It has taken nearly a decade to research and write, and runs to more than 750 pages. But The History Makers, described as “an epic exploration of those who write about the past”, has itself been rewritten after its author failed to take into account enough black historians, academics and writers.
Richard Cohen was told by his publisher to produce new chapters and expand others after failing to sufficiently acknowledge the roles of black people and African Americans.
“It was to do with the publisher’s sensitivities,” says Cohen, who previously wrote the highly praised Chasing The Sun and How to Write Like Tolstoy. “I was then asked to write more, and have done about another 18,000 words.”
Now, despite the rewrite, publication of the book in the US has been cancelled, according to sources in New York. Cohen’s contract with Random House in America was signed some years ago and was said by sources to be for about $350,000. Yet, after seeking the changes on black history and historians, the publisher dramatically pulled out of the deal last Wednesday. Cohen’s wife, the leading US literary agent Kathy Robbins, is urgently seeking a new publisher in the US.
The History Makers is still due to be published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 25 June, with advance reviews from Hilary Mantel and Amanda Foreman, followed by a book serialisation on Radio 4.
Questions have been raised over why Cohen – who was a leading publisher in the UK before moving to New York 20 years ago for a second career as a writer – omitted so much black history in the first draft. The teaching of black history at US universities is an integral part of the curriculum, while Black History Month has been running for half a century.
Cohen’s book is described on its publisher’s website as, “an epic exploration of who writes about the past and how the biases of certain storytellers continue to influence our ideas about history (and about who we are) today”. It runs the gamut over 2,500 years, from Thucydides and Tacitus through to Shakespeare, Gibbon and Voltaire, before ending with TV historians, such as Simon Schama and David Starkey.
“Black history has not been welcome in history,” says British historian David Olusoga. “Black people have been invisible in history.”
Until the rewrite was sought, The History Makers was primarily a Eurocentric book. “But that’s how it’s been – as if Africa and the African American had been forgotten,” says Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester. “It’s denigrating to the history of the world, and to black people in particular.”
To make amends, Cohen, who used to edit early Jeffrey Archer novels, has greatly expanded his chapter on the American civil war, including the story of Frederick Douglass, the escaped enslaved man who later wrote five volumes of historical memoirs. He has a completely new chapter, Who Tells Our Story, largely about black people in the US over the past two centuries, including the educationist Booker T Washington and WEB Du Bois, the sociologist, historian and leader of the Niagara movement, which sought equal rights.
To counter criticism about the lack of African historians and writers, Cohen has added Leo Africanus, a Berber from the 16th century who wrote the histories of the Maghreb and Nile Valley. Some say this convert from Islam to Christianity was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello.
From the more recent past, there is Henry Louis Gates, the influential American TV historian and author, who also rediscovered Our Nig written by Harriet Wilson, the first African-American female novelist; and Toni Morrison, whose books, such as Beloved about a family just after the Civil War, were often historical.
Even with its rewrite, Cohen’s book does not directly include the Windrush story, but examines the West Indies and England through the Trinidad-born CLR James’s book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary.
“In Britain, in particular, the history of black people has largely been seen in the context of imperial history and often falsehoods,” says Olusoga. “Black history has also been delegitimised, and deemed to be political or to do with grievances. There has been this determination to keep it marginalised.”
Cohen seems more assured on the influence of historical novelists including Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was essentially about his own experience inside the gulag, as well as British authors such as Mary Renault with her stories of Ancient Greece and CS Forester with his Hornblower heroics in the Napoleonic Wars.
Another chapter, Bad History, highlights some of the dubious “facts” penned by writers like Julius Caesar, who gave a very biased view of his own achievements, and Shakespeare, who is probably responsible for more inaccurate versions of historical personalities, particularly monarchs, than anybody else.