What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

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For decades historians (or at least the best writers among them) have chided the fact gatherers and footnote accumulators in the profession—namely, the producers of dull books no intelligent or literate reader, according to Allan Nevins, could open without reluctance and dread. More than fifty years ago Nevins was one of the many who called for works of history in which facts, ideas, and literary grace harmoniously fused. Since then other historians have periodically faulted juiceless and ill-written history and even recommended the revival of the old-style narrative history as a way to recapture a lost popular readership.

In his stimulating book That Noble Dream, Peter Novick has traced at length the triumph of the “objective” or “impartial” historians over the so-called relativists, impressionists, amateurs, and popularizers who want to abandon the clinical monograph for narrative history. For the purist, there is no way for a legitimate historian to weave discrete facts into a seamless historical narrative without betraying his calling.

The apparent stalemate between the “objectivists” in the historical profession and historians who seek a wider latitude may further induce the latter to employ novelistic techniques. The trend is already clear in historical biography. Robert Caro’s Lyndon Baines Johnson is presented as a Texas Captain Ahab, half-hero, half-demon and made for mighty tragedy. Caro’s critics have marveled at the density of his facts (his biography is surely one of the most exhaustive and penetrating studies of American state politics ever compiled) and raised eyebrows at the biography’s melodramatic “plot.” Little wonder it has caused so much comment. Rebuffed by the official custodians of history and confused by arcane postmodernist fiction, the public welcomes less forbidding gateways to the past.

Historical fiction has always served as one of these gateways. If not imperishable works of literature, vigorous and history-soaked novels on the order of James Boyd’s Drums or Kenneth Roberts’s Rabble in Arms or A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky have at least made American history interesting and accessible to many who otherwise wouldn’t read it at all. There will always be those in and out of the academy who take their history straight without sops and blandishments. Others prefer to have it packaged in factually reliable but also personalized anecdotal biography or favor fiction surcharged with a color and drama missing in formal historical writing.

That is to be expected. When professional historians can’t agree on what did or didn’t happen and no documents exist to support or gainsay their opinions, why reject the historical novelist’s ingenious guesses and fabrications? The House of History contains many mansions.