The Sweep of History

This is the second in a series of posts by .txtLAB interns. This post is authored by Magdalene Klassen.

Many if not most contemporary historians would probably agree with the statement that “the typical mode of explanation used by historians [is] narrative.” (Roberts 2001) Storytelling, then, is not the difference between history and fiction. Instead, we could say, the scope of the story is what differentiates historical and fictional writing. For the past four months, I have been comparing a corpus of historical texts with a corpus of novels in English, French, and German. Based on my interpretation of the results, fictional texts have a smaller scope than histories, thematically, structurally, and lexically.

I considered works published between 1770-1930. All of the novels were in third person for comparative purpose. My results should taken with caution, as my data included more novels than histories.[1] Few nineteenth-century histories have been well-digitized because the historical narrative has changed, and these texts have become primary rather than secondary sources. For example, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empireis no longer an authoritative account – we now think of this “fall” as a transformation. Now his text is a means to understand how late-eighteenth-century historians understood their task, and the Roman Empire.

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