History in Spite of Itself

The Great Mutiny

by James Dugan
Putnam, 511 pp., $6.95

There might seem to be two ways of reviewing this book. One would be to dismiss the idea that history needs to be accurate, that historical judgments require for their formulation not one source but many, that human character is intricate, self-deceiving, subtly moulded by time and circumstance, that style is more than adjective or adverb, that historical reconstruction is not dissimilar from the film scenario. That done, release the rolling periods, praise Mr. Dugan’s panache, his gifts as a story teller, the boldness of his portraits, the lurid flavor of his prose, and finish by calling his book the best historical yarn of the year. The other would be to demolish him chapter by chapter, underlining the gross errors, the fatuous judgments, the sheer lack of historical insight, but above all his wild inaccuracy. A few examples:

You could be hanged for stealing an item worth twopence, for carrying a gun on the squire’s land, for fishing in his pond, or cutting down his tree.

This is England in 1789—four errors here in one sentence: no prize for spotting them.

The King was a blocky, red-faced country squire type with bulging blue eyes and a tiny black “w” moustache. He wore spectacles to read and worried about getting fat. His mother had taught him to eat alone like the Pope.

Fact and fiction cheek by jowl: two monster howlers here.

George III made the first world war.

Think, Mr. Dugan, think of the date on which George III came to the throne, and what he did when he first got there. Have you never heard of The Year of Victories, the Annus Mirabilis, or ever asked where these victories were?

Two hundred thousand people gathered at the Copenhagen Tea House to urge the King [i.e. George III] to disapprove the acts.

The tea-house presumably somewhat larger than the Yankee stadium! And so on. Even a minute’s thought, a moment’s care would have eliminated such ludicrous, such wild, such inane sentences as these. Do Putnam’s editors have a little judgment, as little concern for historical truth as Mr. Dugan? Any professional historian could pulverize this book and reduce it to rubble. Indeed it makes me wince to read it. Before one has started on the story of the great mutiny in the British Navy in 1797, one wants to throw it in the fire.

And yet neither method of reviewing would be fair or just. It is possible to get every historical fact accurate and yet produce a totally false picture of the past and Mr. Dugan has almost convinced me that one can get an alarming number of facts quite wrong yet convey historical truth. This strangely enough he does. Grossly inaccurate in fact and overblown in style he may be, but he has the heart of the matter in him. The condition of the British Navy in 1797 was quite appalling, the presence of pressed men of slightly higher…

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