What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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Tate’s The Fathers—the novel, according to one reviewer, that Gone with the Wind ought to have been—is set in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War. Violent and colorful though it is, The Fathers dispenses with the clichés about “darkies,” chivalry, and brutish Yankee hirelings and is far denser and darker than the familiar plantation romance. The narrator, Lacy Buchan, is an old man recalling the breakup of an antique world. His father, Major Buchan, lives on his estate, inwardly secure but unable to recognize the symptoms of social change already eroding it. The war only hastens a disaster already portended in the clash between two systems: a traditional agrarian culture, orderly and ceremonial but drained of vitality, and its unlovely yet dynamic commercial antitype spawned in the North. Lacy relives the traumatic events that he has participated in or observed. His problem is not so much to recapture the past he so believably evokes (he has never lost it; the past for him is now) as to understand and judge it.

The Fathers isn’t historical in the manner, say, of Drums along the Mohawk, Walter Edmonds’s thoroughly researched and very readable story of a frontier New York settlement during the American Revolution. Edmonds gives us a persuasive picture of what it was really like to live at that time, to build a homestead, to fight the French and Indians in the winter forests. His book has a documentary flavor. Tate takes few liberties with historical facts, but what lifts his novel beyond the scope of conventional history is his sensitive response to social and cultural nuances of behavioral codes. Major Buchan exemplifies what was precious and preposterous in the Old South at the moment of its dissolution. Like the other characters in the novel, he is fully realized, but he is also a historical idea.

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is further from historical probability than The Fathers, yet it is an inescapable text, if not a document, for historians of the South. The Thomas Sutpen who surfaces abruptly in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County with a wild gang of black slaves and a captive French architect in 1833 is hardly your average Mississippi planter. Nor is the operatic narrative of Sutpen’s abortive effort to found a family dynasty and the consequences of his innocent monomania to be read allegorically as the rise and fall of the Old South. Absalom, Absalom! is a mystery story, a mix of rumor, inference, guesswork, legend, fantasy, and fact. It tortuously unfolds as young Quentin Compson, the most driven of the investigators and probably the spokesman closest to Faulkner himself, pieces out what might have happened. His “historical sympathies and affinities” are so intense that he vicariously lives the episodes of the family tragedy. Here, as in The Scarlet Letter, “fiction and reality” (I quote Lewis P. Simpson out of context) become “twin aspects of history: history is consciousness and unconsciousness history.”

Professional historians aren’t ordinarily attuned to these resonances and historical shudderings. Henry James likened them to coal miners working in the dark on hands and knees, eyes downcast, foreheads contracted, a “vast fabric of impenetrable fact” stretched over their heads. The historian, he wrote, “essentially wants more documents than he can really use.” Storytellers require just enough of them to quicken or discipline their imaginations without suffocating under an avalanche of fact. Yet James was a realist and suspicious of the historical novel as a literary form. The farther the past receded, the more inaccessible it seemed to him.

He settled for what he called the “visitable past,” by which he meant a period sufficiently distant to arouse “the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone” yet close and palpable enough to be grasped. The ideal point was reached when the past became at once strange and familiar. Setting a story in a period within the writer’s own memory, or that of a “visitable” generation’s, lessened the need to divine the past from books and historical records. William Dean Howells took an even dimmer view of historical fiction than James did. He restricted novels “worthy to be called historic” to those “true to the manner of their times,” while conceding that such books might be “reminiscential rather than historical.”

It by no means follows, however, that novels good or bad written near or during the time of a historical event—a political crisis, a battle, a financial panic, a trial, a strike, a riot, a natural catastrophe—acquire immediately a quasi-documentary authority.