What is the relationship between history and literature?

The relationship between history and literature is that history is often reflected in literature, while literature has the potential to affect history.

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The relationship between history and literature is complex and multifaceted. First, literature often presents historical people, places, and events in story form. Think, for instance, of the historical novels written by Jeff Shaara. In these works, the author captures the events and characters of the Civil War, the American Revolution, the First World War, and the Second World War in vivid detail. He works hard to research the actual history and present it as accurately as possible even as he adds elements of fiction, like conversations between characters, for instance, which are still grounded in historical fact. Readers of these novels learn history as they enjoy the story.

Second, even literature that presents the world of its day can become “historical” over time and give modern readers a sense of the story's original time and place. Charles Dickens's novels offer a prime example here. What was contemporary in Dickens's time, like the dregs of London, for instance, or the sufferings of boys like Oliver Twist, are now historical to us and offer us a view of a world that has long passed into history.

Third, although literature can and does often present accurate history, it can also twist history and present misleading pictures of the past. We might think, for instance, of a novel like Gone with the Wind, which does present some fascinating history of the Civil War era but also offers misleading images of other elements, like African American slaves.

On the other end of the spectrum, history often turns to literature, carefully and with a great deal of discernment, to discover details of the past. The Old English poem Beowulf, for example, weaves history into its storyline. While it is difficult to determine which elements are history and which are fiction, scholars have turned to the poem for information about the relationship between a lord and his thanes, various aspects of ancient Germanic culture (like mound burials), and hints of ancient battles not recorded elsewhere.

History also connects with literature when it delves into the history of literature. Literary history is a fascinating subject in its own right as it examines the growth and development of various literary forms (like the epic or the novel), studies the lives of authors, looks at the literature of various times and places, and even notes how people have read literature differently over time.

Indeed, history and literature are connected in many ways, and these connections can make for an interesting and valuable study.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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As another answer mentions, nothing exists in a vacuum, including literature. Literature, be it fiction or non-fiction, is often influenced by the time period in which it is produced. The questions of the day, the moral values, the big events, the technologies available, the interpretations of the past, the hopes and fears for the future—all of this is reflected in literature, which is why historical context is often important in appreciating a work.

For example, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a reflection of the period of its creation, the 1980s, in the author's concerns over the religious right's influence over society and politics. In a similar way, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in the earliest days of the Cold War, reflects concerns about Soviet communism. Both of these novels were shaped by historical events and circumstances, making an understanding of their historical context beneficial to anyone studying them.

It must also be noted that literature can affect history in its own way. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species caused great debate regarding science and religion in Victorian society and beyond, while Upton Sinclair's The Jungle helped promote better conditions at meat packaging plants. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was a huge bestseller in its day and helped to promote social change by championing abolitionism. Religious texts such as the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita have influenced individuals of many faiths throughout the ages.

So, it would be best to say that both literature and history have a symbiotic relationship, each influencing the other in ways both big and small.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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No literature exists in a vacuum. It is influenced by history, and it is also influenced by the present. If you are reading a piece of literature written in the past, you need to understand the historical time period in order to fully appreciate and understand that literature.
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The relationship between literature and history is complicated, with each affecting the other. One main contention of the so-called "new historicist" approach to literary criticism is that history does not simply provide a "context" for literature but many "contexts," and that literature in turn can affect history in numerous and unpredictable ways.

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History shapes many forms of literature.  We tend to get ideas for literature from things that have happened.  Sometimes this comes in the form of non-fiction literature and sometimes it comes in the form of allegories or allusions.  We cannot fully understand a piece of literature unless we understand its history and the history of those that wrote it.  Thus, history can shape the way we view literature.  Of course, that works both ways.  Literature can also shape the way we view history.  It is said that history is written by the victors.  We don't always get the whole story of what happened in our literary histories.  Often, the history of a place is written down by the conquerors and survivors.  We might not see the whole truth of what happened.

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This would be an interesting discussion starter on the Literature or History Discussion Forum. I suspect there would be many different interpretations and viewpoints expressed.

From my standpoint, history is all that has happened in the past. History includes natural events, such as movements of tectonic plates leading to the formation of continents, and events involving humanity, such as wars and birthdays.

Literature includes written records of events that are history. Literature allows humanity to have a collective source of memories of events from the past. The hope would be that people would be able to learn by reviewing those records and seeing patterns, making connections and generalizing about events or attitudes and consequences of those occurrences. The writing down of history allows people to progress beyond one stage of thought or development, building on what has gone before.

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