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!

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

5 thoughts on “Questioning the line between history and historical fiction

  1. Cathy,
    Thanks for your comments about the book and history-it nourishes my thoughts and experience in reading the book.
    Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

    1. Gail, you are welcome, I love Omar’s review raising what history is and the rich role historical fiction like Revolutionary can play in helping us understand different moments in our history and the interplay between the powerful and the so called powerless….

  2. I love what Omar has to say about history. I remember reading Gore Vidal’s Burr many years ago and was transfixed when I realized that history is about people not dates and “events”. I also was aware when I was in Korea of the many fights about the Japanese version of the “history” of its oppression of Korea, which was never acknowledged, and their role in WW2, which they portray as saving Asia from European conquerors.

  3. Omar this is really interesting — never even thought about how provocative “historical fiction” might be to (scientific) historians — and also how it raises fundamental questions about truth, fact, the past, etc. thanks for so eloquently elaborating…

  4. “But as a postmodern H/historian, I question the line between ‘History’ and ‘historical fiction.’” This quote of Omar’s touched me – I find that there is much of history that as we learn, we enrich with our own personal experiences and reactions.

    I was very intrigued by this story and I thank the author for giving it to us. I feel that Alex Myers, as a transgendered male, uses his particularly sensitive and unique sensibilities of a women and of a man to help us see the stark differences and similarities too, of the pain and joy, the fears and yearnings – and limitations of what Sampson/Shurtliff – also born into poverty, experienced. Whenever Deborah second guessed her actions – fearing exposure – what would a man do – what would a women do – how would it be taken – we are not too distant from that to this day.

    I’m looking forward to hearing our author’s feelings and thoughts on all of what we are commenting on.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: