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.