Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past

Making History coverMaking History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past
Richard Cohen
Simon & Schuster (April 19, 2022), 770 pages
Kindle edition $19.99, Amazon hardcover $34.13

Richard Cohen’s new book on historians is rather long and somewhat uneven. But he certainly covers the breadth of history, ancient to modern.

Cohen begins by discussing the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. He goes on to cover the Roman historians, “from Polybius to Suetonius,” as his chapter subtitle states. He devotes a single chapter to all of the Bible, as he does to the entirety of Islam. I’m not sure that he has selected the best sources on the authorship and historicity of the Bible. Some of his interpretations are consistent with my understanding of those topics, while others are not. Since my knowledge of Islam is superficial at best, given my knowledge of the Bible, which is not superficial, I am reluctant to accept at face value much of what he says about Islam.

The author devotes a single chapter to medieval historians, before moving on to the Renaissance and Machiavelli. From there he moves across the channel to England, where he offers a chapter on Shakespeare, perhaps the most interesting in the book. Although Shakespeare wrote fictional drama, Cohen states, “no other writer, of any time or place, gives us a more lasting impression of what most of the fourteen Plantagenet kings were like.” He then provides some fascinating material about Shakespeare as a historian.

Cohen then discusses Voltaire (not generally known as a historian) and Gibbon, delving into their idiosyncrasies. He writes about the nineteenth-century historians and the history presented in novels, such as those of Jane Austen.

The author devotes a full chapter to the American Civil War. This is one place where Cohen’s overall credibility comes into question. He references a 2020 CNN poll that said only 16 percent of high school students knew that the civil war was about slavery. In fact, for Abraham Lincoln the war was far more about preserving the Union than about slavery. Nonetheless, Cohen provides some interesting perspectives. He writes about the famed photographer Matthew Brady. Cohen tells us that Brady took few photos himself, but rather had a staff of field photographers. And he was not above staging shots on the battlefield. The author discusses Ken Burns and his renown PBS special on the civil war, perhaps putting Burns on more of a pedestal than he deserves.

Cohen writes about World War II history and history as the Soviet regime presented it. He discusses history as the participants wrote it, including Julius Caesar and Ulysses S. Grant. He writes about Churchill and his vast output, focusing as much on what Churchill excluded as what he included. The author reflects on British academics and the associated politics in the mid-twentieth century.

It is only in Chapter 18 that Cohen gets around to writing about woman historians. (Though he does mention Jane Austen in an earlier chapter.) Once he gets here, however, he offers quite a range of women. He discusses Bān Zhāo, a member of the Chinese royal family in the first century. He writes about Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of the author of Frankenstein, and the contemporary classicist, Mary Beard.

Cohen follows that chapter by a discussion of African American historians, which is perhaps a bit too compressed to properly cover the subject. Cohen begins with George Washington Williams, who wrote in the nineteenth century and discusses W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and others. The work is current enough to include a discussion of the writing about the murder of George Floyd. Cohen explores how governments present their own version of history and then discusses journalism as history, including some mention of George Orwell and his work in World War II.

The final chapter is about history on television. Cohen is British and the bulk of the chapter is about historians on British television. He leaves a short section at the end for American television, the bulk of which is a hagiographical treatment of Ken Burns and his brother Ric.

The book is, as I stated, uneven, and I am not sure than I am much the better for having invested my time in its 770 pages.

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