There’s a Historian Born Every Minute

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Alan MacEachern

unnamedA while back I noticed that Active History had published a post citing a satirical political website as fact. It was an easy mistake to make: the site looked real enough, and its article only mildly ridiculous in the current news climate. I contacted the Active History contributor and editor, and the quote was quickly removed. Case closed. But it got me thinking about the challenge that historians face in recognizing fact from fiction, and how we respond when we are fooled.

It was a matter I had faced myself recently. One strand of my research into the Miramichi Fire, a forest fire that swept across Maine and New Brunswick on 7 October 1825, was finding evidence of the thick smoke that enveloped all of northeastern North America in the days that followed. So I was happy to come across the following from a published Toronto-area diary for that year:

October 9 — … Last evening there was to us a marvelous display of northern lights. When daylight faded pink clouds appeared in the sky mixed with long shooting rays of white light. The clouds changed shape continually, but the color was always a shade of red. At times the clouds filled the entire northeastern sky.

Nice! The fire had presumably affected the atmosphere as far away as Upper Canada, and in a manner I had not read elsewhere. The author was an Andrew Anderson, and his diary was included within the 1915 book The Narrative of Gordon Sellar Who Emigrated to Canada in 1825. I incorporated Anderson’s description into the text.

The only problem? You guessed it. The diary and the memoir that surrounded it weren’t real primary sources, they were “fictional history” (a more appropriate term, I think, than “historical fiction,” which speaks first and foremost to literature rather than history). Anderson was the product of the imagination – and the considerable historical knowledge – of Quebec journalist Robert Sellar.[1] I discovered this only because, in seeking to know more about the book, I came across Bruce Elliott’s mention in a Journal of British Studies book review that Jane Errington had been fooled, too, and had quoted from Sellar’s work as nonfiction.[2] My misery loved Errington’s company, but above all my scholarliness appreciated Elliott’s intervention: he had helped me catch a mistake before it went to press.

There is a long tradition of historians mistaking fiction for fact. Sometimes, we are victims of purposeful hoaxes such as the Hitler diaries. Occasionally, we are caught up in well-intentioned attempts to capture the spirit of a past age. In terms of Canadian history, geographer Eric Ross’s Beyond the River and the Bay springs to mind as an example of the latter category, and indeed there are references in Jstor to Ross’s book that make no mention, and presumably do not realize, that it is fiction.[3] And once in a while we write fictional history of our own expressly to explore the nature of history. As part of a “Lying about the Past” course at George Mason University, Mills Kelly helped students create an internet hoax about a purported “last American pirate.” It fooled Wikipedia and USA Today, among others, before the class came clean.

It is hardly a surprise that Kelly’s class went online to spread its hoax. The internet has greatly increased opportunities to fool people. There is so much information out there to process, so much opportunity to make it well-formatted and real-looking, and, in many cases, so much difficulty in confirming or refuting what we read. Lots of people get fooled. Last month, for instance, Slate attributed to Rudy Giuliani a tweet that had actually come from a Giuliani parody account. (See the original vs corrected article.)

But Slate flagged the fact that a mistake had been made. In the Active History case I mentioned, evidence of the mistake simply disappeared. Those who had read the blog post early came away from it with erroneous information, and, if they ever returned to the site or to the specific post, had no way of knowing that the information had been wrong. Not only that, Active History missed a teachable moment: specifically, to point out that a seemingly authentic site is satirical, and, generally, to have readers consider the difficulty we face in assessing sources. Historians needn’t revel in our screw-ups (that’s what other people are for), but we should admit when we’ve been fooled.

Alan MacEachern

Alan MacEachern teaches History at the University of Western Ontario. He would welcome, in the comments, examples of “fictional history” and/or of historians being fooled by it.

 

 

Notes


[1] Robert Hill, Voice of the Vanishing Minority: Robert Sellar and the Huntingdon Gleaner, 1863-1919 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), esp. 264.

[2] Bruce Elliott, review of Jane Errington, Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities, in Journal of British Studies vol.48 issue 1 (January 2009), 236-8, https://doi.org/10.1086/596159.

[3] Don Akenson’s At Face Value fits somewhere here, too, although I don’t know that anyone has accepted it as entirely factual.  No one would mistake my undergraduate attempt at fictional history in Gaslights, Epidemics, and Vagabond Cows as real – or any good.

13 thoughts on “There’s a Historian Born Every Minute

  1. Alan MacEachern

    Am I allowed to offer a “director’s commentary” to my own post?

    This was submitted to Active History prior to the election of P.T. (President Trump) Barnum – back when I naively thought we could afford to be subtle. Let me be a little more direct. During the American campaign we saw the swiftly rising prevalence and swiftly rising acceptance of fake news. (On all sides. Remember the online buzz the night of the 1st debate that Trump’s team was deleting his tweets denying global warming? Not true.) Just this morning, Google announced it would work harder to block fake news sites from searches — http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/google-search-fake-news-1.3851123.

    For the next four years and forever, we’re going to have to get better at sniffing out fakes, and at calling shenanigans on those who circulate them. And we have to teach our students to do so, too.

  2. Elliot Worsfold

    Julia Roberts engages with some of these questions as they relate to archives in her new CHR article “John Galt and the Subaltern’s Wife: Writing the History of the War of 1812.” Well worth a read!

  3. Matthew Hayday

    I, for one, have heard it said by my colleagues at Western University that Alan MacEachern bears an ever-increasing resemblance to Ryan Gosling as time passes. But I’m sure that’s real history, and is well-documented with photographic evidence.

  4. Ian Milligan

    Hah, great piece Alan. I wish Active History had put an editors note on their post rather than just editing.

    For all my utopianism around how mediums like Wikipedia, blogs, etc. can help break down some of the traditional gatekeepers and make knowledge more accessible, I always like to try to pull one of these hoaxes over my students to keep ’em questioning everything. It can help spur even more discussion around trust, etc.

    My favourites are Mills Kelly’s Last Pirate example, as well as this great one about Abraham Lincoln inventing Facebook (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/abraham-lincoln-did-not-invent-facebook-how-a-guy-and-his-blog-fooled-the-whole-wide-internet/256945/).

  5. Gregory Klages

    A great post on a confounding challenge.

    I’ve approached the issue of ‘fictional history’ in my recent book The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson. Thomson memorial sites such as “Tom Thomson’s Last Spring” and the Betwixt & Between project quite clearly state they mix fiction with fact, but make no effort to distinguish one from the other. Both project’s creators have suggested they intend to improve understanding of the past.

    Unfamiliar readers, including media, have responded to both types of content as if it is historical fact, however, producing what I believe is more confusion about the past than enhanced understanding.

    For instance, see this piece about a modern creation reported as discovery of a ‘lost artifact’: http://www.owensoundsuntimes.com/2016/10/23/art-project-to-shine-new-light-on-tom-thomsons-life

    Or… historical texts mixed with modern journal entries and tweets presented as being written by Tom Thomson:
    https://ttlastspring.com/

  6. Sean Kheraj

    The best I can come up with as an example is Longfellow’s Evangeline, often mistaken as fact rather than what we might call historical fiction.

    Brilliant article, Alan. But did you really expect readers to believe that profile picture? Alan MacEachern doesn’t wear glasses!

  7. Christopher Moore

    Nice piece, Alan. But the key takeaway is indeed that online sites should be making notations about their Corrections and not simply making silent revisions. Not just websites and blogs: as the DCB goes on revising its online biographies, it’s nice to have updated info, but it becomes difficult to know how much of the text the credited author actually wrote.

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