What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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It has not, and for the same reasons that historians don’t ordinarily cite historical fiction for other than decorative purposes, begging the rare occasions when it is introduced to illustrate attitudes and issues current in the writer’s own times. As a general rule, textbooks relegate what amount to tedious summaries of “American Literature” to the ends of chapters. Would historians write better history by giving more credence to literary divination? Or is fiction by its very nature a dissolvent of history?

These questions, insofar as they apply to the American historical novel, have been answered in different ways. Admittedly, most deliberate attempts to fictionalize history, to breathe life into great figures, or to personify social types have fallen pretty flat. Yet literary masters now and then have illuminated the past in ways the works of eminent historians do not. All fiction is a kind of history writing; all historians and biographers, and autobiographers too, employ fictional devices; all storytellers, whether they think of the past as a visitable place, a usable cache loaded with analogues for their times, or an equivalent of a Hollywood spectacle, are affecting the way it is perceived. And how the past is perceived can influence the course of history—an idea that once was more widely entertained than it is now.

In 1842 the South Carolina novelist and poet William Gilmore Simms stated flatly that the “bald history of a nation, by itself, would be of very little importance to mankind.” The “true historian” was the artist, the shaper of “unhewn fact,” who sniffed at absolute correctness but who aroused the patriotism of his readers, elevated their aims, and inspired their hopes.

Simms expressed these sentiments at a time when the wall between fiction and history was permeable. Francis Parkman gently admonished Fenimore Cooper for taking needless liberties with historical facts. But he couldn’t say enough about Cooper’s gift of conjuring up not only the “picture” but also atmospheric truth—in Parkman’s words, the “very spirit of the wilderness,” the “great destructive power of nature.” Parkman’s epic of the Anglo-French contest for the North American continent is sounder history than the Leatherstocking Tales but owes something to his predecessor’s historical vision, his narrative and painterly skills, and his unforgettable heroic portraits.

Long before Gore Vidal’s tart rejoinder to his assailants and George Will’s stern rebuke of Don DeLillo, Coleridge questioned the prerogative of the historical guild, self-appointed guardians of the “Dignity of History,” to decide what is “truly important in facts” and which facts to include or to keep out of their chronicles. His comment is still instructive. Not so long ago historians didn’t give much play to the “facts” about blacks and women. Historical novelists, on the other hand, have often been more catholic in their interests and sympathies and more curious about the varieties and complexities of social experience.

One has only to contrast, for example, the textbook surveys of United States history from the 1890s through the 1920s with John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A., an overview of the same period. Wars, revolutions, industrial violence, high finance—these topics get their due in both, if with different emphases, given Dos Passos’s militant politics at the time. However, where the traditional textbook account is factual, descriptive, and static, U.S.A. is dramatic and dynamic. History is being enacted in the intertwining lives of men and women driven by their ambitions and their appetites. It is also being interpreted by the novelist in his short and adroitly placed “biographies” of eminent and lesser known Americans whose exemplary careers serve as direction points to chart the speeding century. And it is being orchestrated on two levels: by Dos Passos’s device of “newsreels,” a collage of newspaper fragments, song titles, and popular expressions that date the narrative action, and by the “camera eye,” an interior monologue in which the author recalls and reflects upon his youth and coming of age during the years spanned by the trilogy. U.S.A. has been criticized for slighting farmers and factory workers and exaggerating the importance of public relations and Wall Street. Even so, this strong collective novel is energized by its prescient biases; it modifies and deepens our sense of the period.

Good writers write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write. Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music, so to speak, changed into forms akin to opera or theatrical productions. Willie Stark, the demagogic protagonist in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, is Huey Long raised to the tenth power, an American tragic hero fatally flawed. T. Harry Williams noted in the preface to his fine biography of Long that his conclusions about the Louisiana “Kingfish” were consistent with Warren’s, and so they are—however different their trajectories. Read together, they are mutually enriching.