What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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Episode II. Don DeLillo writes Libra in 1988, a novel about the Kennedy assassination that cunningly splices the historical and the invented. He dares to reconstruct the personality and murky career of Lee Harvey Oswald from random facts about his disturbed childhood, military service, and political involvements that ended in Dallas. DeLillo freely invents when no documents are available. He gives Oswald’s life a logic and design and offers a plausible account of a might-have-been conspiracy to kill the President. Unlike Oliver Stone (whose conflation of fact and fable aggressively challenges the official account of the Kennedy assassination) DeLillo doesn’t presume to encroach on the historian’s preserve. He takes no proprietary interest in American history nor is he trying to rewrite it. Yet he, too, draws fire for his temerity.

The columnist George Will calls Libra “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship” and charges DeLillo with violating “an ethic of literature.” If novelists use “the raw material of history—real people, important events,” then they should be constrained by concern for truthfulness, by respect for the record and a judicious weighing of possibilities.

These two discordant episodes are in themselves of no great matter, but implicit in the ill-tempered exchanges they touched off are issues of some aesthetic and political consequence. George Will fastens on what he thinks are the obligations of the historical novelist. How the past is perceived and treated does have a special pertinence when reports of young Americans’ remarkable ignorance of the United States past and present inspire alarming editorials in the press, and when televised docudramas have become the stuff of history for large segments of the public. Therefore, this tiff between the novelists and their critics is instructive: it dramatizes ambiguities, unsettles fixed beliefs, shows how the past is constantly slipping its moorings despite the efforts of historians to anchor it.

To be sure, fidelity to fact never has been the touchstone in evaluating historical tales. Exciting plots and vivid writing weigh more with the public than documentary soundness or a “concern for truthfulness,” although the charm of acquiring historical information painlessly can’t be entirely discounted. Still, the dismantling of the distinctions between fact and fiction can be very confusing.

What is to be made of the extra-historical dimensions of William Styron’s meditations on the Nat Turner Rebellion that so exercised the black community? Of E. L. Doctorow’s playful novel Ragtime, in which J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Stanford White, Booker T. Washington, and Theodore Dreiser promiscuously and improbably intersect? Of John Earth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, historical fiction as parody, which relates the picaresque adventures of a real eighteenth-century Marylander (author of a real poem called “The Sot-Weed Factor”) and in the process burlesques historical verities and indeed the idea of history itself? Of Robert Coover’s cartoon saga of Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs in The Public Burning? Of Norman Mailer’s and Thomas Pynchon’s apocalyptic musings on American history and society? Is history, as one of DeLillo’s characters says, “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us”? Is it primarily an art, as Henry Adams once remarked, and the historian “little better off than a novelist, with imagination enfeebled by strapping itself to a fact here and there at long intervals”? Is literature “what history conceals, forgets, or mutilates”?—an observation attributed to the novelist Carlos Fuentes.

With notable exceptions, professional historians contemptuously spurn such sophistries. To them history and fiction are distinct entities. What they deem “historical” in the historical novel—that is to say, what is “true” or “verifiable’—already exists somewhere in nonfictional sources: journals, letters, autobiographies, public records, and the like. They find little or nothing of documentary importance in fiction, however well or badly written. More often than not the historical parts are shot through with rumor, supposition, and invention. Therefore, they tend to dismiss historical fiction as irrelevant to their objectives and their craft and to come down especially hard on novelists who, not content to place their harmless tales in historical settings, have dared claim a historical validity for their fictions.