The Genres of History and Biography (Part 1)

History and Biography – these two genres of literature are new to our country. They are not particularly ancient to any country.

In this essay, when I say ‘history’ I’m referring to the history of a certain geography or a land and when I say ‘biography’ I’m referring to the personal history of a famous man or woman. We shall see the details in due course.

This Literature is Recent Everywhere

It is widely accepted that Greece is the mother of European literature and culture. In that part of the world, Greece is an ancient land. The first historian of that region was Herodotus. His period is roughly between 484 and 425 bce. He has recorded the rumours and mythical stories of his time. His writings can be regarded as ‘history’ only out of courtesy. After him, during the same era, came another historian Thucydides. His period is roughly between 464 and 402 bce. Even his writings are imaginative in nature. He writes in the manner of ‘direct reporting’—akin to the style of today’s newspapers—as though he has heard with his own ears the speeches of the protagonists in his stories. But he had not heard those speeches firsthand. If someone else had heard those speeches and told him about it, the memory power of the narrator must have been extraordinary. In that era, the art of shorthand writing (stenography) hadn’t taken birth. Thucydides must have himself written the speeches and declarations for the protagonists and later attributed them to the characters of his stories.

England’s first historian was Bede. He lived sometime between 673 and 735 ce. His writing specially focussed on ecclesiastical history, i.e. history of the church (in English). After him came the celebrated historian Edward Gibbon, who lived between 1737 and 1794 ce. He wrote history like it was a superior literary genre, introducing poetic beauty into historical writing. His treatise dealt with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Famous historians who came after Gibbon include Macaulay[1], Froude[2], Freeman[3], and Gardiner[4].

In England, history as a genre of literature greatly developed and gained potency primarily in the nineteenth century. This is true with countries such as France and Germany as well. This being the case, it is the ignorant folk who accuse the Hindus of not having a sense of history.

The raw material for writing history is latent in our ancient treatises of Itihāsa-Purāṇas. We can put them in the same genre as the essays of Herodotus. Today, history doesn’t refer to ‘story,’ or ‘purāṇa’ or even ‘itihāsa.’ The literary genre we call ‘itihāsa’ is different from what the Europeans understand from the word ‘history.’ The literal meaning of the word itihāsa is “iti + ha + āsa,” which means “This is how it happened.” Even this is largely from the oral tradition. This has been called ‘purāvṛtta’ (ancient episodes, oft-repeated legends). This comes close to ‘history.’ Every situation, every occurrence that is part of ‘history’ must have been proved by means of records, testaments, and other evidence. Just like in a court of law, how anything that is uttered must be strongly backed by documents, verbal testimony, and other proofs, the various components of history must be strengthened by proofs. This is the fundamental trait of the genre of literature that is called history today. It is the interpretation of the incidents that have been proven to be true.

The Primary Subject-Matter of History

There are two main aspects inherent in the genre of literature that deals with the history of a land—

i. External details such as date, place, human episodes, evidence, etc. that are available for external validation.

ii. Details such as the thoughts of people, inner desires of leaders, selfish motives of kings, collusions of commanders, political strategies of ministers, etc. that are not available for external validation and can only be realized by means of informed guesses.

An example: Let’s assume that an airplane flew over Bangalore. What is the flight date, at what time did it fly over Bangalore, from which direction did it arrive, which direction did it go – we can get evidence for this. But how do we know if that plane was carrying weapons, medicines, doctors, food, or nurses who would distribute them? Did that go to Burma or to China? What is the intent behind going to China? – these are matters we have to guess.

History is thus a subtle mixture of factual episodes and logical guesses. To separate the two and to carry out research needs a great deal of effort. This is the reason why differences arise between historians.

It is natural to consider history as part of literature. What is literature? In sum, literature is a dramatic representation of circumstances in human life, human behaviour and transformation, and through these perceiving human desires and purposes. When the episodes of the narrative are largely drawn from creative imagination, the result is a poem, a play, or a novel. If the episodes are drawn from actual events in the material world, the result is history. The fundamental ingredients for both history and literature are one and the same. That is human nature.

Pure literature involves creatively describing those aspects of human nature that have to be inferred. History involves reporting facts without distortion. Both these genres provide ample opportunity for beautiful arrangement of words, ornate descriptions, and storytelling approach.

Among English historians, Gibbon, Macaulay, Froude, and Trevelyan[5] earned great fame and are deemed as first-rate writers and littérateurs because of their writing style, elegant descriptions, and ingenuity in storytelling.

When a historian reports actual happenings, as a result of his guess-work [and his biases], the truth might suffer – this was an objection raised in England at one point of time. In this famous debate, Froude stood on one side while Freeman stood on the other. This logical debate will definitely have engulfed the minds of the logicians, aligned to their worldview. However, an answer that is agreeable to everyone is out of reach. When explaining the meaning of a verse in a poem, different commentators hold different views; similarly, when trying to give meaning to an actual happening by means of an informed guess, it is natural that different historians have different opinions. Amidst all this, what is the fate of the reader, one might ask; he has to use his own intelligence and wisdom before coming to an independent conclusion. This sort of critical examination is not merely the freedom that the reader enjoys; it is also his duty to undertake it. The famous historian Seeley[6] said, “History is past politics; and politics present history.”[7]

To be continued…

This is the first part of a five-part English translation of the introductory essay of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 1 – Sahiti Sajjana Sarvajanikaru. DVG wrote this series in the early 1950s. Thanks to Arjun Bharadwaj for his thorough review and astute suggestions.

 

Footnotes

[1] Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–59) was a British historian and Whig politician, infamous for his attempt at destroying the traditional system of education in India.

[2] James Anthony Froude (1818–94) was an English historian, novelist, and biographer.

[3] Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–92) was an English historian, architectural artist, and politician.

[4] Samuel Rawson Gardiner (1829–1902) was an English historian.

[5] George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962) was a British historian, writer, and academic.

[6] John Robert Seeley (1834–95) was an English historian and political essayist, most known for his book The Expansion of England (1883).

[7] Scholars opine that this is a quote attributed to Seeley.

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

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