October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
“Good writers,” says the author, “write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write”
“What if many of a so-called Fact were little better than a Fiction?” asked Carlyle. It is a question most historians normally don’t brood over, although the more philosophical among them have never doubted that history always was and will be, in the words of Carl Becker, “a foreshortened and incomplete representative of reality.” To say this, he added, lessens neither its value nor its dignity.
All the same, today’s historians would like to believe that their narratives, if piecemeal, are at least faithful to tested facts and based upon more than hearsay. The myths and legends purveyed by the old chroniclers have long been discarded, and Clio, split from her sister Muses, is now comfortable with computers. The kind of monumental history favored in the nineteenth century by scholarly and lettered gentlemen-amateurs like George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, Francis Parkman, and Henry Adams has long gone out of fashion. It has been replaced by the no-nonsense monograph, conceived by specialists for other specialists and stripped of pageantry, descriptive set pieces, dramatic confrontations, and authorial reflections.
The demise of the old school and its supplanting by so-called scientific historians left a void that biographers and writers of fictional history quickly filled. So long as historical novelists confined themselves to their proper spheres, professional historians welcomed them as valuable collaborators. Fiction, of course, could never be a substitute for genuine history, could at best only counterfeit it, but if not history, historical fiction was a stimulant for the historical imagination. After all, it sprang from history and in reshaping popular conceptions of the past might even revolutionize the study of history, as Sir Walter Scott’s novels are said to have done.
But this mutually beneficial partnership appears to be breaking up. A number of novelists, some, it would seem, with mischievous intent, have begun to smudge the boundary line between history and fiction, to blend them, and to assert that fictional history might be “truer” than recorded history. Most historians are too preoccupied with their own work to be aware of—much less answer —this last claim, but as the following two episodes show, testy disagreements between historians and writers of historical fiction have already provoked some interesting questions.
Episode I. Gore Vidal publishes Lincoln: A Novel, in 1984, a work purportedly grounded on historical sources. It is assailed by a group of historians for its gross distortions and inaccuracies. Vidal, they say, depicts Lincoln as coarse-grained and devious, ignorant of economics, “disregardful” of the Constitution, fiercely ambitious, and a racist until the end. What is more, Vidal relies on outdated and discredited scraps of scholarship, and he oversimplifies complex issues. Had he declared at the outset that his novel was pure fiction, the characters inventions, no one could fault him. But to pretend “to deal with real persons and events,” and then to twist them in the process, to conflate history and fiction—this is insupportable.
Vidal counterattacks. These “squirrel” historians and “hagiographers” are fact collectors bent on advancing their careers. Of the art of the novel they haven’t an inkling—that is to be expected—but neither are they up to the demands of their calling. Incapable of understanding a complex and earthy politician like Lincoln, they would transform a great but humanly fallible man into a plaster saint. Yes, he has embellished here and there, but primary sources and “scholarly historians,” if not the “squirrels,” substantiate his interpretation.
In sum, Vidal says, American history can’t be left to the historians, most of whom are too narrow, unworldly, and unlettered to grasp the mind and motives of a Lincoln or to move easily through political and diplomatic corridors. There is no such thing as pure history. It is always clouded, always fragmented. The historian writing from hindsight can never fill in the lost connections. Hence truth is what is best imagined, and the novelist is obviously better qualified than the historian to locate and reattach invisible historical links. When Vidal mixes disagreed-upon facts (for example, Lincoln’s rumored contraction of syphilis or his chronic bowel trouble) and agreed-upon facts, he is creating an extra but not necessarily nonhistorical compound. He is challenging the taken-for-granted assumption that history is history, fiction is fiction, and never the twain shall meet.
Episode II. Don DeLillo writes Libra in 1988, a novel about the Kennedy assassination that cunningly splices the historical and the invented. He dares to reconstruct the personality and murky career of Lee Harvey Oswald from random facts about his disturbed childhood, military service, and political involvements that ended in Dallas. DeLillo freely invents when no documents are available. He gives Oswald’s life a logic and design and offers a plausible account of a might-have-been conspiracy to kill the President. Unlike Oliver Stone (whose conflation of fact and fable aggressively challenges the official account of the Kennedy assassination) DeLillo doesn’t presume to encroach on the historian’s preserve. He takes no proprietary interest in American history nor is he trying to rewrite it. Yet he, too, draws fire for his temerity.
The columnist George Will calls Libra “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship” and charges DeLillo with violating “an ethic of literature.” If novelists use “the raw material of history—real people, important events,” then they should be constrained by concern for truthfulness, by respect for the record and a judicious weighing of possibilities.
These two discordant episodes are in themselves of no great matter, but implicit in the ill-tempered exchanges they touched off are issues of some aesthetic and political consequence. George Will fastens on what he thinks are the obligations of the historical novelist. How the past is perceived and treated does have a special pertinence when reports of young Americans’ remarkable ignorance of the United States past and present inspire alarming editorials in the press, and when televised docudramas have become the stuff of history for large segments of the public. Therefore, this tiff between the novelists and their critics is instructive: it dramatizes ambiguities, unsettles fixed beliefs, shows how the past is constantly slipping its moorings despite the efforts of historians to anchor it.
To be sure, fidelity to fact never has been the touchstone in evaluating historical tales. Exciting plots and vivid writing weigh more with the public than documentary soundness or a “concern for truthfulness,” although the charm of acquiring historical information painlessly can’t be entirely discounted. Still, the dismantling of the distinctions between fact and fiction can be very confusing.
What is to be made of the extra-historical dimensions of William Styron’s meditations on the Nat Turner Rebellion that so exercised the black community? Of E. L. Doctorow’s playful novel Ragtime, in which J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Stanford White, Booker T. Washington, and Theodore Dreiser promiscuously and improbably intersect? Of John Earth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, historical fiction as parody, which relates the picaresque adventures of a real eighteenth-century Marylander (author of a real poem called “The Sot-Weed Factor”) and in the process burlesques historical verities and indeed the idea of history itself? Of Robert Coover’s cartoon saga of Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs in The Public Burning? Of Norman Mailer’s and Thomas Pynchon’s apocalyptic musings on American history and society? Is history, as one of DeLillo’s characters says, “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us”? Is it primarily an art, as Henry Adams once remarked, and the historian “little better off than a novelist, with imagination enfeebled by strapping itself to a fact here and there at long intervals”? Is literature “what history conceals, forgets, or mutilates”?—an observation attributed to the novelist Carlos Fuentes.
With notable exceptions, professional historians contemptuously spurn such sophistries. To them history and fiction are distinct entities. What they deem “historical” in the historical novel—that is to say, what is “true” or “verifiable’—already exists somewhere in nonfictional sources: journals, letters, autobiographies, public records, and the like. They find little or nothing of documentary importance in fiction, however well or badly written. More often than not the historical parts are shot through with rumor, supposition, and invention. Therefore, they tend to dismiss historical fiction as irrelevant to their objectives and their craft and to come down especially hard on novelists who, not content to place their harmless tales in historical settings, have dared claim a historical validity for their fictions.
Given these preconceptions, historians quite properly suspect history strained through the literary imagination. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath were powerful and notorious books. They were widely read and discussed. But they are not to be taken as unvarnished accounts of the antislavery movement, the Chicago meat-packing industry, or the Dust Bowl catastrophe. Edward Bellamy’s The Duke of Stockbridge, a novel about the economically depressed farmers of western Massachusetts in the 1780s, was justly praised by William Dean Howells and by some historians for its veracity. Yet it is not cited as a source for Shays’ Rebellion. And what responsible scholar would turn to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon’s hosanna to the Ku Klux Klan, famously adapted by D. W. Griffith for his film The Birth of a Nation, or to Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster Gone with the Wind, similarly immortalized in film, for authoritative testimony on the Civil War and Reconstruction?
Nor do historians find much worth retrieving in other categories of historical fiction: the costume or bursting-bodice romance in which history serves as a flimsy backdrop for fantasy and derring-do; the tendentious novel, set in various historical periods but written to glorify the nation, to defend or attack a political philosophy or way of life, to expose a great wrong, and to warn against, threaten, or prophesy; and the “historical” historical novel produced in the thousands and collectively touching upon every phase of our history and every region of the country. Combing through this hodgepodge might turn up odd facts about incidents, people, and customs overlooked by professional historians but little of much consequence to them.
There is not even a consensus on what a historical novel is or ought to be. An amorphous literary genre, neither fish nor fowl, it has been likened to “a kind of mule-like animal begotten by the ass of fiction of the brood mare of fact, and hence a sterile monster.” At one time the term was limited to fictional works that focused exclusively and intentionally on readily identifiable personages and datable events. That was a manageable definition. Others later stretched it to include events of recent memory, indeed anything that happened in the world before the writer began to write, or any work in which the writer is thinking about history and the past.
What reason, then, for historians to read historical novels apart from the literary satisfaction they provide? It’s not enough to say that good writers write good books and bad writers don’t. The performances of historical novelists must also be judged by the manner in which they register their respective “pasts.” The majority range from those who use history as local-color background for fights, escapes, and lovemaking to the competent and serious re-tellers of history who have taken pains to check their facts. The exceptions possess a historical sensibility, the power to reconstruct and inhabit a space in time past, to identify with it almost viscerally, feel it in their bones, and extract its essence.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a writer, although according to his sister, he wasn’t “very fond of history in general” and used it as ballast for his airy romances. An avid reader of New England annals, colonial newspapers, and Puritan journals, he had more than a casual knowledge of the Puritan commonwealth. The Boston of The Scarlet Letter corresponds physically to the historical Boston of the 1640s. Historical personages pass through his narrative, and he takes no excessive liberties with facts. Even so, he doesn’t hesitate, when need be, to rearrange them or insert anachronisms. In short, he pays his dues to history as he searches for its emblematic meanings. It informs his dramatic employment of Puritan law, theology, social attitudes, the allusions to the Anne Hutchinson trial, his psychological analyses of the principal characters—but always unobtrusively. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, father of Hester Prynne’s child, goes through hell before publicly confessing his complicity. Hawthorne’s probings into the minister’s agonized conscience, Paul Leicester Ford once observed, are “truer historically than what in the book purports to be reconstructed from historical sources.” History in The Scarlet Letter is the residue of Hawthorne’s felt response to fact and legend, not literal history but historical distillation.
William Faulkner and his Southern contemporaries Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, Andrew Lytle, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren were also obsessed or blessed by what Henry James called “historical sympathies and affinities” and Allen Tate “a peculiarly historical consciousness.” They had grown up in societies where the past still vibrated in family talk. They knew a lot about the history of their respective regions and were good storytellers. Not only did the past furnish them fodder for their ancestral tales, it also gave them something to meditate upon and to quarrel with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.