The many and conflicting ways that historians have approached the writing of history throughout the ages is a time-worn field. In a fresh addition to a mostly academic subject, the authors themselves take center stage in Making History, an exceptionally readable new volume by Richard Cohen, a longtime editor and publisher of trade books. From the ancient Greek and early Muslim chroniclers to Mary Beard and Nikole Hannah-Jones, Making History portrays historians in their total personhood. Fulsome biographical snapshots illuminate why and how these writers embraced their subjects. Cohen’s thesis is straightforward but rarely represented in the literature that precedes him: Our access to the past owes as much to a historian’s lived experience as to the methods incubated at her university.

In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Cohen addresses his biographical approach as well as his attempt to give a fuller picture of nonwhite historians. (To this purpose, he added some 18,000 words to his initial draft, an addition that deals compellingly with the problem of archives and access.) More generally we discuss a few of the many people in his book, the entanglement of politics and history-telling, the influence of creative literature on historians, and the fortunes of good old-fashioned narrative history (of which his book is a prime specimen) in an increasingly specialized discipline.

—Walker Mimms

Walker Mimms: Tell me about your book’s subtitle, “The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past.”

Richard Cohen: At one point it was going to be “The Storytellers Who Shaped Our Past.” I worried that might have seemed somehow exclusive. That’s why the subtitle was meant to be the past in general, that people might say, “Well, he is talking as this middle-class English older guy—to what extent is it an inclusive history?” And the other thing was the importance of telling stories to the telling of history: All the great historians have been great storytellers. And I also wanted to make it clear that it was a book about the making of history that wasn’t confining the subject to academia, to the professional or career historian.

WM: You focus on nontraditional historians—novelists, memoirists, diarists, journalists, interviewers, makers of documentaries. How did you draw the line?

RC: Well, I’d hoped you wouldn’t ask that, because the book is, in that sense, a conjuring act or a confidence trick. It’s selective. I’ve tried to show that other people might have chosen very different material and that my dominating criterion was historians who have influenced us, people who have told us about the past in a really influential way. Now, you might say, “Is that a popular reading? Why haven’t you included the Earl of Clarendon?” But it’s like saying Shakespeare’s Richard III is the idea that most people have of Richard III—or Henry IV or Cleopatra and Antony and Caesar.

WM: Shakespeare wasn’t writing history per se, but Richard III led to centuries of mistaken beliefs about that monarch.

RC: Over half of Shakespeare’s plays either are histories—The Tragedy of King John is a history play—or were based on real events: King Lear, Macbeth. And when you are talking about imaginative literature, including drama, of course he twisted facts and made things up, got facts totally wrong, in the pursuit of the tale he wanted to tell.

WM: You note the fascinating truth that Shakespeare is not just a Tudor playwright; he’s just as much a Stuart playwright, and it was under King James that he came to his most biting critique of monarchy. He did this with historical allegory—with Lear, for instance. Is this use of history alive today?

RC: Relatively recently, in the 1990s, Judy Chang’s Wild Swans was published and banned in China. That was a nonfiction work and, in that sense, didn’t have what we would call imaginative or fictional subjects. Still, sticking with drama, David Hare’s Stuff Happens was deeply a political play, but it wasn’t as if he was choosing a period in the past and then using it as an analog for making a political point about the present. But I think the most obvious example would be the musical Hamilton, which had a very plain political argument to it. After its performance in Puerto Rico, there was a huge amount of press there about colonialism and statehood and the rest.

WM: Your chapter on Russian revisionism reminds me of Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” line on Ukraine. You show Putin as a young KGB guy, hand-shredding evidence of Soviet espionage. Has this scene gained new force for you this year?

RC: In November, we had President Xi Jinping saying that he’s going to rewrite China’s history to make it more favorable to China. Obviously, my book goes into pre-Ukrainian dabblings by Putin—not just closing down Memorial International, but actually banning certain textbooks in schools and colleges and then demanding that people use government textbooks, so that he’s earned millions from that particular decree. By saying that Russian history should be about the good things in that history—even though, in his first 10 years or so in office, he allowed a lot of critical stuff about Stalin to appear—he’s changed to become more and more autocratic. And, of course, it’s not just Russia or China or Hungary and so on. Trump tore up sheets and sheets of documents and tried to make sure that the historical record of his presidency was one that was shaped to his liking.

WM: You mention Trump’s “1776 Report.” Do you see any similarities between America’s state-led push for a particular narrative about slavery and Putin’s push to sanitize aspects of the Stalin years?

RC: Of course there are great similarities—I mean, you’ve got 14 states in the country who’ve banned critical race theory from school curriculums. What I was trying to do was look at 2,500 years of history, and I feature discussions on race and gender throughout, showing it’s not just a contemporary issue. Autocrats want to shape the narrative—I know it’s an obvious point, but it’s not one that people necessarily grasp immediately. History has two meanings: It’s the past, and it’s accounts of the past. So you get the past through the filter of other people.

WM: Your book taught me about Winston Churchill’s piece of fan fiction from 1930: Robert E. Lee wins at Gettysburg, abolishes slavery, and ends up averting the First World War. When I went to read that story, it was clear Churchill owed so much to William Archibald Dunning, the American historian who argued that Reconstruction was an antidemocratic tragedy.

RC: Well, remember Churchill was a novelist, and at least half-American, and that he loved to be impish. And so counterfactual history appealed to him, just as a way of annoying people, and it’s continued to do so.

But on Dunning, I took the Civil War as being the most dramatic example of the work of historians as a continual palimpsest of the historians that have been before. Although still a battleground amongst historians, I think that the place of slavery as a cause of the Civil War has now found favor with the vast majority of historians. What’s startling about those first 80 years after the Civil War is how the South won the peace in terms of the historical record. And Dunning’s pupils went on to rule the roost in history faculties throughout large parts of the United States, which was just remarkable.

WM: Does this victory have to do with the failure of Reconstruction?

RC: Yeah, there’s all of that as well. I felt critical of Ken Burns’s not really dealing with Reconstruction in his Civil War series. But with his way of telling the story, I wanted to rejoice in the series itself rather than being super-critical.

WM: But you discuss how Burns enlisted Shelby Foote and might have introduced a certain, shall we say, empathy for the Confederate cause.

RC: Hugely introduced. Ken Burns was so won over by Shelby Foote’s storytelling—because he was so great in telling anecdotes in that wonderful Southern voice of his, and of course with all the anomalous gifts to go on top—that Shelby Foote became this celebrity. He slanted that series in a way that, absent Foote, you’d have had a very different footprint.

WM: Is it important to try to find some empathy for historical figures you don’t agree with?

RC: As long as empathy doesn’t include agreement. Do I feel empathy towards Heinrich Himmler? Well, after I interviewed David Irving, he sent me chapter after chapter of a biography he is writing on Himmler, and I discovered Himmler had fenced at university. Well, fencing has been part of my life, so I felt empathy for Himmler having to fence his special Mensur duel while at college. But other than that, is empathy more than understanding or trying to understand? I think I should try to understand the viewpoint or the character of anyone one’s writing about, as long as it doesn’t tip the balance away from other things which are more important to state, in whatever form one’s writing—history or drama or fiction.

WM: We’re talking now about actors in history. Let’s talk about empathy for the historians themselves. To stay with David Irving, who has been accused of denying or diminishing the Holocaust, why is it important to know that he dropped out of school for financial reasons and that he ended up in Germany laboring in a steel mill?

RC: Because I think it gives you a sense of his character, but in particular that he had a chip on his shoulder. In school he won a history award, and when the headmaster awarded him the prize, Irving asked for a copy of Mein Kampf. But the school, being clearly clever, gave him a German dictionary instead. He was always at war with authority, and [so knowing] about [his] dropping out of school, about how he felt his brother had been unfairly treated, is crucial to understanding how he wrote bad history.

WM: Your book is a defense of narrative history. I wanted to ask you about Hayden White, a historian you don’t mention, but whose ideas you grapple with throughout the book—namely the idea that any telling of the past is by definition false if you craft a plot around it. How did historians come to discover that?

RC: You ask how they came to discover that as if it’s a given fact—a very ahistorical view. And if you take Hayden White, I think what he wrote was valuable but, in many senses, wrong. A narrative history may not be the only truth, but it may be acceptably something one will call “true.” There’s a lot in my book which you might say has to do with academic historiography. But what I would say about White’s writing—particularly his more abstruse, critical theory about the nature of history—is that it’s true, but it belittles history. Maybe I should have mentioned him, but there’s so much I left out.

WM: And the “great man” theory of history? How did that come to be dispelled—or at least broadened?

RC: It wasn’t any one thing. Part of it was historians, or people who wanted to write history, saying: “I want to write something new—we’ve done kings and queens and presidents and dictators and emperors.” Partly it was a discovery of archives and people who were the opposite of “great.” And then I think the Annales school really changed the face of history writing.

WM: On archives, I enjoyed your picture of how W.E.B. Du Bois traveled the country, stuffing Black Reconstruction full of primary sources. Reproducing primary sources was his way of expanding access for other historians. Black lives had been so scarce in the archives. How did you approach Black historians and the awakening to Black history?

RC: Material that Du Bois regarded as important—primary-source material—was in danger of being lost, deliberately hidden, obscured, mis-archived. And when I was asked to add more about Black historians, what I did, I thought, made the book better. But George Washington Williams, Carter Woodson, Joel Augustus Rogers, John Henrik Clarke—I think I’d heard of Clarke, but I had to read up on the others, because they are known to a small African American audience. “Small” may be some thousands, but in the general context of things, not a large audience. And yet they’re wonderful, and they were telling history which had not been told to a general readership before. And they were all from slave families, and most of their books either were self-published or had to be published by specialist presses to get a readership at all.

WM: Can we talk about historians’ love affair with the novel? You note it at every opportunity: Edward Gibbon adored Fielding, Thomas Babington Macaulay brought Clarissa to India, C.L.R. James read Vanity Fair every three months.

RC: I don’t believe that, by the way.

WM: I had heard annually. Could you imagine every three months?

RC: I reread Vanity Fair this year, and boy, it annoyed me. Reading it annually would’ve reduced me to tears.

WM: It annoyed you because Becky Sharpe throws Johnson’s Dictionary out the window?

RC: I think Becky is an absolutely wonderful character, but certainly the other figures in it are close to caricature. And also, one of the things you get in Victorian fiction is—I feel like one day we’ll write an article on the use of the word “poor” in fiction, as a way of, say, grabbing me by the lapel and saying, “Sympathize with this person.” George Eliot in Middlemarch

WM: “Poor Mr. Casaubon!”

RC: Yeah, she’s taking you by the lapel and saying, “I’m leading you. I want your sympathies here.”

WM: Isn’t she being ironic? Casaubon is ridiculous.

RC: George Eliot is not one of the great ironists in literature. She says in Middlemarch—I could find the passage, but it would hold you up—basically that this person or these people seem unlikable, seem the kind of people you should disapprove of, but if you get a sense of their life more fully, you’ll see that it’s more complicated than that.

WM: But isn’t that the development of history writing? When the novel came at the beginning of the 18th century, how did that way of imagining character shape the historian’s craft?

RC: Edward Gibbon is the supreme ironist amongst all historians, but he’s driven by his lack of sympathy for the people he is writing about. All the anger of, in some ways, a lonely man—in some ways Gibbon had lots of friends, but, in all, the anger of a lonely, ugly man—went into the venom of his irony against the leading Roman emperors.

WM: Your chapter on Marxism is your most critical. And yet that scene where you pilgrimage to visit Eric Hobsbawm, one of the best-known Marxist historians, is your fondest.

RC: We could go on all afternoon on Marxism. Trotsky and Marx, for instance, were trying to do their very best for their fellow man. They’re trying to earn a crust, but at their best, they were trying to do good things. But both, ultimately, in their writings and in the way those writings have been interpreted and lived out, [have produced] a damaging body of theory. Marx’s insights have been influential, but they’ve led to totalitarianism, genocides, appalling events in the 20th and 21st centuries.

With Hobsbawm, he had his Rosebud, and it shaped his adult career. What the communists provided for him in his early years, his teenage years, was a haven which he never wanted to have to refute; it was an act of homage to what they’d given him over that period of his life. Now, [for many people,] his refusal to disavow Stalin and all that Stalin led to is abominable; it’s what, as Tony Judt says, removes him from being the greatest historian of his day. And when I met Hobsbawm [in 2011]—maybe I went on too long about him in the book, but I think that he is an extraordinary historian—I was trying to give you a sense of the man being humorous, humble, friendly, remarkably not able to take himself too seriously, which are not minor qualities.

WM: You always note finances. Thucydides’s family had gold mines; Gibbon invested in copper; Churchill had his gambling debts; Ulysses S. Grant was on the verge of financial ruin; David Irving worked in a steel mill. Dare I suggest that your book owes something to historical materialism?

RC: [Laughs] I’m sure it does.