History Is Written By The Victors

From a biographical perspective it is the literary quality of the available surviving information that is paramount.

02/26/2018 10:29 EST | Updated 02/26/2018 10:29 EST

History is written by the victors. This is a famous statement so often repeated that is a cliché. And although mostly true, I think that an equally apt statement would be that history is written about those who left an interesting documentary record. This is especially true for biography and narrative history that is focused on people and their actions.

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Vitus Bering's expedition is stranded.

When I'm searching for a new story, the first thing I do once my curiosity has been piqued is look for sources: did the person or main people involved in the story leave interesting or insightful journals or memoirs? What did others write about the people or the dramatic situations that were key to a person's life? If it is an expedition that I'm looking into, the question is how many people wrote about it and were the accounts conflicting, detailed, well-written? If this sort of material isn't available, or is sketchy, poorly written or boring, then by necessity I turn my attention to a new topic.

An important historical figure will get attention from historians, but even then their accomplishments, good or bad (depending on the circumstances or interpretation), will be overshadowed by more literate contemporaries, or contemporaries whose work had the good fortune to have survived. It isn't uncommon for important ancient sources to have been burned along with the libraries that contained them, or lost during wars, political purges or religious transitions. People are always trying to rewrite the past, and controlling information is part of that process. But from a biographical perspective it is the literary quality of the available surviving information that is paramount.

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In the case of my recent book, Island of the Blue Foxes, it was the availability of two key sources that enabled me to move forward with the project. German naturalist Georg Steller and Swedish naval Lieutenant Sven Waxell both wrote lively unvarnished personal accounts of the expedition that offer a different perspective from the official reports, logs and journals. While the official documentation contains oblique references to disputes, disagreements and controversial events, these reports were prepared specifically to give a certain perspective on the whole venture: to explain away responsibility for negative outcomes and make the officers look good in an effort to defend their decisions and protect their careers.

Steller and Waxell's personal journals, by contrast, published many years after the expedition, reveal the inner thoughts and opinions, and the disagreements and dissent amongst the group, that show them as human beings living through one of the greatest dramatic situations in the history of exploration. Without them the story would lack a human element and drama and would fail to come alive as a human enterprise. I would not have been able to write the same book if these well-written sources hadn't been available.

On a different project, a biography of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in my book The Last Viking, the digitization of newspaper archives, in particular the New York Times, allowed me to discover hundreds of previously unknown articles that allowed Amundsen to shine as a person. Previously, most of the attention from biographers had gone to Captain Scott, Amundsen's contemporary who died in Antarctica after Amundsen beat him to the South Pole. Scott was a fantastic writer and his stirring account of his adventures and final days makes for excellent reading. For Amundsen, English was a second language and his published prose was somewhat dull and unrevealing. He was an excellent and animated speaker, however, and the interviews and transcripts from his speeches from the Times revealed a new side to his personality. These articles present a written record of the way he spoke that in another era would not have existed.

So while the victors may try to make history conform to their agenda, over time it is those who leave the most interesting, creative and insightful writings who end up with disproportionate fame and stature.