[This blog is for Christopher Hitchens:] Some heated debates have erupted on my Facebook page over the controversy regarding the movie, The King’s Speech. At stake is what sources the average person relies upon to get a sense of what happened in the past. In the case of this much-Oscar-nominated movie, the stakes are very high, for nothing less than the record of the European aristocracy in either appeasing or opposing the rise of Hitler and the expansion of the Third Reich is on the table.
As the comments proliferated, I realized that very few people are aware that history can be, but should not be, an instrument for advocacy in partisan squabbles. We are all at the mercy of our primary source materials, and many of the most crucial records, for obvious reasons, are sequestered far away from the prying eyes of the public (and even when they are released or leaked, we must reckon with the subjectivity of the author). This theme of primary source-aversion is so huge in the story of the Western countries painful slog toward the open society that William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams (1794) about the dire consequences of opening the master’s trunk to ferret out his secrets (as I recall it was title to the land, but correct me). Nathaniel Hawthorne read that book when he was sixteen, and I wonder if his well-known conservatism was fortified out of fear, for neither master nor man turned out well in Godwin’s cautionary tale. [Read the book, for it is a landmark in English literature and much more complex and deep than my erroneous citation. Melville bought it during his trip to England in 1849, and it had to have influenced Moby-Dick and Pierre.]
Similarly, Captain Ahab’s harpoon was hurled at Leviathan to uncover its secrets, a theme that is carried out in Melville’s subsequent novel, Pierre. One reason my book on the Melville revival was so long (730 pages, including about 145 pages of endnotes) was that I wanted the reader to look at as much of the evidence I had found as possible, so s/he could determine for herself whether I had mischaracterized the sources or not. This is not the usual practice among academics in the humanities, for it is considered bad form to inflict long quotes on the reader, and a sign that the historian can’t summarize aptly. In the case of Hunting Captain Ahab, I was aware long before publication that fellow academics would think I was on some monomaniacal quest for revenge in stating flat out that almost all the Melville scholarship was either wrong or seriously flawed.
To conclude these brief remarks, we are either up to the challenge of reading and writing history or not. We cannot sacrifice primary sources for the sake of family or partisan unity. So far on the world wide web, some leftists and liberals have been skeptical about George VI and his possible role as appeaser in the late 1930s, while conservatives have tended to defend the royal family, in one case citing the official biography of George VI as told by John Wheeler-Bennett. One thing I do know: Hollywood film has tended to play to its audience: movies were populist in the 1930s and remained so during the next period of upheaval—from the 1960s on. Populists are not without their own heroes, nor are they immune from ancestor worship. As for me, I suspect everyone, as a good hunter after hunters is compelled to do.