Reading, Writing, And History

PrintPrintEmailEmail
BUCHANAN DYING

by John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

1974

272 pp. $6.95

BURR: A NOVEL

by Gore Vidal

Random House, Inc.

1973

430 pp. $8.95

John Updike, in a very long appendix to his new play Buchanan Dying , gives a curious reason for choosing historical drama as the medium for “an imaginative composition…[about] the career of Pennsylvania’s only successful aspirant to the White House.” He had originally intended, he says, to write a historical novel, but then he read President James Buchanan , a biography by Philip Shriver Klein of Pennsylvania State University. That stopped him. Professor Klein, it seems, effectively used “many novelistic touches” in his scholarly work, and “with such an intimate reconstruction already in print, there seemed little the fictionist could do but seek another form.…”

Clearly, in Mr. Updike’s mind the line between history and fiction cannot be sharply drawn. And yet when he did try a few chapters of a novel about Buchanan, it was the stubborn difference between fact and invention that bothered him, so that perhaps the novel might have “aborted” (as he puts it) even had he not encountered Professor Klein’s biography. The problem, he explains, was that “researched details failed to act like remembered ones, they had no palpable medium of the half-remembered in which to swim; my imagination was frozen by the theoretical discoverability of everything . An actual man, Buchanan had done this and this, exactly so, once; and no other way. There was no air. Atoms of the known hung in a vacuum of the unknowable.” And so he wrote a play, which seemed more candidly to present an illusion of historical reality without trespassing surreptitiously upon the domain of documentary history, as a historical novel often does. A play is frankly make-believe; a historical novel can sometimes pretend to be history. Mr. Gore Vidai, in an afterword to a novel about Aaron Burr that led the best-seller list all last winter, claims that the story he tells “is history and not invention.” He has tried, he says, “to keep to the known facts.”

Since Mr. Vidal, speaking through his characters, renders savagely unflattering portraits of some of our most venerated historical figures, this claim has outraged many historians. James Thomas Flexner, whose new biography of George Washington won a National Book Award and a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1973, finds Vidal’s image of the Father of Our Country preposterous. In addition to depicting Washington as stupid and pontifical, it represents him as physically hulking, clumsy, fat, with “the hips, buttocks and bosom of a woman.” This absurdly violates the historical fact, says Mr. Flexner, that Washington was a splendid physical specimen, “one of the greatest athletes of his time.” Dumas Malone, the renowned biographer of Thomas Jefferson, is incensed by Vidal’s “gross misrepresentation” of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In Burr: A Novel Jefferson is seen as a consummate politician, with all of the worst attributes of that breed of American and few redeeming features: he is crafty, unreliable, two-faced, shrewd but shallow, endlessly the calculating opportunist. “Of course,” Dr. Malone comments, “Vidai can always hide behind his fictional devices; he can say, ‘Oh, that’s not my opinion, that’s Aaron Burr’s.’” What he means is that Mr. Vidai tells his story to a large extent through Burr’s mouth, so that the image of Jefferson purports to be a detailed projection of what Burr thought about the great man. “The book is a mishmash of fiction and fact that leaves one in horrid confusion,” Dr. Malone sums it up. “It is a pernicious book; it undercuts the tremendous efforts of scholars to get as near the truth as you can get.”

We thus have, in these current adventures into history by two celebrated American novelists, an interesting case study for an old and not very simple problem. Where does the obligation of the historian and scholar leave off and the license of the fictional artist begin? Is there such a thing as “good” historical fiction? Can a sharp line be drawn between history and fiction, or is the past essentially unrecoverable, so that even the most solemn and scrupulous historian unavoidably writes a good deal of fiction? “I often think it odd that it [history] should be so dull,” Jane Austen makes a character say in Northanger Abbey , “for a great deal of it must be invention.”