Why 1848?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Kurt Andersen, the founder of Spy magazine, is the author of Turn of the Century , a scathingly funny satire of American mores at the end of the last millennium, and now Heyday (Random House, 640 pages, $26.95), an exhilarating cutaway view of America in the pivotal year of 1848. I spoke with Andersen about his new book and the state of the American historical novel.— Allen Barra

1848 was a big year for Western history. But it certainly hasn’t been a subject much touched on by American novelists. What inspired you to write 640 pages about it?

I happened to read in the same week accounts of the revolution in Paris (of which I, like most Americans, had been mostly ignorant) and of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill—and realized that these two world-changing and essentially accidental events had happened almost simultaneously at the beginning of 1848. That struck me as a fascinating coincidence, so I started wondering about how I might invent characters and a story that would be propelled by both events. As I started researching the period, I became more and more amazed by all that was happening then, by how the world was being turned upside down in so many ways all at once: by the industrial revolution, brand-new technology (telegraph, railroads, photography), feminism, utopianism, mass media, advertising, bohemianism, abolitionism, immigration, booming cities, wacky “new age” fads, Marx, Whitman, Poe, Thoreau, and on and on. And the United States in 1848 had just fought (and won) its first elective and first foreign war, against Mexico—which seemed especially resonant now that we’re engaged in another elective foreign war. As you say, the era is fairly virgin territory in American fiction—in our popular imagination generally—and that got me even more excited. I came to believe that 1848 really was the moment that modern life was born.

The event that seems to haunt your novel is the Mexican War, which must be the least discussed major conflict in American history. From the point of view of establishing United States dominance in North America, it might be the most important war. Why do you think so little is said about it?

You’re so right. It was the most deadly war we fought before the Civil War, and it turned a huge chunk of what is now America into America, including California. Several future Presidents (and many soon-to-be-famous generals) fought in it—and Congressman Abraham Lincoln and Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams spoke out against it passionately. I think our collective forgetfulness is due mainly to the fact that it lacked any noble purpose. It was a more old-fashioned, un-American war—not for liberty or justice but for land, period. So we’re inclined not to think about it too much. And the present Mexican immigration mess makes that history all the more … inconvenient.

Did you have any fictional inspirations for Heyday ? What were your primary nonfiction sources?

No specific fictional inspirations, although Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale , set in New York City in the late nineteenth century, absolutely dazzled me when it came out nearly 25 years ago. I’m a huge fan of Dickens and Twain. And as research before I started writing Heyday , I read Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance , his fictionalization of the Brook Farm utopian community outside Boston.

As for nonfiction sources, I used so many it’s hard to say which were primary. Concerning the Irish Americans who deserted and joined the Mexican side during the war, Peter Stevens’s The Rogue’s March was indispensable, as was Mark Holloway’s Heavens on Earth about the utopian communes. On the gold rush, among the dozen books I read were H. W. Brands’s The Age of Gold , J. S. Holliday’s Rush for Riches , and Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp . I pored over period newspapers and magazines and other ephemera and referred to 1828 and 1847 editions of Webster’s Dictionary many times a day as I was writing.

That old stuffed shirt Henry James derided the historical novel as second-rate, and American critics have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge that it should take its place at the grownups’ table. Why do you think the form has always been considered not entirely legitimate?

I think that’s changed a lot in the last 30 years or so—Doctorow and Cormac McCarthy being maybe the most illustrious living examples. Susan Sontag’s two major novels were both set in previous centuries—and for the last, In America , she won the National Book Award. Although Sontag declined to call those books historical novels, and I get her point, that she considered herself a writer of contemporary novels who happened to set them in the past. And how do we define historical for purposes of this discussion? Don DeLillo’s Underworld was set in the 1950s, and Philip Roth’s recent The Plot Against America in the forties. I think that old Jamesian genre snobbery is fading fast.