. Thus was born MashableReads, a monthly gathering for a small number of invited members joined by a guest writer. So far writers like Ishmael Beah, Malcolm Gladwell and Chang-rae Lee have appeared. Mashable followers can participate in the discussion on Twitter.

But the most prevalent way of conducting a book club is still in someone’s living room. The basic ritual is the same all over: A small group gets together every few weeks to discuss a pre-assigned title; to eat, whether that means noshing on cheese and crackers accompanied by a glass of wine or a four-course dinner; and to gossip in a dedicated way. It may be social, but it’s also serious; members devote long hours over many weeks to getting to the last page. For most of them, it’s all about the book.

Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

“There’s a way of interacting through books that you don’t get through any ordinary transaction in life,” suggests Robin Marantz Henig, a journalist who is in three book groups: a women’s group, a couples’ group and a coed and intergenerational group with her daughter, an editor at The New York Times. “It’s like sitting around gossiping about people, only you’re gossiping about characters in fiction, which is more meaningful.”

In book clubs, things can get intense. “We had the most incredible discussion of art, and beauty, and loving something bigger than ourselves,” says Tracy Trivas, whose Los Angeles group often finds itself grappling with “giant issues about the inner life.” When they read aloud a passage from Colum McCann’s novel “Transatlantic” — the scene where Lily, an Irish immigrant, reflects on a painting she’s received from her husband — “half the women had tears in their eyes.”

Ms. Trivas represents a new phenomenon: the professional book group facilitator. A writer with a master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury, she presides over three adult groups, for which she charges up to $300 per session. She also runs a group for children, who nestle under a tree with their parents and read books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“They felt empowered sharing their opinion of the book,” she told me. “I asked them who they would rather have a play date with: Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop. And if they could make up a different ending.”

We’re also beginning to see authors themselves taking on the role of facilitator. Established writers like Alexandra Styron command $400 to show up and talk about their own books — and that’s after the commission given to Book the Writer, an agency founded recently by the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Authorial proximity has its drawbacks. “No one tells the truth when the author is present,” says a book grouper who has witnessed this phenomenon. “No one is going to insult the author when he’s two feet away from them.”

But there are good things about these home visits, too: They’re a new source of income for writers, and they offer insights into the book that come straight from the source. Book groups are like friendships: Some coalesce and die out in a few years, others last a lifetime. Susan Shapiro, an artist whose group has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, recalls that it started with “young moms in the park who wanted to have more to talk about than kids in the sandbox.”

Members have come and gone — “no one has died” — but the format remains the same: “We take turns leading the discussion, and two members have to read a book before it can be adopted. Some do scholarly research, others are more informal. We have an easy flow of ideas.”

I heard about a group that had been around even longer. Founded in 1971 by a group of Ivy League graduates, it has been meeting once a month ever since. The passage of 43 years has had inevitable consequences. On the positive side, members of the group can claim to have read all the books and not be exaggerating; on the negative, encroaching senility; a death or two; an acrimonious divorce that had the couple fighting over who would get to stay in the group. One experiment that failed was calling in “professional help,” a group leader to set the course. “That didn’t work out at all,” said one male member. “The men didn’t like being told what to think.”

The reading experience — let’s admit it — is less pure in the mature atmosphere of Book Club World than it was in the intellectually heady days of college. Diversions from the matter at hand are inevitable. When you have 10 lively people in a room and a good meal on the table, it’s sometimes hard to remember why you’re there. “It’s all about the dinner,” says the novelist Sally Koslow, a member of a Manhattan group.

My own group is highly disciplined, and we talk about the work under discussion with admirable fervor, but we do like to eat. Our meetings remind me of a restaurant I pass on the Connecticut Turnpike that has a sign out front saying FOOD and BOOKS. The gossip-prone among us are kept in line by the presence of our kindly but firm moderator, Ilja Wachs, a professor of comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence whose enthusiasm for the classics is infectious. By the end of one meeting, I had gone from resisting “The Mill on the Floss,” which I associated with seventh grade, to admiring it as a grim study in thwarted passion. (Maybe if I hadn’t skimmed the last chapter on my iPhone while riding the crosstown bus to the meeting I would have figured this out for myself.)

Surely I’m not alone in my dereliction. I was chastened by a stern directive I came across from the head of “The Sweetness: Astoria Book Club”: “Please make sure to read the book! Even if you hate it and have to choke it down, we’d love to hear about why you hated it.”

This is a perfectly reasonable request, but not always easy to fulfill. One thing that’s rarely talked about is how time-consuming book groups are. (One group I heard about, discouraged by the time commitment of big novels, has taken to reading poetry.) Mine has a penchant for plump Victorian novels like “Nicholas Nickleby” that were serialized. Everyone in 19th-century London read these novels. “Great Expectations” was their “House of Cards.”

It’s harder now, given the pace of modern life, but we hunger for it more. In the end, book groups are about community. The success of the One City, One Book initiatives in Chicago, Seattle and smaller towns across the country, where everyone is encouraged to read the same book, reflects the longing to share. So does Oprah; her book club binds together a nation disparate in its customs, classes, religions and ethnicities by putting it in front of the TV and telling it what to read.

We  spend our days at airports or commuting to work; our children come and go; our friends climb up and down the social ladder; we change jobs and move house. No one knows their neighbor.

But a lot of us are reading “The Goldfinch.”

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and author of “Bellow: A Biography.”

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