Oliver Wiswell

Your first speech in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator series is called the “Ice Breaker” because in it you introduce yourself. In my Ice Breaker I introduced myself not by talking about my personal background or my career but about my life goals. Most people tend to define themselves by informing a new acquaintance that “I am a computer programmer” or “I am a salesman” or “I am an engineer” as if the job defines what is most important about their identity. Maybe that is true for some people, but in my case it is not. And so I would introduce myself not by my current day job title “programming writer,” but as a historian who aspires to write historical fiction.

Why historical fiction? The idea came to me when I was around twelve years old. My brother-in-law recommended to me the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, and I read them, not really to learn about history but as adventure novels, much like kids today read the Harry Potter or Eragon books. But it happens that Kenneth Roberts’ books are about the American Revolutionary War period and are meticulously researched and historically accurate. And so they bring the people of that period to life in a way that history books can never do. One of those books did more than bring the people to life. The one titled Oliver Wiswell radically transformed my views about the basic character of the American Revolutionary War.

Oliver Wiswell is a book that tells the story of the American Revolution from a viewpoint that many of us have not seen before: the viewpoint of a Loyalist. I don’t know how schools portray the American War for Independence today, but in my day it was presented as a justified struggle against foreign tyranny. The people who helped to incite it, such as Sam Adams and John Hancock, were shining examples for lovers of liberty everywhere. They were called Patriots, a word imbued with positive connotations. The people who opposed the Revolution were short-sighted, misguided, or just plain traitors. They were not Patriots; they were Tories, a word imbued with negative connotations. The general who began on the side of rebellion and changed sides halfway through was vilified as the blackest of traitors. To this day, the name Benedict Arnold is virtually synonymous with treason and treachery in American culture.

You get a radically different picture from reading Oliver Wiswell. You learn that many of the so-called patriots who incited armed rebellion were opportunists with economic motivations. Sam Adams and John Hancock were smugglers who stood to profit from a break with England. Benedict Arnold was a great man who inspired loyalty in all who served under him and who acted upon deeply held convictions. You and I would share many of his convictions if we knew what he knew. You begin to see that the Revolution was incited by people who would shoot and lynch people for no other reason than for holding contrary political views. You see that slogans like “taxation without representation” were excuses to kill people over petty political disagreements.

After reading Oliver Wiswell, I no longer saw the American Revolutionary War as something to look back on with a sense of civic pride. Not a glorious and honorable beginning to our nation, but rather in many ways a shameful one. That was a radical change in viewpoint effected in a remarkably short time, and the understanding developed further in later years. I learned somewhat later about how differently India achieved its independence from the same British Empire, and today I see that struggle for independence as one whose inner dynamic and execution was substantially just and honorable in way the American one was not. And I wonder if events like today’s Iraq war is in some way an echo of the way our nation was founded and the way it was kept from splitting apart. Today I go so far as think of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as greater political leaders than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This is not to denigrate Washington and Lincoln, for we owe much to them and they had elements of greatness in them – but organized non-violent resistance, the way of Gandhi and King, is the better way to oppose oppression.

If my goal is to be able to help transform other peoples’ historical misperceptions though historical fiction, as Kenneth Roberts did for me, one might ask, why fiction? Why not nonfiction? I can cite at least three reasons. First, nonfiction is limited to the available source data. The sources are often just too scanty to give the ordinary reader the feel for living life through the eyes of a real person of the period. Second, for most periods of history the remaining sources are all written by the winners of a conflict. You rarely even get direct evidence of the losers’ side of the story. Even today, nonfiction history tends to be written from the perspective of the winner. Third, nonfiction history does not reach very many people. Historiography tends to read like an encyclopedia article. Few people read it aside from those who are forced to do so in school or in college, or those who make it their career, such as university professors.

So far I have accomplished the first part of my goal – becoming a historian. After starting my career programming computers I went back to school. I got a Bachelors degree in Russian language and history; a Master of Divinity from a Russian Orthodox Seminary, focusing on church history; and a Ph.D. in medieval Russian history. I taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Russian history. I published a book based on my dissertation which is the definitive guide to the monks of the Volokolamsk monastery in Russia in the 16th century. I continue to research and write articles and books.

But until now I have only written nonfiction. I am a historian but not a novelist. After all these years I am just getting started writing fiction, and it seems to be a daunting task. That is why I can introduce myself as a historian but only as an aspiring historical novelist.

So what does all that have to do with my blog theme “mandatory for decent human life” (see my first post for an explanation of the origin of that title)? Peoples’ behavior in the present is affected by what they think of the past. I have seen this most in the area of religion, and that is where I am turning my attention at the present. I am convinced that the more people in any religious tradition can see the heroes and villains of their own tradition as human beings — and in the process appreciate the flaws of the heroes and the goodness of the villains — they would become more tolerant and more, shall we say, “decent,” to people in other traditions. The lack of such tolerant attitudes led to events such as the Crusades and the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. And in today’s world of increasing technological means for destruction, you never know if by changing the attitude of one person you could be preventing a nuclear or biological conflagration that could destroy a city or poison the earth. That is the sense in which books like Oliver Wiswell are mandatory for decent human life. They use accurate portrayals of historical human beings, presented in a form appealing to ordinary readers and not just specialists, to help defuse human discord and conflict and thus make “decent human life” possible for all.

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2 Responses to Oliver Wiswell

  1. Jim Wiggins says:

    Just read every word of “Evil Genius & Guardian Angel” & wanted to let you know how valuable it was to my understanding of that time. Thanks for writing it. I read it on academia.edu; if there’s a way to get a pdf of the article, I’d love to know about it.

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