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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

History While You Wait

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

History While You Wait is an article published in The New-York Times on 22 january 1917.

In this editorial, the author compares Arthur Conan Doyle with American civil-war histrians.

History While You Wait

The New-York Times (22 january 1917, p. 10)

Many years from now such books as Sir Conan Doyle's "History of the Great War," a notice of the first volume of which was given yesterday in The New York Times Book Review, will be hunted up eagerly as curiosities. All wars bring them forth. When real histories come to be written, and the actual history of the time emerges wills their aid, such books become of interest, not in the least as histories, but as part of the psychology of the time, a psychology which men have a burning curiosity to reconstruct.

Of course the writers are not aware of this, or they would not write, or at least would not call their books "histories." If they did not take their work seriously it would be of no value to the future. Orville J. Victor certainly thought he was a historian when, long before the war of secession closed, book agents were busy the whole North over expounding the merits of his authoritative history, "sold only by subscription." The indefatigable John S. C. Abbott was promptly in the field with "The History of the Civil War in America," and it was not given to Abbott to suspect himself of doing anything that was not complete and final in a historical way. Everything was plain to his eyes, and there was nothing of moment in the great struggle then just ending that would ever modify materially his account of its history. Horace Greeley was right on his heels with "The American Conflict," and Greeley was no money-maker, anxious to coin a few dollars out of an immature history; he valued his fame, and would not have written anything less than a real history.'

Benson J. Lossing had some misgivings, apparently. "I entitle my work 'A History of the Civil War,'" he wrote in his preface, "but I ask for it no higher consideration than that of a faithful chronicle, having the form of history." Still, this modesty was only by way of disarming criticism. He saw in the war "clearly the fruit of a conspiracy," he invariably described the Southern leaders as "the conspirators," and when obliged to give Jefferson Davis his title he put the word "President" invariably in quotation marks. Even an appearance of modesty was absent from Parson Brownlow, who was out as early as 1862 with his "Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession." James Parton, the biographer of Andrew Jackson, was content to record the history of a mere fragment of the war, "General Butler in New Orleans," but had no doubt that he was a historian and not a mere annalist. Draper, who was so conservative as not to break into print until 1867, was actually the most grandly certain of them all, and every line of his work shows that he believed he was writing the definitive history of the war; he began wills the history of the world, accounted for the conflict by climatic influences, and was as gravely scientific as if he had been writing about the fall of Rome.

We would not be understood as undervaluing such books. Pollard, the Confederate historian, for instance, wrote much that is of value today, and of value not merely to the student of civil war psychology. If Abbott's book is nearly worthless, and J. T. Headley's "Great Rebellion" of psychological value only. Lossing was too painstaking to be dismissed so abruptly. Nevertheless, such books in future years add to what value they have a new value, which the booksellers estimate by such labels as "Curious" and "Quaint." Sir Conan Doyle's first volume, according to our reviewer, "says, even in the story of those first months, very little" of the part played by any nation but Great Britain. He assuredly believes he is a historian; it was he who wrote "The History of the Great Boer War," who used that title in honest simplicity, never dreaming that in a dozen years such a title would have any clement of the comic about it. He is as painstaking as Lossing, perhaps not as observant as Pollard, certainly not so self-confident as Abbott. Everybody likes him, and will hope that, in those years to come when his history will certainly be listed as "Quaint" or "Curious," his place will be nearer Pollard's than Headley's. The chances are that it will be closer to Lossing's than any other. He will have countless companions before two years are out, of whom not so much is to be hoped.