What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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Given these preconceptions, historians quite properly suspect history strained through the literary imagination. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath were powerful and notorious books. They were widely read and discussed. But they are not to be taken as unvarnished accounts of the antislavery movement, the Chicago meat-packing industry, or the Dust Bowl catastrophe. Edward Bellamy’s The Duke of Stockbridge, a novel about the economically depressed farmers of western Massachusetts in the 1780s, was justly praised by William Dean Howells and by some historians for its veracity. Yet it is not cited as a source for Shays’ Rebellion. And what responsible scholar would turn to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon’s hosanna to the Ku Klux Klan, famously adapted by D. W. Griffith for his film The Birth of a Nation, or to Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster Gone with the Wind, similarly immortalized in film, for authoritative testimony on the Civil War and Reconstruction?

Nor do historians find much worth retrieving in other categories of historical fiction: the costume or bursting-bodice romance in which history serves as a flimsy backdrop for fantasy and derring-do; the tendentious novel, set in various historical periods but written to glorify the nation, to defend or attack a political philosophy or way of life, to expose a great wrong, and to warn against, threaten, or prophesy; and the “historical” historical novel produced in the thousands and collectively touching upon every phase of our history and every region of the country. Combing through this hodgepodge might turn up odd facts about incidents, people, and customs overlooked by professional historians but little of much consequence to them.

There is not even a consensus on what a historical novel is or ought to be. An amorphous literary genre, neither fish nor fowl, it has been likened to “a kind of mule-like animal begotten by the ass of fiction of the brood mare of fact, and hence a sterile monster.” At one time the term was limited to fictional works that focused exclusively and intentionally on readily identifiable personages and datable events. That was a manageable definition. Others later stretched it to include events of recent memory, indeed anything that happened in the world before the writer began to write, or any work in which the writer is thinking about history and the past.

What reason, then, for historians to read historical novels apart from the literary satisfaction they provide? It’s not enough to say that good writers write good books and bad writers don’t. The performances of historical novelists must also be judged by the manner in which they register their respective “pasts.” The majority range from those who use history as local-color background for fights, escapes, and lovemaking to the competent and serious re-tellers of history who have taken pains to check their facts. The exceptions possess a historical sensibility, the power to reconstruct and inhabit a space in time past, to identify with it almost viscerally, feel it in their bones, and extract its essence.

Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a mix of rumor, guesswork, fantasy, and fact. Yet it is an inescapable text for historians of the South.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a writer, although according to his sister, he wasn’t “very fond of history in general” and used it as ballast for his airy romances. An avid reader of New England annals, colonial newspapers, and Puritan journals, he had more than a casual knowledge of the Puritan commonwealth. The Boston of The Scarlet Letter corresponds physically to the historical Boston of the 1640s. Historical personages pass through his narrative, and he takes no excessive liberties with facts. Even so, he doesn’t hesitate, when need be, to rearrange them or insert anachronisms. In short, he pays his dues to history as he searches for its emblematic meanings. It informs his dramatic employment of Puritan law, theology, social attitudes, the allusions to the Anne Hutchinson trial, his psychological analyses of the principal characters—but always unobtrusively. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, father of Hester Prynne’s child, goes through hell before publicly confessing his complicity. Hawthorne’s probings into the minister’s agonized conscience, Paul Leicester Ford once observed, are “truer historically than what in the book purports to be reconstructed from historical sources.” History in The Scarlet Letter is the residue of Hawthorne’s felt response to fact and legend, not literal history but historical distillation.

William Faulkner and his Southern contemporaries Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, Andrew Lytle, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren were also obsessed or blessed by what Henry James called “historical sympathies and affinities” and Allen Tate “a peculiarly historical consciousness.” They had grown up in societies where the past still vibrated in family talk. They knew a lot about the history of their respective regions and were good storytellers. Not only did the past furnish them fodder for their ancestral tales, it also gave them something to meditate upon and to quarrel with.