Reading, Writing, And History

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Does it come off? In choosing Buchanan, Updike forgoes a comfortable advantage that falls to novelists and playwrights whose central figures are men like Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, or even Burr: we know them pretty well to start with. Buchanan needs explication if not identification; many otherwise well informed people can barely remember who he was. Moreover, in any play the characters are on their own, without the help of the author’s narrative to introduce them, place them, relate them to the rest of the story. Buchanan Dying will baffle and probably defeat a substantial number of readers—unless they read Mr. Updike’s appendix first .

This problem is intensified by Updike’s great care for the historical validity of the play. In spite of the somewhat surrealist techniques he uses, by and large (as he says), “the historical record has not been knowingly distorted or skimped.” One way that he pays his dues to the record is by often giving his characters speeches that are in great part words they actually said in history. Since Mr. Updike is an imaginative and poetic author, capable of nearly Shakespearean eloquence, these “real-life” passages (for instance, a long and rather paralyzing speech made by Buchanan shortly before he left office) contrast flatly with those he has composed himself. The reader is left wondering whether Updike’s Buchanan, a subtle, perspicacious, and allusive speaker who talks like King Lear and Hamlet combined, is not in unfair competition with the more mundane Buchanan who was our fifteenth President.

It is easy to understand the irritation of the scholarly community with books like Burr and perhaps with Buchanan Dying (although Mr. Updike distinctly emerges as more concerned with historical truth than Mr. Vidai). But is there no respectable place, then, for historical fictions, novelistic or dramatic? Not, according to Professor George Dangerfield, who reviewed Burr very sourly in the New York Times , unless “the characters are all imaginary,” as in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . Yet it seems likely that however it may besmirch the memory of Washington and Jefferson, Mr. Vidal’s novel will give a vivid and generally accurate idea of Burr’s character to most readers, as well as a striking and historically sound picture of New York City in the 1830’s. And surely Mr. Updike’s play affectingly vivifies the stick figure of James Buchanan and makes us sympathetically understand his exquisite dilemma over slavery and secession.

“All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance,” Dr. Johnson informed Boswell. But isn’t it possible to overestimate the reliability of contemporary evidence? We all have a kind of naivete about this: we know very well that today’s newspaper is full of lies and errors; that last week’s newsmagazine, while possibly a little more dependable, is an incomplete and unbalanced summary; that even our own diaries and letters fail to tell what really happened last weekend. But documents pick up an aura of truth as they grow older. Let the newspaper be dated a hundred years ago, the summary of events appear in an issue of Harper’s Weekly for 1857, or the diary and letters be found among the effects of our great-great-grandfather, and we treat them with enormous respect—these are, we think, the real clues to the past.

And in truth they are nearly all we have, such documents. Ultimately the past is unrecoverable, and any history will indeed be fiction to some extent. Still, the line between history and historical fiction can be meaningfully drawn. Dr. Johnson was right: the criterion is documentation—that plus reasonable interpretation of what the documents tell us. Some novels and plays will come closer to historical truth than others, depending upon how faithful the authors are to “contemporary evidence.” Beyond that, as the examples of Vidai and Updike demonstrate, it makes a difference how unpretentious the author is, how openly he indicates what he has invented and what he has not.

We have always eschewed historical fiction in this magazine on the ground that our readers want, as nearly as possible, the truth about the past. Yet we know they also want colorful narrative history, and the writers we prefer are those who can make a documented narrative read with the flow and body and vividness of fiction. We are not about to open a fiction department in A MERICAN H ERITAGE or relax our taboos against made-up dialogue and invented décor. At the same time we are quite willing to let people who enjoy novels like Burr or plays like Buchanan Dying have their pleasure, and—taking along a bag of salt—we may happily join them when we are not wearing our editorial caps. The important thing is to know as well as one can when one is reading history, and when fiction. Caveat lector .

PARTON ON DOCUMENTARY HISTORY