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What Is the Connection between Literature and History?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The main connection between literature and history is that literature is used to report and represent history. The two are, therefore, intertwined with one another. The biggest difference between literature and history is that the latter posits itself as fact, while the former is taken to be an artistic form. The twin ideas of fact and entertainment intertwine often within literature and history to produce historical fiction and narrative non-fiction.

Literature takes many forms. They range from personal notes to poems and non-fiction articles. Literature can be presented in a number of mediums including online content, magazine and newspaper articles and in book form. For a work to be considered literary, it usually requires artistic merit and quality. What constitutes as literary is a subjective matter and rarely agreed upon.

History at its most basic is the story of humanity. This is divided into anthropology, archaeology and history. History is the story of man’s representation of his own story — that is to say, what people through the ages have chosen to record and write down. Literature and history both occur in numerous forms, from tax records and letters to full histories of whole nations and people.

Early reports of events wove mythology into the story with varying degrees of success. Homer makes no illusions about the literary quality of his epic poems the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Thucydides provided a fully historical account of the Peloponnesian War, but seems to have died before the war was concluded, leaving key elements missing. Herodotus, on the other hand, tried to report full history in the manner of Thucydides, though predating him, but made no effort to separate myth from truth.

Literature and history are connected in the field of comparative literature. This analytical mode of study attempts to compare any two pieces of literature from different languages or cultures. The French school of thought examines literature for its historical and national basis. The German school of Peter Szondi, on the other hand, looks for social inspirations, while the American school looks for universal truths.

Historical fiction is a popular form of literature. It shows the deep connections between history and literature by having the writer study a particular era from the past in order to write a story. These stories may be wholly fictional or they might be fictionalized accounts of real people and real events. Popular authors of historical fiction include Bernard Cornwell who wrote books on Napoleonic Europe, the Dark Ages and the Battle of Agincourt, and Hilary Mantel, who wrote “Wolf Hall,” a book about Thomas Cromwell.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, tends to be contemporary to events or recollections of those events from someone who experienced them. These can be used as historical documents for their contexts and for studying how history inspires literature. Chinese writers such as Gao Xingjian in “Soul Mountain” and Ma Jian in “Red Dust” combine literature and history during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” explores the life of a student in the 1960s in Tokyo. Romanian-German writer Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her books depicting her life under the Ceausescu regime in Romania.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Nov 19, 2013

I think the best way to learn history is through literature. Get a good list of recommended texts that deal with whatever period you are learning about and read them first, before reading about it in non-fiction books.

That way, whenever you come across a fact in the non-fiction book, it will have someplace to latch onto in your mind. You won't just be thinking, oh, that's yet another boring skirmish between two factions, you'll be thinking, that's the little battle where Jack died in the novel!

It makes it much easier to remember everything as well as painting the events as more real and personal than you might otherwise see them.

By Ana1234 — On Nov 18, 2013

@Fa5t3r - You have a point, but it's important to look at the history of literature as it crosses different cultures. It is a powerful force when it comes to recording events for history, or showing them in a different light, but there are still places in the world where oral history is more important and other places where different forms of media have started to take precedence over literature.

I don't think that people should ignore that, particularly with regard to history, because context is everything.

By Fa5t3r — On Nov 17, 2013

I think that literature can shine a light on history, as well as recording it. I mean, history can't really be considered as an abstract concept, it's always going to be subjective depending on how you hear about it.

The experience of reading literature written during World War 2 is going to be different from the experience of reading literature set during WW2 but written during the modern era, because the writer will probably go for a different angle.

Literature can create empathy where there might not have been any before. There have definitely been times when a well written book has opened eyes to atrocities that have happened in the past, or heroes who might otherwise have gone unsung.

Then of course you've also got to look at literature as history, since it has so much impact on human culture that it is a force for change in and of itself.

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