Proudly displayed on the wall of the social studies department office in my high school was a poster with the words (in fancy script, of course, indicating both grave importance and light-hearted fun all in one colorful design): “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I took this as the dire warning it was meant to be…I was probably going to fail my history classes and be forever trapped by the mistakes of blind ignorance.
Of course at the time I was a teenager and already swimming in the mistakes of blind ignorance. Desperate to graduate from high school, I wanted only to move on with my life to a college campus where they were much more blasé about learning and I could carefully avoid any further exposure to this subject we call history.
And avoid it I did. I received a Bachelor of Science degree in 4 years from a respected (by someone I’m sure) state funded institute of higher learning while only taking one class from the history department. The subject was, in fact, something like Contemporary American Religious Thought, which I suppose had as much to do with history as did the rest of my classes. You know, someone had to have found all of these things worth figuring out in the first place if they were bothering to teach them to me.
Against all odds, though, I now find myself (a thirty-something wife, mom, writer) fascinated by history. A few things, I think, contributed to this:
1. I went back to school to get a master’s degree in the remarkably practical field of literature.
2. I married a guy who likes to watch the History Channel (when someone makes a mini-series from my blog, he’s promised to watch).
3. I learned to Google.
My writing has recently taken me (purely by accident) into the realm of historical fiction. I am nearly finished with my first novel (meaning that I have a completed manuscript which I think is great and I’m just waiting now for a carefully selected group of readers to tell me it’s not). In reflecting on the experience, I marvel at how far I have come as a person, from the girl who read that (motivational?) poster all those years ago to a serious student of the past committed to thorough research. That’s right, I Googled the quote.
Here’s what I found:
No one really seems to know who said it. The most adamant (even a little irrationally angry if you ask me) sources insist that it is misquoted from Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in a couple of his books: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Okay, I’ll buy that, but it’s also attributed (in various forms) to Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Confucius, and Lemony Snicket. One source even had the nerve to suggest that Aristotle may have said it, but boy did that guy get what was coming to him in the court of internet opinion!
I think what this illustrates is that history is far more fluid than we’d like to believe. As we recall the dates and events from our history books, it’s important to keep in mind that a handful of verifiably true statements come together to tell a story. Trouble is each of us will tell the story a little bit differently. As a teenager, and into my early twenties, I found that concept difficult to grasp and so I avoided the problem. Then I began to seriously study the art of storytelling. What I found was that the literature of a time period (particularly that which was widely read, though to a lesser extent also that which has been deemed by scholars to be representative of the period) gives us a great glimpse into history. Even literature that does not directly comment upon its age allows us to reflect, for a time, upon the mindset and experiences of the people who wrote, presumably for an audience that they at least thought they understood.
This gets even trickier when we start thinking about historical fiction. As a writer of such, I must be ever mindful that I am borrowing the era and should make every effort to treat it with respect. I must also realize that no matter what lens I attempt to use in order to make a particular time and place accessible to my reader, the truth is, I am a 21st-Century writer communicating with a 21st-Century audience and so any version of history I tell will always be colored by 21st -Century sensibilities. And what I’ve decided is that not only is this unavoidable, but it is also perfectly okay because no era (even the contemporary one) exists in a vacuum. This is, of course, the point of that oh-so-famous quote about the importance of learning about and from history.
History builds upon itself. One cannot tell a story or make a memorable statement without the influences of the past. Did Winston Churchill say, “Those that fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it?” He probably did. Did he adapt it from George Santayana, who borrowed it from Benjamin Franklin, who got it from Edmund Burke, who snatched it from Confucius? Perhaps Confucius had a time machine and enjoyed the clever wit of Lemony Snicket, though frankly I find it more likely Snicket read it in a fortune cookie. I don’t know, but doesn’t that make a great story?
But no matter who said it first, there can be no argument that humor columnist Dave Barry said it best in his highly authoritative book Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States. Barry writes, “In the words of a very famous dead person, ‘A nation that does not know its history is doomed to do poorly on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.’”