Monday, November 29, 2010

Historiography without the data, For Want of a Nail Part II

I am two-thirds of the way through Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, his alternate history of North America if the rebels had lost the American Revolution.

Besides being simply an enjoyable read (yes, reading is pleasurable, especially the feeling of a book in one's hands) there is a fine lesson for the writer of history to be gleaned from this book. 

The writing of history involves the marshaling of facts, figures, the citation of sources, but also involves a large modicum of creativity in arranging these materials.  Without it, history becomes flat and uninspired. 

What Sobel has done in this book is lay bare that process.  This history is not a history, but a creative illusion.  Sobel takes the apparatus of historical research, the form and function of it, and creates a beautiful and false edifice.  The historical framework is there, and he presents it elegantly and masterfully.  We get the feeling, when reading For Want of a Nail, that a knowledgeable guide is taking us on a journey.  This is the hallmark of all great works of history.  That the content is false makes little difference.

The lesson: good writing carries the day, no matter what the genre, but especially in a popular history.  History is a story to be told.  Why not tell it well? 


  1. I agree that FWoaN is well-written. It would have to be, since, unlike actual history books, it has to function as a work of entertainment rather than as a reference work. (I may be one of the few people in the world who has actually used FWoaN as a reference work.) Sobel ends several of his chapters in cliffhangers, particularly Henderson Dewey's heart attack at the end of chapter 27 and the completion of the Taichung Project at the end of chapter 36. He also devotes a lot of effort to characterization, creating memorable portraits of Henry Gilpin, Pedro Hermion, Emiliano Calles, and Richard Mason.

  2. Hello. Thanks for your comment.

    The interesting thing is, Sobel downplayed the work in class, finding it interesting that people would enjoy it. he considered it a lark. He said he never read novels. He could not understand why people would read novels. He said, if you want to get a flavour for a historical period, read a history book. Yet here he is, with FWoaN, writing a piece of creative ficition.

    He was an interesting professor. He said his favorite activity when he came home was to watch TV. He was a big fan of Star Trek the Next Generation.

  3. Hi -- I just found this by following the link on Johnny Pez' blog. I see that you write a lot about religion. Do you have any thoughts about the (apparently limited) role of religion in Sobel's imagined history? Both the USM and CNA seem to be more secular nations than the USA -- we get few explicit mentions of religion at all save the Turnerites and perhaps Richard Mason's Christ complex. Of course the view that religion was of diminishing importance was not an uncommon one in 1971.

    In the _For All Nails_ project (now complete at we couldn't leave out religion any more than we could leave out ethnic diversity in both nations (including several Jewish characters in the CNA). But we depended greatly on the skeleton that Sobel created for us.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Robert Sobel was primarily a business historian, and secondarily, a political historian. I think that orientation carried the day in For Want of A Nail. Even though the Puritan ethos runs deep in America, it plays little role in the fictional nations of the book. Was it the moderating influence of a longer British presence in the New World? A kind of Canada on a bigger scale? Not sure. I took a few classes with Robert Sobel and he was not interested in religion. He did not think it was an interesting motivation in human life. Part of it, no doubt, is the 1971 viewpoint. But the larger part were his predilections.