Historians, History, and [Accurate] "Story"

Another take on how I do what I do. Parts of this ran here several years ago. Again, for those following along: I'm experimenting with different formats and concepts, and no, I'm still not sure how this will all shake out.

Several years ago, a professor at a nearby university asked me to speak to her class; the required readings in the course included Ambitious Brew, my history of beer in America. I talked for fifteen or twenty minutes and then asked for questions (because audience questions are infinitely more interesting than whatever I have to say).

Up shot a hand and a young woman asked an obvious, intelligent question (which I’m here paraphrasing):

In the first chapter, you describe Phillip Best hauling his new brewing vat through the streets of Milwaukee. But that scene reads like a story; like fiction rather than fact. How do you know that’s what happened? Why should we believe you?

I was glad she asked. So glad. Because that question gets to the heart of what historians do.

For those who don’t have a copy of the book at hand, the scene she referred to unfolds on pp. 1-3. (*1) The setting is Milwaukee in 1844 and at its center is Phillip Best, the man who founded what eventually became Pabst Brewing Company. He and his family had recently emigrated to the U. S. and Milwaukee, and he was trying to find someone to fabricate a brew vat for the Bests’ new brewhouse. Here’s that scene:

Late summer, 1844. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory. Phillip Best elbowed his way along plank walkways jammed with barrels, boxes, pushcarts, and people. He was headed for the canal, or the “Water Power,” as locals called it, a mile-long millrace powered by a tree-trunk-and-gravel dam on the Milwaukee River. Plank docks punctuated its tumbling flow and small manufactories–a few mills, a handful of smithies and wheelwrights, a tannery or two–lined its length. Best was searching for a particular business as he pushed his way past more carts and crates, and dodged horses pulling wagons along the dirt street and laborers shouldering newly hewn planks and bags of freshly milled grain. He had only been in the United States a few weeks and Milwaukee’s bustle marked a sharp contrast to the drowsy German village where he and his three brothers had worked for their father, Jacob, Sr., a brewer and vintner.

Phillip finally arrived at the shop owned by A. J. Langworthy, metal worker and ironmonger. He presented himself to the proprietor and explained that he needed a boiler–a copper vat–for his family’s new brewing business. Would Langworthy fabricate it for them? The metalworker shook his head. No. “I [am] familiar with their construction,” he explained to Best, “. . . but I [dislike] very much to have the noisy things around, and [I do] not wish to do so.

Eventually Phillip persuaded Langworthy to make the vat, and a few weeks later, he returned to fetch the finished product:

It’s not clear how Phillip transported his treasure the half mile or so from Langworthy’s shop to the family’s brewhouse. Perhaps his new friend provided delivery. Perhaps Phillip persuaded an idling wagoner to haul the vat on the promise of free beer. Perhaps one or more of his three brothers accompanied him, and they and their burden staggered through Kilbourntown–the German west side of Milwaukee–and up the Chestnut Street hill. But eventually the vat made its way to the Bests’ property–the location of Best and Company and the foundation of their American adventure.

Yes, the student asked a good question: I wasn’t there. How in the world did I know what happened? Is this fact or fiction? If it’s the latter, why should my work as a historian be trusted?

Here’s how I answered her question: That scene was based on both fact and common sense.

Consider my description of Phillip’s journey to Langworthy’s shop.

I knew, based on evidence I’d found, that in the summer of 1844, the Best family had almost no money. They’d only just arrived in America and had not yet launched their business. According to an account I read, the family had spent nearly all its available cash buying a piece of property on which to build a small brewhouse. (*2) I knew they owned a horse (they relied on it to power their grindstone). (I learned about the horse from a letter Best wrote.)

But horses were (and are) expensive, and at the time, most people (and certainly the cash-poor like Best) walked rather than rode. Moreover, in 1844, Milwaukee, a relatively young town, had no form of public transportation. (At the time, Wisconsin was a territory, not a state. This was frontier.)

I also knew that the Best brewhouse was only about a half mile from Langworthy’s shop, an easy walk. How did I know? I found an ad for Langworthy’s business in a Milwaukee newspaper, an ad that included his address. Using a c. 1850 map of Milwaukee (the earliest map I could find), I located both the Bests’ property and Langworthy’s shop. Then I consulted a current map of Milwaukee to calculate the distance from the brewery to the shop. When I visited Milwaukee to conduct research at the library there, I also walked the route myself.

How did I know that Phillip’s walk took him past the millrace, the docks, the tanneries, and so forth? I reconstructed the town’s landscape by reading eyewitness descriptions of Milwaukee as it appeared in 1844, including letters, diaries, newspapers, and government documents.

Armed with what I’d learned, I was able to write an accurate description of Phillip’s trek from home to the business district, one based on multiple, verifiable facts.

But how do I know which sources are reliable, and which aren’t? When I’m prowling through the primary sources — letters, diaries, and so forth — I compare one source with another, hunting for multiple verifications of facts. In this case, I read many descriptions of Milwaukee, ones written by people living there at the time. I compared those with items delineated on that c. 1850 map, and with contemporary illustrations of the land

I also used secondary sources — books and articles written by other scholars. In this case, for example, I consulted several histories of Milwaukee.

But I only employ secondary sources after I’ve determined that they’re reliable; that I can trust their accuracy. As an example, let’s look at another excerpt from the book’s opening scene:

Phillip finally arrived at the shop owned by A. J. Langworthy, metal worker and ironmonger. He presented himself to the proprietor and explained that he needed a boiler–a copper vat–for his family’s new brewing business. Would Langworthy fabricate it for them? The metalworker shook his head. No. “I [am] familiar with their construction,” he explained to Best, “. . . but I [dislike] very much to have the noisy things around, and [I do] not wish to do so.”

Here I relied on an eyewitness account of Best’s visit to Langworthy’s shop: Langworthy himself. Several decades after the fact, the iron monger recounted the episode to a local newspaper reporter. (*3) (By the time Langworthy told the story to a reporter, the company that Phillip founded was the world’s largest brewery, although its then-owner had changed the name to Pabst Brewing Company.)

I found that interview in a history of Pabst Brewing written by another historian, Thomas Cochran. (Cochran’s history was thus a secondary source, but one based on primary sources.) (Here’s hoping you’re not totally confused.) I quoted Langworthy’s words, citing Cochran’s book as my source.

In this case, and rather unusually for me, I didn’t read the actual newspaper article. (*4) But I knew that I could trust Cochran: I was familiar with his career and had read other books by him. I was also able to verify many of the other sources he used in his book.(*5)

I trusted, in other words, that Cochran’s secondary account (his history of Pabst Brewing Company) was a reliable source of information and that the newspaper article he’d quoted was a reliable primary source. I was comfortable quoting Langworthy’s account of the encounter.

That’s an important part of what historians do: We don’t accept evidence at face value. We have to decide whether a piece of evidence is reliable and accurate. We have to decide whether we trust that bit of evidence. And sometimes, we don’t.

Here’s an example, also from Ambitious Brew, where I rejected the veracity of evidence. (This one is from pp. 102-103). The context for this excerpt is the “beer wars” of the 1890s and brewers’ efforts to control industry competition. Here I recounted an alleged encounter that took place between Adolphus Busch, who for many years headed Anheuser-Busch, and a group of rival brewers:

In one contest, according to Adolphus Busch’s grandson August “Gus” Busch, Jr., a group of small New Orleans brewers resisted Adolphus’s efforts to control that city’s trade. A prolonged struggled drove the barrel price well below the profit zone. Finally Adolphus ended the conflict by informing the men that he planned to “control the price of beer for the next 25 years. . . whatever goddamn price I put on my beer, you go up [or down] the same goddamn price.”

Many decades later, Gus Busch, who claimed to have witnessed the encounter, recounted the tale as evidence of his grandfather’s wily ways and masterful control over lesser men. If the Busches invaded, say, Peoria, they could afford to wait out the competition; could afford to absorb the losses incurred by selling barrels at cost. Small local breweries could not. More often than not, the conqueror drove the conquered into bankruptcy.

I found this anecdote in Under the Influence, a book about the Busch family written by two St. Louis journalists, Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey. Hernon and Ganey interviewed Gus Busch, and he told them this story. (*6)

As soon as I read the anecdote, I knew it wasn’t true, at least not as Gus Busch recounted it. (Notice that in the excerpt from my book, I included a modifier: “according to Adolphus Busch’s grandson August “Gus” Busch, Jr.. . . .”) So why did I include it in my book? Here’s the next paragraph in the book (from p. 103):

The anecdote, though it captures the brutality of the struggle, is most likely apocryphal. The most ferocious beer wars unfolded in the two decades prior to Gussie’s birth in 1899. Adolphus’s health failed in 1906, leaving him frail and wheelchair-bound; from then until his death in 1913, he spent most of his time in California or Europe. Even assuming the event took place as late as, say, 1910, when Gussie would have been eleven years old, Adolphus would not have been involved and his grandson too young to comprehend the grown-ups’ conversation, let alone remember it accurately some seventy-five years later. More likely the tale evolved over the years as part of the mythology that surrounded a family of successful men with over-sized personalities.

This is an important part of the historian’s task: Sifting through evidence to find the most reliable, verifiable pieces of information. I examine multiple sources of information and different kinds of evidence. Only then do I decide which evidence is reliable and which is not. (*7)

Is this art or craft? In my opinion (based on 25-plus years experience), it’s more craft than art. Historians learn to use and trust evidence through experience, trial-and-error, and the wisdom acquired from both. Does that mean I’m always “right”? No. But I make the best judgments I can, using the evidence at hand.

Finally, to return to where I started and the student in that class I visited: She commented that because the book read like a novel —- that it read like fiction rather than fact — she was skeptical about its contents.

My response was: Thank you!

That’s a compliment. I want my books to “read” like a novel — not in the sense that the content is fiction, but in the sense that the narrative has pace, action, “characters,” and a “story”-like structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. (*8)

Why? Because that’s a useful way to present the sweep of history and to persuade readers that “history” is more than a boring string of facts. History is fascinating, and one way to understand historical events is by seeing them through the lives and eyes of the people who participated in them.

In the case of the beer book, for example, the first chapter covers an array of significant historical events and trends: the impact of immigration in mid-nineteenth-century America, including riots and battles between immigrants and “natives”; the prohibition movement of the 1850s; and Americans’ attitudes toward alcohol, to name just a few.

Those are Big Topics. I brought them down to earth and anchored their heft by attaching them to a real person, in this case Phillip Best. Surely it was more interesting to read about his stroll through Milwaukee than to read, say, a list of statistics about immigration.

That’s true throughout the book: I populated the “story” with real people, using their own words whenever possible. I also avoided professional jargon; I used active rather than passive verbs; I described scenery and surroundings.

It helped that I enjoyed access to a built-in cast of characters: Phillip Best anchored the Big Topic events of Chapter One. Once he exited the stage, Frederick Pabst (Phillip’s son-in-law) and Adolphus Busch entered. They carried the story for the next two chapters.

In Chapter Four, they’re around part of the time, but are joined by a man who was instrumental in launching the Anti-Saloon League, the organization that drove the push toward Prohibition in the 1890s and early twentieth century. And, because the Busch family multiplied I had plenty of “characters” to carry the narrative from Prohibition to the 1970s.

I struck gold for the book’s final two chapters, where I examine the craft beer “revolution” of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the people who launched that industry are still alive, and I enjoyed an abundance of “actors” for my drama.

Throughout, however, I stuck to facts. If I speculated about an event, I was careful to say that “perhaps” something happened. Consider this final example, again from Chapter One, when Langworthy learns that Phillip Best does not have enough money to pay for the brewvat.

What happened next is a credit to A. J. Langworthy’s generosity and Phillip Best’s integrity. Langworthy was but a few years older than Phillip. Like Phillip, he had left the security of the familiar–in his case, New York–for the adventure and gamble of a new life on the frontier. Perhaps he glanced through the door at the mad rush of people and goods flowing past unabated from daylight to dusk. He was no fool; he understood that business out in the territories would always be more fraught with risk than back in the settled east. But what was life for if not to embrace some of its uncertainty? [Langworthy let Best take the vat and to pay for it once the family began earning money.]

I obviously don’t know if Langworthy looked out at people passing by on the wooden walkway that ran along the front of his shop. So I said that “perhaps” he did so.

But the rest of it? I am confident, based on factual evidence, that I captured the essence of the encounter: Langworthy had abandoned the security of the urban eastern United States and moved to the frontier of Wisconsin Territory. In doing so, he embraced life’s uncertainty. He knew that Phillip’s family had done the same, leaving Europe for the United States. I also knew that he let Phillip take the vat, and allowed him to pay the debt later, an act that surely stemmed from Langworthy’s opinion about the man standing before him.

In short, I believed, based on the facts, that Langworthy understood the nature of risk and uncertainty — and empathized with Phillip’s situation.

So. Historians trade in facts. They learn to trust their judgment about evidence and how to use it. They employ that evidence to construct an engaging narrative, one that is centered around the lives of real people. If the historian telling the “story” is honest and careful and thorough, readers will know that they can trust that the “story” is true.

That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stickin’ to it.


*1: Hey! Whatsa mattah witch you? GET ONE. (Kidding, people, kidding.) (Okay, sort of.) (Yes, I have a mercenary side. Every author does, ‘cause we ain’t doin’ this for free, you know?)

*2: The brewhouse, by the way, was small: perhaps twenty feet by twenty feet. That’s all they could afford.

*3: Yes, by the time Langworthy recounted that moment to a reporter, he would have been an old man. But he’d likely told the story many times, if only because Best himself went on to become an important and well-known man.

*4: I don’t remember now why I didn’t read the actual newspaper account (it’s been ten years since I worked with those sources). It may have come from a newspaper for which there are no longer copies. (I don’t have a copy of Cochran’s book in front of me so I can’t check to see where the interview was published. Sorry!)

*5: Cochran had a long and respected career as an economic historian. Indeed, he was and is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important scholars in that field. He wrote his history of Pabst Brewing with the blessings and cooperation of Gustav and Fred, Jr., the sons of Frederick Pabst. Cochran also had access to hundreds of documents that have since been lost or destroyed. As you might imagine, I was, and am, grateful for Cochran’s careful and thorough work as a historian.

*6: Gus was an old man by the time Hernon and Ganey interviewed him in the late 1980s; he died in 1989.

*7: As I conducted my own research for the beer book, I constantly compared what I found to the Ganey/Hernon version of the Busch family. Based on what I knew, I concluded that their book was not a reliable source of information. That assessment isn’t as unkind as it sounds: The men are journalists, not historians, and they had a different agenda for their book than I did for mine.

*8: Non-fiction “fictional histories” abound. (By fictional history, I mean works of non-fiction, NOT historical fiction.) These are cases where an author writes a history of Topic X, but mixes fact and fiction in order to make the story more interesting. For example, someone who writes fictional history might supply his/her “characters” with dialogue, the way a novelist writes dialogue for one of her characters. That’s not how I work, but some authors are more interested in “writing” than in doing history, and for them, it’s easier to create facts and dialogue to suit the purposes of plot and pacing than it is to work within a framework of fact. No surprise, these plot-driven fictional histories resonate with readers. Bestseller non-fiction lists typically include at least one fictional history. Hey, more power to ‘em. Those authors are making a lot more money than I am! (*9)

* 9: The only thing that bugs me about the authors of non-fiction, fictional histories is when they’re identified as “historians.” They’re not historians. They’re writers, most of them damn good ones.(*10)

*10: Yes, I just inserted a footnote within a footnote. And then a footnote within a footnote within a footnote. I’ll stop now. (Footnotes: The historian’s drug of choice.)