- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Here at home Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gives lie to the notion that art changes nothing, that fiction merely entertains and never ethically anneals. Lincoln is reported to have said upon meeting x Stowe, “Here’s the little lady who started it.” If her novel didn’t quite commence our civil war, it did perform the simplest and most radical service that any artist can offer. It took a generic open-ended and complex subject, slavery, and rendered this issue into a familiar coinage—sympathetic (and villainous) human lives. Today’s reader might find Stowe’s “popular-fiction” technique too overtly sentimental and melodramatic; but we must understand that her book’s emotional operatic excess is precisely what engaged then altered her millions of readers. Stowe encountered a nation waiting to know how to think about the “peculiar institution.” Instead she showed them how to feel about that lash and tragedy called slavery .
As a boy Stephen Crane interviewed Civil War veterans concerning the smells, sights, and terrors of their war. In a justly famous work, The Red Badge of Courage , he told their story with an eyewitness’s sensual specificity and pitiless honesty. Later, confronted with a cataclysm of his own, Crane immediately transformed it into a narrative of universal utility and force. He survived a shipwreck and, with a band of others, floated for days in an open boat. His account—written first as a newspaper serial—is The Open Boat . What Crane did with the improbable dramatic pitch of brute facts is a tribute to fictional techniques in the service of a profound, painterly historical imagination. The work proves how adrenaline can show us the allegorical depth in all perilous events we somehow endure. The Open Boat surpasses great reporting and ascends to the Old Testament’s grandeur of tone, a psychology of true compassion, and a timeless understanding of how we daily seek to keep intact and afloat. Crane’s subject, of course, is history.
(My own fiction hopes to blend documentary history and narrative invention in some of the crosspollinating ways that experience itself improbably merges these two strains. I use family letters, found journals, actual historical figures alongside concocted, but no less real, ones. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All benefits from my great-great-grandfathers’ fighting on opposing sides and is a tribute to these survivors and their spouses. In White People the story “Reassurance”begins with an actual letter by Walt Whitman and then creates a ghost out of the poet’s own text: the ultimate act of homage, a belief in historical continuity.)
So, the next time you call some book a “historical novel” imagine describing your own life as a “historical life.” See what I mean?—Redundant.
— Allan Gurganus is the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and White People (both from Knopf). He is at work on a new novel, The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church
I guess my favorite American historical novel might be Drums along the Mohawk , by Walter D. Edmonds. I find myself thinking a lot about Native Americans these days, or rather thinking about how I used to think about them. I suppose my perspective was very romantic, but I remember that one of the things I liked about Edmonds’s book is that he gave the Indians a fair shake. In addition to this book, I liked, if you can believe it, Longfellow’s Hiawatha , possibly because of the gorgeous N. C. Wyeth illustrations.
“Among authors of his generation, Dos Passos is singular in having seen the essential vitality and tragedy of the American businessman.”
— A. R. Gurney , playwright, Love Letters and The Cocktail Hour
A great difference exists between a work of fiction that is a vehicle for the teaching or exploration of history—what I would call a historical novel—and one that is set, vividly or otherwise, in the past. War and Peace is not a historical novel. Hawaii is. By this standard, then, my favorite historical novel is not a historical novel. Nonetheless, it is Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh . Though neither author nor subject matter is American, the underlying theme certainly is: a fortress manned by the weak, who triumph over the strong solely by virtue and ingenuity. Upon this, itself derived from the Seven Against Thebes , rest the many thousand sheepmen versus cattlemen movies, and others, being mainly vehicles for Yul Brynner. Come to think of it, Werfel may also have read A Connecticut Yankee , my second favorite nonhistorical novel, in which the weak triumph over the strong solely by ingenuity.
— Mark Helprin , author, A Soldier of the Great War and A Winter’s Tale