History and literature have been intertwined since the very beginning. Real events were recounted as stories to teach the younger generation wisdom or lessons about their origins. These stories sometimes stretched the truth to entertain the audience or make them reflect further. The main difference between history and literature is the purpose of each: History intends to record events as accurately as possible, while literature interprets historical or everyday events in an imaginative way.
Historical Recording of Events
Historians’ responsibility is to accurately record -- as legacy for future generations -- events that produce significant changes in the lives of people living in a community, a nation or the whole world. To support their claims, they collect evidence of milestones as well as everyday life. For example, to relate World War II, historians used documents, books and media such as newspapers, photographs, audio and video recordings of the time.
Literary Recording of Events
Literature writers also record events. Their focus, however, even when they truthfully describe historical events, is on communicating the author’s intellectual and emotional interpretation of these events to the reader. By using the same example of World War II, a novel such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” presents a more personal perspective of the cannibalistic horrors of war. The novel depicts the state of mind of a soldier fighting to survive in a prisoner of war camp during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. In writing the satirical novel, Vonnegut drew on his own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden.
Historians' Distortion of Reality
At times, historians have also distorted reality -- sometimes because they wanted to please their masters; at other times, their countries' dictatorial regimes forced them to bend the truth. For instance, Western countries believed for many decades the communist propaganda that the Soviet regime was setting as historical events. This institutionalized falsehood, however, started to falter with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” -- a painstakingly researched chronicle of communist forced-labor camps where millions died from executions or harsh conditions during Joseph Stalin's regime.
Literary Distortion of Reality
Literature authors are well known for using their imagination and creativity to describe fictitious characters, events and realms. They draw their inspiration from myths, legends and history to create a unique, altered reality for readers. For example, George R.R. Martin’s popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” is inspired by historical events in medieval England, the Wars of the Roses, but his story portrays an imaginary world of peculiar characters, customs and political games.
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