There’s a lot of talk in the history community online this week about the History Channel miniseries SONS OF LIBERTY. The show is the kind of swashbuckling adventure I enjoy, and while it strays further from the historical record than I do in my books, that’s more of an artistic choice than a failure in scholarship. The History Channel has some good history behind the story material here and Tom Verenna does a nice job breaking down where fact and fiction part ways here. The show’s stated goal is to capture the spirit and personalities of the time, and Joseph Warren was known to shimmy up a drain pipe in his day. If there’s a shortage of nuance to the villains and a dearth of roles for women, that’s a failing shared by plenty of other contemporary entertainment, and certainly not unique to historical drama or SONS OF LIBERTY.
My first career was in public history and the institution where I worked, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, held the Witchcraft Trials documents on deposit from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. One of the first things you learn about Salem in 1692 is that Americans have been writing about it since the trials ended, and that every generation has interpreted them anew. I’m pretty sure that Hawthorne knew there weren’t real witches at work in Salem, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of “Young Goodman Brown” or The House of the Seven Gables and those works wouldn’t be better for hewing closer to the historical record. Nor would Arthur Miller’s Crucible be a better play if John Proctor was 60, as he was during the trials, rather than 30, as he’s portrayed on stage.
Nor would the world be a richer place deprived of Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan, in return for a more balanced portrait of Cardinal Richelieu. The fear, expressed by some online, is that gullible audiences will take fiction as fact and look no further for enlightenment, but that to me bespeaks a profound misunderstanding of storytelling. Poets, painters, and playwrights have been interpreting historical events since someone baked a clay tablet big enough to hold more than a recipe for beer. Homer no doubt took certain liberties when writing the Iliad, embellished the fight scenes for dramatic effect, burnished the heroics brighter, but that didn’t stop Schliemann from finding Troy. That’s what inspired him to dig deeper.