What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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What if many of a so-called Fact were little better than a Fiction?” asked Carlyle. It is a question most historians normally don’t brood over, although the more philosophical among them have never doubted that history always was and will be, in the words of Carl Becker, “a foreshortened and incomplete representative of reality.” To say this, he added, lessens neither its value nor its dignity.

All the same, today’s historians would like to believe that their narratives, if piecemeal, are at least faithful to tested facts and based upon more than hearsay. The myths and legends purveyed by the old chroniclers have long been discarded, and Clio, split from her sister Muses, is now comfortable with computers. The kind of monumental history favored in the nineteenth century by scholarly and lettered gentlemen-amateurs like George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, Francis Parkman, and Henry Adams has long gone out of fashion. It has been replaced by the no-nonsense monograph, conceived by specialists for other specialists and stripped of pageantry, descriptive set pieces, dramatic confrontations, and authorial reflections.

The demise of the old school and its supplanting by so-called scientific historians left a void that biographers and writers of fictional history quickly filled. So long as historical novelists confined themselves to their proper spheres, professional historians welcomed them as valuable collaborators. Fiction, of course, could never be a substitute for genuine history, could at best only counterfeit it, but if not history, historical fiction was a stimulant for the historical imagination. After all, it sprang from history and in reshaping popular conceptions of the past might even revolutionize the study of history, as Sir Walter Scott’s novels are said to have done.

But this mutually beneficial partnership appears to be breaking up. A number of novelists, some, it would seem, with mischievous intent, have begun to smudge the boundary line between history and fiction, to blend them, and to assert that fictional history might be “truer” than recorded history. Most historians are too preoccupied with their own work to be aware of—much less answer —this last claim, but as the following two episodes show, testy disagreements between historians and writers of historical fiction have already provoked some interesting questions.

Historians accuse Vidal of distortions; he, in turn, says the past can’t be left to “hagiographers” too narrow to grasp the mind of a Lincoln.

Episode I. Gore Vidal publishes Lincoln: A Novel, in 1984, a work purportedly grounded on historical sources. It is assailed by a group of historians for its gross distortions and inaccuracies. Vidal, they say, depicts Lincoln as coarse-grained and devious, ignorant of economics, “disregardful” of the Constitution, fiercely ambitious, and a racist until the end. What is more, Vidal relies on outdated and discredited scraps of scholarship, and he oversimplifies complex issues. Had he declared at the outset that his novel was pure fiction, the characters inventions, no one could fault him. But to pretend “to deal with real persons and events,” and then to twist them in the process, to conflate history and fiction—this is insupportable.

Vidal counterattacks. These “squirrel” historians and “hagiographers” are fact collectors bent on advancing their careers. Of the art of the novel they haven’t an inkling—that is to be expected—but neither are they up to the demands of their calling. Incapable of understanding a complex and earthy politician like Lincoln, they would transform a great but humanly fallible man into a plaster saint. Yes, he has embellished here and there, but primary sources and “scholarly historians,” if not the “squirrels,” substantiate his interpretation.

In sum, Vidal says, American history can’t be left to the historians, most of whom are too narrow, unworldly, and unlettered to grasp the mind and motives of a Lincoln or to move easily through political and diplomatic corridors. There is no such thing as pure history. It is always clouded, always fragmented. The historian writing from hindsight can never fill in the lost connections. Hence truth is what is best imagined, and the novelist is obviously better qualified than the historian to locate and reattach invisible historical links. When Vidal mixes disagreed-upon facts (for example, Lincoln’s rumored contraction of syphilis or his chronic bowel trouble) and agreed-upon facts, he is creating an extra but not necessarily nonhistorical compound. He is challenging the taken-for-granted assumption that history is history, fiction is fiction, and never the twain shall meet.