Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Truth of the Matter
By Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
From ‘Mere Literature, and Other Essays’

“GIVE us the facts, and nothing but the facts,” is the sharp injunction of our age to its historians. Upon the face of it, an eminently reasonable requirement. To tell the truth simply, openly, without reservation, is the unimpeachable first principle of all right dealing; and historians have no license to be quit of it. Unquestionably they must tell us the truth, or else get themselves enrolled among a very undesirable class of persons, not often frankly named in polite society. But the thing is by no means so easy as it looks. The truth of history is a very complex and very occult matter. It consists of things which are invisible as well as of things which are visible. It is full of secret motives, and of a chance interplay of trivial and yet determining circumstances; it is shot through with transient passions, and broken athwart here and there by what seem cruel accidents; it cannot all be reduced to statistics or newspaper items or official recorded statements. And so it turns out, when the actual test of experiment is made, that the historian must have something more than a good conscience, must be something more than a good man. He must have an eye to see the truth: and nothing but a very catholic imagination will serve to illuminate his matter for him; nothing less than keen and steady insight will make even illumination yield him the truth of what he looks upon. Even when he has seen the truth, only half his work is done, and that not the more difficult half. He must then make others see it just as he does: only when he has done that has he told the truth. What an art of penetrative phrase and just selection must he have to take others into the light in which he stands! Their dullness, their ignorance, their prepossessions, are to be overcome and driven in, like a routed troop, upon the truth. The thing is infinitely difficult. The skill and strategy of it cannot be taught. And so historians take another way, which is easier: they tell part of the truth,—the part most to their taste, or most suitable to their talents,—and obtain readers to their liking among those of similar tastes and talents to their own.  1
  We have our individual preferences in history, as in every other sort of literature. And there are histories to every taste: histories full of the piquant details of personal biography, histories that blaze with the splendors of courts and resound with drum and trumpet, and histories that run upon the humbler but greater levels of the life of the people; colorless histories, so passionless and so lacking in distinctive mark or motive that they might have been set up out of a dictionary without the intervention of an author, and partisan histories, so warped and violent in every judgment that no reader not of the historian’s own party can stomach them; histories of economic development, and histories that speak only of politics; those that tell nothing but what it is pleasant and interesting to know, and those that tell nothing at all that one cares to remember. One must be of a new and unheard-of taste not to be suited among them all.  2
  The trouble is, after all, that men do not invariably find the truth to their taste, and will often deny it when they hear it; and the historian has to do much more than keep his own eyes clear,—he has also to catch and hold the eye of his reader. ’Tis a nice art, as much intellectual as moral. How shall he take the palate of his reader at unawares, and get the unpalatable facts down his throat along with the palatable? Is there no way in which all the truth may be made to hold together in a narrative so strongly knit and so harmoniously colored that no reader will have either the wish or the skill to tear its patterns asunder, and men will take it all, unmarred and as it stands, rather than miss the zest of it?  3
  It is evident the thing cannot be done by the “dispassionate” annalist. The old chroniclers, whom we relish, were not dispassionate. We love some of them for their sweet quaintness, some for their childlike credulity, some for their delicious inconsequentiality. But our modern chroniclers are not so. They are, above all things else, knowing, thoroughly informed, subtly sophisticated. They would not for the world contribute any spice of their own to the narrative; and they are much too watchful, circumspect, and dutiful in their care to keep their method pure and untouched by any thought of theirs, to let us catch so much as a glimpse of the chronicler underneath the chronicle. Their purpose is to give simply the facts, eschewing art, and substituting a sort of monumental index and table of the world’s events.  4
  The trouble is that men refuse to be made any wiser by such means. Though they will readily enough let their eyes linger upon a monument of art, they will heedlessly pass by a mere monument of industry. It suggests nothing to them. The materials may be suitable enough, but the handling of them leaves them dead and commonplace. An interesting circumstance thus comes to light. It is nothing less than this,—that the facts do not of themselves constitute the truth. The truth is abstract, not concrete. It is the just idea, the right revelation of what things mean. It is evoked only by such arrangements and orderings of facts as suggest interpretations. The chronological arrangement of events, for example, may or may not be the arrangement which most surely brings the truth of the narrative to light; and the best arrangement is always that which displays, not the facts themselves, but the subtle and else invisible forces that lurk in the events and in the minds of men,—forces for which events serve only as lasting and dramatic words of utterance. Take an instance. How are you to enable men to know the truth with regard to a period of revolution? Will you give them simply a calm statement of recorded events, simply a quiet, unaccentuated narrative of what actually happened, written in a monotone, and verified by quotations from authentic documents of the time? You may save yourself the trouble. As well make a pencil sketch in outline of a raging conflagration; write upon one portion of it “flame,” upon another “smoke”; here “town hall, where the fire started,” and there “spot where fireman was killed.” It is a chart, not a picture. Even if you made a veritable picture of it, you could give only part of the truth so long as you confined yourself to black and white. Where would be all the wild and terrible colors of the scene: the red and tawny flame; the masses of smoke, carrying the dull glare of the fire to the very skies, like a great signal banner thrown to the winds; the hot and frightened faces of the crowd; the crimsoned gables down the street, with the faint light of a lamp here and there gleaming white from some hastily opened casement? Without the colors your picture is not true. No inventory of items will ever represent the truth: the fuller and more minute you make your inventory, the more will the truth be obscured. The little details will take up as much space in the statement as the great totals into which they are summed up; and the proportions being false, the whole is false. Truth, fortunately, takes its own revenge. No one is deceived. The reader of the chronicle lays it aside. It lacks verisimilitude. He cannot realize how any of the things spoken of can have happened. He goes elsewhere to find, if he may, a real picture of the time, and perhaps finds one that is wholly fictitious. No wonder the grave and monk-like chronicler sighs. He of course wrote to be read, and not merely for the manual exercise of it; and when he sees readers turn away, his heart misgives him for his fellow-men. Is it as it always was, that they do not wish to know the truth? Alas! good eremite, men do not seek the truth as they should; but do you know what the truth is? It is a thing ideal, displayed by the just proportion of events, revealed in form and color, dumb till facts be set in syllables, articulated into words, put together into sentences, swung with proper tone and cadence. It is not revolutions only that have color. Nothing in human life is without it. In a monochrome you can depict nothing but a single incident; in a monotone you cannot often carry truth beyond a single sentence. Only by art in all its variety can you depict as it is the various face of life.  5
  Yes; but what sort of art? There is here a wide field of choice. Shall we go back to the art of which Macaulay was so great a master? We could do worse. It must be a great art that can make men lay aside the novel and take up the history, to find there, in very fact, the movement and drama of life. What Macaulay does well he does incomparably. Who else can mass the details as he does, and yet not mar or obscure, but only heighten, the effect of the picture as a whole? Who else can bring so amazing a profusion of knowledge within the strait limits of a simple plan, nowhere incumbered, everywhere free and obvious in its movement? How sure the strokes, and how bold and vivid the result! Yet when we have laid the book aside, when the charm and the excitement of the telling narrative have worn off, when we have lost step with the swinging gait at which the style goes, when the details have faded from our recollection, and we sit removed and thoughtful, with only the greater outlines of the story sharp upon our minds, a deep misgiving and dissatisfaction take possession of us. We are no longer young, and we are chagrined that we should have been so pleased and taken with the glitter and color and mere life of the picture. Let boys be cajoled by rhetoric, we cry: men must look deeper. What of the judgment of this facile and eloquent man? Can we agree with him, when he is not talking and the charm is gone? What shall we say of his assessment of men and measures? Is he just? Is he himself in possession of the whole truth? Does he open the matter to us as it was? Does he not, rather, rule us like an advocate, and make himself master of our judgments?  6
  Then it is that we become aware that there were two Macaulays: Macaulay the artist, with an exquisite gift for telling a story, filling his pages with little vignettes it is impossible to forget, fixing these with an inimitable art upon the surface of a narrative that did not need the ornament they gave it, so strong and large and adequate was it; and Macaulay the Whig, subtly turning narrative into argument, and making history the vindication of a party. The mighty narrative is a great engine of proof. It is not told for its own sake. It is evidence summed up in order to justify a judgment. We detect the tone of the advocate, and though if we are just we must deem him honest, we cannot deem him safe. The great story-teller is discredited; and willingly or unwillingly, we reject the guide who takes it upon himself to determine for us what we shall see. That, we feel sure, cannot be true which makes of so complex a history so simple a thesis for the judgment. There is art here; but it is the art of special pleading, misleading even to the pleader.  7
  If not Macaulay, what master shall we follow? Shall our historian not have his convictions, and enforce them? Shall he not be our guide, and speak, if he can, to our spirits as well as to our understandings? Readers are a poor jury. They need enlightenment as well as information; the matter must be interpreted to them as well as related. There are moral facts as well as material, and the one sort must be as plainly told as the other. Of what service is it that the historian should have insight, if we are not to know how the matter stands in his view? If he refrain from judgment, he may deceive us as much as he would were his judgment wrong; for we must have enlightenment,—that is his function. We would not set him up merely to tell us tales, but also to display to us characters, to open to us the moral and intent of the matter. Were the men sincere? Was the policy righteous? We have but just now seen that the “facts” lie deeper than the mere visible things that took place,—that they involve the moral and motive of the play. Shall not these too be brought to light?  8
  Unquestionably, every sentence of true history must hold a judgment in solution. All cannot be told. If it were possible to tell all, it would take as long to write history as to enact it; and we should have to postpone the reading of it to the leisure of the next world. A few facts must be selected for the narrative, the great majority left unnoted. But the selection—for what purpose is it to be made? For the purpose of conveying an impression of the truth. Where shall you find a more radical process of judgment? The “essential” facts taken, the “unessential” left out! Why, you may make the picture what you will, and in any case it must be the express image of the historian’s fundamental judgments. It is his purpose, or should be, to give a true impression of his theme as a whole,—to show it, not lying upon his page in an open and dispersed analysis, but set close in intimate synthesis; every line, every stroke, every bulk even, omitted which does not enter of very necessity into a single and unified image of the truth.  9
  It is in this that the writing of history differs, and differs very radically, from the statement of the results of original research. The writing of history must be based upon original research and authentic record; but it can no more be directly constructed by the piecing together of bits of original research than by the mere reprinting together of State documents. Individual research furnishes us, as it were, with the private documents and intimate records without which the public archives are incomplete and unintelligible. But by themselves these are wholly out of perspective. It is the consolation of those who produce them to make them so. They would lose heart were they forbidden to regard all facts as of equal importance. It is facts they are after, and only facts,—facts for their own sake, and without regard to their several importance. These are their ore,—very precious ore,—which they are concerned to get out, not to refine. They have no direct concern with what may afterwards be done at the mint or in the goldsmith’s shop. They will even boast that they care not for the beauty of the ore, and are indifferent how or in what shape it may become an article of commerce. Much of it is thrown away in the nice processes of manufacture; and you shall not distinguish the product of the several mines in the coin, or the cup, or the salver.  10
  The historian must indeed himself be an investigator. He must know good ore from bad; must distinguish fineness, quality, genuineness; must stop to get out of the records for himself what he lacks for the perfection of his work. But for all that, he must know and stand ready to do every part of his task like a master workman, recognizing and testing every bit of stuff he uses. Standing sure, a man of science as well as an artist, he must take and use all of his equipment for the sake of his art,—not to display his materials, but to subordinate and transform them in his effort to make, by every touch and cunning of hand and tool, the perfect image of what he sees, the very truth of his seer’s vision of the world. The true historian works always for the whole impression, the truth with unmarred proportions, unexaggerated parts, undistorted visage. He has no favorite parts of the story which he boasts are bits of his own, but loves only the whole of it, the full and unspoiled image of the day of which he writes, the crowded and yet consistent details which carry, without obtrusion of themselves, the large features of the time. Any exaggeration of the parts makes all the picture false, and the work is to do over. “Test every bit of material,” runs the artist’s rule, “and then forget the material”; forget its origin and the dross from which it has been freed, and think only and always of the great thing you would make of it, the pattern and form in which you would lose and merge it. That is its only high use.  11

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