Just where and how are the novelist’s skills useful to the historian?
Some of them, obviously, the historian picks up only at the risk of his professional integrity. The bestseller lists in years past (to say nothing of the longer list of books which aimed at that target and missed) are full of distressing examples of “fictionalized” history, “reconstructed” events for which there can be no documentation, conversations invented to fit historic situations, accounts of thoughts and emotions which imaginative writers have put into the heads of historic characters. For all of these, in works which claim anyone’s serious attention, there can be no real justification.
Yet there is one talent which the historian can properly borrow from the novelist—namely, mastery of the art of communication via the written word. When he is addressing the general reader this is a talent which he desperately needs. At the very least, he wants the reader to stay with him while he tells his tale; he wants, in short, to be read. To be read he must be interesting.
Part of this talent consists in the ability to handle the English language skillfully. A greater part, perhaps, lies in a properly disciplined use of the creative imagination. Not (be it said quickly) the imagination that embroiders or touches up the sober facts; rather, the kind that can honestly re-create the past, so that the reader knows that he is reading about flesh-and-blood people in real situations. That imagination can work hand in hand with adherence to the most literal truth. It invents nothing; its sole function is to enable the reader to see and feel.
A fine example of the way this can be done is provided in Bruce Lancaster’s From Lexington to Liberty , which is an account of the American Revolution, told for the general reader. If there is one chapter in the American story, of course, which everyone knows about, it is this one. We start getting it in grade school and we keep on getting it year by year thereafter, and it is a tale that has been told many, many times. Just because of its familiarity it can easily become excessively stale.
But Mr. Lancaster makes it fresh and alive, almost as if it were a brand-new story being tackled for the first time. And he succeeds in doing this simply because he does have that novelist’s talent—the ability to feel and to communicate. He takes no liberties with his facts, but he does tell his story in such a way that you want to stay with it. You feel: Yes, this is how it was—and the old familiar story comes to life.
It’s a good trick if you can do it. Mr. Lancaster can do it, and the result is an absorbing and useful book.
From Lexington to Liberty , by Bruce Lancaster. Doubleday & Company. 470 pp. $6.