What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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Charles Brockden Brown in 1793 observed at first hand the terrible yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia. His novel Arthur Mervyn, written a few years later, included, he announced, “a brief but faithful sketch of the conditions of the metropolis during that calamitous period.” The hero’s nightmarish account of what he saw as he moved through the plague-stricken city corresponds closely to the recorded facts. He mentions the fear-crazed flight of thousands of inhabitants, the empty streets, the bodies carted away from abandoned houses to impromptu hospitals, charnel houses really, filled with the dead and dying; he writes of the collapse of city services, the “black vomit” on soiled beds, and “the trials of fortitude and constancy.” This phantasmagoria Brown projects through the fevered mind of his observer. Readers unfamiliar with the event might well believe he concocted it. The scenes are suffused in a gothic glow that blurs their reality and makes them somehow less shocking than the documentary reports. Arthur Mervyn subordinates history to atmosphere—and properly so in a novel whose real subject is the memorialist’s complex and devious personality.

The journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce also recorded history through his eyes and nerves. No other writer of note saw so much action in the American Civil War. Enlisting as a private at the age of eighteen, in 1861, he wasn’t mustered out until 1865. He fought in at least seven major engagements. Seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain and often cited for bravery in dispatches, he experienced capture, brief imprisonment, and escape. The war that haunted him for the rest of his life he kept returning to with elation and horror.

Bierce’s references to the Civil War in his autobiographical writings are detailed and very explicit. The facts, “all the wretched debris of battle,” human and material, are set down without much rhetorical ornamentation. The observer, perhaps to disguise his revulsion, is jaunty and sardonic as he catalogues the grisly items. But comparable scenes incorporated into his fiction—Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Can Such Things Be?—aren’t in the least realistic. Like Arthur Mervyn, his soldiers move trancelike through incredible events in credible surroundings. Surreal tales are contrived and loaded with coincidence. They register the psychic impact of his exposure to suffering and death and objectify his conception of a fragile humanity crushed by malicious and implacable forces.

Bierce’s tales are no more documentary than Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which Bierce at first praised and then disparaged. Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote it. His impressionistic descriptions, lurid and parodie, are his own extravagant commentary on the published recollections of veterans and are more studiedly anti-romantic and mocking than Bierce’s savage firsthand accounts of battle. The Red Badge is an extraordinary tour de force and a work of literary genius. Like Bierce, Crane wasn’t concerned with the Civil War, the issues of which hardly intrude in his novel, but with war as spectacle, with the meaning of heroism and of God’s indifference to posturing puny men.

What Crane picked up from books and magazines and conversations with veterans, John W. De Forest learned during three years of active service, forty-six days of them under fire. That story is scattered through letters, journals, and magazine articles posthumously published as A Volunteer’s Adventures in 1946 and in parts of his novel Miss Ravenels Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, written only a few years after the end of the war. The plot is conventional enough. A pretty secessionist comes North with her anti-Confederate papa, marries the wrong man, and after his death becomes the reconstructed and loving wife of the patient hero. Both the military and the civilian episodes are described with wry asperity. De Forest, like his hero, regarded the war with disgust and fascination, took no pity on himself, harbored no hatred against the Rebs, and had no illusions about the enemy’s cause or his own. In his view, the war ended as it had to: a disciplined and organized North thrashed a gallant but obsolescent South.

All storytellers affect the way the past is perceived. And how the past is perceived can influence the course of history.

Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, written in understated prose by a satirical intelligence, reads like a piece of historical reportage. De Forest disdained “the artifice of rhetoric” and vastly admired the style of Caesar’s Commentaries, which he emulated in his dispassionate narrative. Because of its on-the-spot verisimilitude and, as Georg Lukács might say, “self-experienced history,” one might expect that De Forest’s war novel might find a niche in Civil War historiography.