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History / Writing Fiction
Essay by Thomas Mallon
History, Fiction, and the Burden of Truth
At a time when important filmmakers and serious novelists are turning to historical subjects with unusual frequency, their audiences find themselves left to ponder and preserve the distinctions between facts and fabrications. After a decade of writing historical fiction, I'm almost inclined to say what poet Marianne Moore famously declared about poetry, "I, too, dislike it."
The genre is often done badly, and its practitioners have sometimes made grandiose claims for it. In the afterword to my two most recent novels, I've preferred to strike a cautionary note: "Nouns always trump adjectives, and in the phrase `historical fiction,' it is important to remember which of the two words is which."
I don't believe that the genre, even when done well, rises to a higher truth than perceptively written history. The literal truth, of things judicial as well as historical, is preferable to any subjective one. However differently experienced by its participants, and prejudicially interpreted by their heirs, historical events happened one way and one way only. It's only their meaning that's open to interpretation.
Then why, in considering history, even apply the fictional imagination? Why not rely upon scholarly investigation, which in its rare eloquent manifestations can be quite as powerful and satisfying? Two occasions, I think, best call for the historical novelist: when the facts have been lost to time, and when a time has been lost to the facts.
My novel "Henry and Clara" concerns the engaged couple who accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. One can find a small collection of published facts about them, often in the footnotes of Civil War histories. And my own best efforts to unearth more -- in pension files, alumni records, private diaries and correspondence, contemporary newspapers and diplomatic dispatches -- yielded the outlines of a gripping, but by no means wholly connected, story. So I made a pact with myself: Insofar as I could discover the facts about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, I would pretty much stick to them. In the pages between the facts, I would allow a novel to grow -- by imagination, inference and extrapolation. The book that resulted cannot be called history, and yet in places it is more accurate than some of those supposedly nonfiction footnotes about my characters' lives. Clara, for example, is usually said to have been five years younger than Henry. In fact (according to two sets of census records in Albany) and in my novel, she is three years older -- not an insignificant matter when considering young lovers. If he's done his homework and his books are properly labeled, the historical novelist earns his imaginative elbow room, the chance to suggest, if not replicate, reality.
In a more recent book, "Dewey Defeats Truman," I again wrote about a real time and place -- the Republican candidate's Michigan hometown of Owosso during the months leading up to his "inevitable" 1948 victory -- but I tried something quite different from what I did in "Henry and Clara." However authentically I attempted to reconstruct Owosso, all of the main characters in "Dewey" are inventions. It was as if I'd dropped a neutron bomb (the one that kills all the people but leaves everything else intact) on the town, and then repopulated it with my own imaginings. Among several things I hoped to accomplish in this book -- and it's important to remember that the historical novelist's principal obligations are to literature (telling a good story), not to history -- I wanted to recreate a specific period that history, particularly the televised kind, has rendered rather poorly.
We all know how the "postwar period" gets introduced in documentaries: There's the shot of the atom bomb's mushroom cloud; then the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day; and then Levittown, TV aerials and baby carriages. But the world did not turn on quite such a dime. In 1948, the bodies of servicemen killed overseas were still being repatriated for home burial; the war continued to lay heavy on many hearts, and towns like Owosso were enjoying a last year without television.
Historical fiction has the leisure to present a more finely sliced and subtly textured time than even good "social history" does. To do the job, a social historian must eventually resort to statistics and comparisons and context; a novelist, in rendering speech and behavior and even the brand names on the breakfast table, can give a more palpable picture of, to paraphrase Trollope, the way we lived then.
Accuracy counts, of course, and the best readers are the ones on alert. I have gotten letters pointing out how, in "Henry and Clara," no funeral march by Sousa could have sounded at Col. E.E. Ellsworth's funeral in 1861, since John Philip Sousa only turned 7 that year. I'm pleased (and relieved) to respond that the Sousa in question is his father, Antonio. Still, all the microfilmed newspapers, slang dictionaries and trademark registers in the library won't keep you from making mistakes. If you too often fall back on the excuse that, well, it is after all a novel, the accumulated feeling of plausibility is unlikely to hold up.
The other danger is laying it on with a trowel, or what reporters call emptying one's notebook. If you put an antimacassar on what you've already said is a horsehair sofa, the effect will be more pedantic than persuasive. The reader will be fatally aware of the present-day consciousness pulling the strings. "Titanic," now and forever playing at your local theater, has some hilariously overdone moments: The philistine fiance can't just sneer at his bride-to-be's newly acquired paintings; he has to chortle that this Picasso chap will never amount to anything.
When "Henry and Clara" came out, I made an appearance at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. I was the first novelist they'd hosted in some time, pleased to be asked but not surprised at the lack of a turnout. The serious readers of history who make up the shop's clientele feel toward historical novels roughly what silent-movie enthusiasts felt for the talkies: Who needs this loudmouthed stuff? Recently, however, a movement toward "counterfactual" or "what-if" history is gaining ground among academic historians. Reporting last month on this trend in the New York Times, William H. Honan notes the serious attention being paid to what might have happened if, for example, the Spanish Armada had emerged victorious. He quotes Niall Ferguson, author of "Virtual History," on how counterfactualism can "recapture the chaotic nature of experience and see that there are no certain outcomes." I can't help feeling that all this is better left to novelists, for whom the "chaotic nature of experience" is, sentence by sentence, a stock in trade. If historians with their interest in defending a thesis, begin trafficking in the what-if, I'm afraid what might have been will soon get presented as what would have been.
The historical novelist must grapple with moral considerations, not just aesthetic ones. "Don't you fear the dead?" one interviewer asked me about the dark motives and conduct I ascribed to my character Henry Rathbone. I don't suppose I fear the long dead, participants in an event that is by now as much a myth as it was once an occurrence. Immediate families would be, I think, another matter. Thomas E. Dewey's son is justifiably agitated about the portrayal of his honest, crime-busting father as a corrupt prosecutor in the recent movie "Hoodlum." One cannot libel the dead, but one can refrain from distortions as hurtful as they are preposterous.
Why historical material should be increasingly attractive to both moviemakers (such as Steven Spielberg) and writers of literary fiction (Russell Banks and Jane Smiley join the ranks of Civil War novelists this season) is the subject of some curiosity. There are those who connect the proliferation of "period" dramas to the way nothing much has been going on in the mid- and late-'90s. But I think the cause is deeper. The cyber and fiber optic revolutions have made every person and place on the present-day globe absurdly and instantly accessible to every other person and place. We are, more than we yet realize, becoming sick of one another. The past is the only place to which we can get away, and if I had one prediction for the millennium it would be that all of us, including novelists, shall be spending a lot of time -- more than ever before -- looking backward.