Allen Ballard  

Steven Leibo   

Reid Mitchell  

William Rainbolt  


Essay by Allen Ballard   

Essay by Steven Leibo 

Essay by Reid Mitchell  

Essay by William Rainbolt  

Guest Essay

Essay by Thomas Mallon  


Writing samples 

Moses Rose  
by William Rainbolt  

A Man Under Authority   
by Reid Mitchell  

Carried by Six
by Allen Ballard 

Tienkuo: The Heavenly Kingdom   
by Steven Leibo  



Writing History / Writing Fiction 
a virtual conference session  

Essay By William Rainbolt

He Disagreed with the History, But He Liked the Story

     During a book signing for my novel, I found myself facing a polite but somewhat agitated Texas history buff -- and there must be millions of Texas history buffs who can get quickly agitated over their subject.  He forced himself to make a few nice comments about my novel, Moses Rose, a tale based on a Texas legend about a former Napoleonic soldier who chose to leave the Alamo the night before the Mexican Army’s final assault.  
     “But,” he finally said, his jaw tightening and that solemn history-buff glint now in his eye, “you really changed the history of what actually happened.  That scene with Rose being interrogated after killing that guy in Nacogdoches . . . I mean, that didn’t happen, not the killing or that trial.  Your book is not historical about a lot of things.”  
     He was firm, and certain.  I had “changed the history.”  A certain scene “didn’t happen.”  And -- gasp! -- the novel is “not historical about a lot of things.”  
     “You’re right,” I agreed.  “It’s not history.  It’s fiction.”  
     I decided not to suggest that plenty of historians question whether Louis Rose even existed, or if he did exist whether he was at the Alamo, or if he was there, exactly how he came to be a survivor and what happened to him afterward, or . . .  
     I had insisted that the editor and the book jacket designer send out clear signals about what this piece of writing really was:  “Moses Rose:  A Tale of the Alamo and Survivors, A Novel,” the front jacket declares with approvable redundancy.  “Moses Rose:  A Novel,” the spine asserts.  “Fiction,” the back cover proclaims in the upper left corner, so bookstore clerks will know on which shelf to hide it, and just underneath, in even bigger letters and fancier type, one more time:  “Moses Rose:  A Novel.”  
     It’s a tale, a novel, it’s fiction.  Not history.  
     And yet, an Upstate New York friend whose knowledge of the Alamo was once limited to knowing that it was (a) before the Civil War, and (b) Davy Crockett died there (or at least, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett died there), told me, and I was proud of the compliment,  “I learned some really interesting things about Texas history.”  
     Okay, so now it’s fiction, but with the resonance of history.  A reader might “learn” something about “history.”  
     Oh no, it’s unavoidable, the novel has to be burdened with that most evasive of descriptions:  Moses Rose, it turns out, is historical fiction.  But what is that?  
     R. Gordon Kelly has pointed out in one essay that definitions of historical fiction move from Sir Walter Scott’s prescription that such a novel would have to be set at least two generations in the past, to more modern attempts to confine the definition with such thoughts from Avrom Fleishman and Georg Lukács that it should include persons who actually lived and took part in notable events:  “When life is seen in the context of history, we have a novel; when the novel’s characters live in the same world with historical persons, we have a historical novel.”  And Kelly also quotes from the broadest definition, offered by Ernest Leisy, who reduced Scott’s criterion to only half a generation:  “A historical novel is a novel the action of which is laid in an earlier time.”  
     In a provocative essay for the American Heritage October 1992 issue devoted to the subject, Harvard professor emeritus of English Daniel Aaron professed:  “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.”  He describes skepticism directed toward Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which is admired for the “density” of facts but criticized for a “melodramatic `plot’” that presents Johnson as a “Texas Captain Ahab, half-hero, half-demon and made for mighty tragedy.”  
     Aaron observes, “Little wonder it has caused such comment.  Rebuffed by the official historians of history and confused by arcane post-modernist fiction, the public welcomes less forbidding gateways to the past.”  
     Members of the public do, that is, unless they are historians or history buffs who are certain they know what happened in the past, exactly how it happened, when it happened, who was involved, and, most surely of all, why it happened as it did.  Even more frightening for the historical novelist, these eager readers are also certain about what did not happen.  
     My own endnote in Moses Rose begins by quoting the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa:  “When you write a novel you do not have the obligation to be true and exact; the only obligation you have is to be persuasive.  And to be persuasive as a novelist in most cases you are obliged to transform, to distort reality, to lie, to invent something that is not true -- that is the only way fiction can be persuasive.”  I follow this with yet another of my admonitions to the reader:  “This novel does not intend to contribute to historical scholarship; one cannot judge a tree by the criteria for a bridge.”  I also offer a bibliography of serious nonfiction works devoted to questions surrounding the character I called Louis Rose.  
     None of this, of course, would deter my solemn history buff.  Nor should it.  I was not offended by his challenge; indeed, apart from being grateful that he actually bought a copy of the novel, I was satisfied, first, that he was a reader, and then that he was a person seriously interested in a past that held great meaning for him, and that he was knowledgeable.  The book was a test for him, and a perfect test:  there was no grader, no one to tell him -- or me -- who is right and who is wrong.  He simply read, and reacted emotionally and intellectually, and learned something.  
     The irony of his challenge was that while he was certain I had erred in my history, he also admitted that he “liked the story about Louis and Mary,” the female protagonist of the story who, of course, is an entirely fictional character (although based somewhat on a real person of 1836 Texas).  He disagreed with the history, but he liked the story, as if the two could be separated.  
     What a muddle for historical fiction to wade through.  Serious readers of history are primed to test your novel against what they know or think they know about “what really happened,” the dreaded Rankian exam.  (In his book Historians’ Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer quotes from the nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges, telling students who were giving him a standing ovation:  “Do not applaud me.  It is not I who speaks to you, but history which speaks through my mouth.” )  Readers who have a smattering of knowledge, or who just “like history,” as many of them will say, assume that what they are reading in an historical novel or seeing in an historical film or miniseries is actually verifiable in its entirety, and therefore they have learned what they need to know about, say, the Titanic, or the Middle Passage.  And readers who appreciate more the work’s artistic temperament are ready to question the scope and ability and appeal of your imagination, an intimidating commentary for any writer to await.  
     My own way to trudge through the muddle is to write historical fiction with three principles in mind:  The Runciman Desire, the Oates Gambit, and the Ellison Mandate.  


     Several years ago, the eminent British historian Sir Steven Runciman (The Fall of Constantinople, 1453) was asked by a writer for The New Yorker if he had ever thought about writing a historical novel. Oh yes, Sir Steven replied, he wanted deeply to do so in order to “say what I know to be true, but cannot prove.”  
     A significant difference between nonfiction history and fiction:  the need for proof; more precisely, the roles of two different kinds of proof.  The one, verifiable by other researchers who can look at the same materials, or interview the same people, or visit the same places, a reality capable of being grasped, defined; a reality demonstrable enough that it can be used by others to construct further realities.  And the other:  verifiable only in one’s heart and soul, “persuasion,” Vargas Llosa called it, persuasion that, he added, could help create “a wondrous dream, a fantasy incarnate,” where “fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand.”  The proof of fiction’s power of revelation:  “Fiction,” said Jessamyn West, “reveals truths that reality obscures.”  
     In nonfiction history, the first proof dictates, and does not yield much to experiment, although it does yield every now and then:  Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, for example, or John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive 
     But in historical fiction, the first proof must yield completely to the second, and await to be used as the writer sees fit.  


     For films, it might be called the Spielberg Insight, or in documentaries, the Burns Defense:  sell the drama, parse the history, and argue that the work’s value (in addition to returning a profit) is to inspire readers and viewers to find out for themselves what the real history is, at least as more serious researchers have determined to date.  Book sales about the subject go up, libraries pull out dusty tomes for special display, talk shows start calling the experts (and hope they can speak in sound bites), publishers and producers start thinking about sequels.  And maybe people actually learn more than they ever knew, or better, realize that what they assumed to be true was, probably, not.  
     In a recent American Historical Review, Jean Baker reminded readers that Stephen Oates’s latest work, the history-by-channeling experiment The Approaching Fury, Voices of the Storm, 1820-61, is meant to be “popular history grounded in scholarship . . . intended to reach large audiences beyond the academy . . . (a book that) may provide the necessary context for a reading public that, like Oates, dislikes monographs and textbook accounts.”  
     And certainly Fury is, well, interesting, although I am not quite sure what Oates means when he promises that he is careful not to violate “the truth of history,” whatever that is, even though he mixes recorded, primary source quotations from his 13 characters with his own speculations about what else they might have said or thought.  Right away we are back in the proof-and-truth dilemma.  It is a commendable book if it gets more Americans interested in the ante-bellum period and the major forces who talked and argued and acted during that time.  The film Michael Collins is commendable if it sends people into libraries to delve more into the Ireland of 1916-22, even if their motivation is to find out if Kitty Kiernan really lived (she did) and if she looked like Julia Roberts (she didn’t).  The film Titanic is commendable if it inspires the same sort of movement; director James Cameron, after all, understands that maybe “history” for the general public is best conveyed through simple, clearly delineated, dramatic images:  history, he told an interviewer, is really just “consensus by hallucination.”  
     A nation’s history does not belong only to its professional historians, the argument goes.  They have their renderings, but they are just that -- interpretations.  Popular entertainment that sends others into bookstores, libraries, and -- dare we hope? -- into classrooms holds great value.  And why not?  “History,” A. J. P. Taylor wrote, “is not just a catalogue of events put in the right order like a railway timetable.  History is a version of events.”  Why shouldn’t imaginative storytellers contribute, in their own ways?  What can we learn about twentieth-century African Americans (and their ancestors) from August Wilson’s extraordinary cycle of plays?  What will we learn about John Brown from Russell Banks’s new novel, Cloudsplitter?  About modern American from Don DeLillo’s Underworld?  Wilson, Banks, and DeLillo are among America’s most important modern writers, after all, and they are writing the stories of how we came to be ourselves.  


     I keep playing around with a list of what I think will be the greatest American novels of this century, and I try to limit it to five or six.  Four came to me immediately:  William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; the John Dos Passo trilogy U.S.A. (a bit of cheating on the numbers), and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.  By coincidence, each of them informs us deeply about America historically, and they can teach us something about what history is and how it can be considered, especially Absalom, Absalom and U.S.A 
     Ellison once wrote, “The American novel is a conquest of the frontier; as it describes experience, it creates it.”  
     He was not referring to a Turnerian school of thought or debates on revisionist history and the American frontier.  Ellison’s frontier was the vast, largely unexplored country of experiencing life itself.  
     And this, to me, is the ultimate criterion for judging an historical novel:  whether it succeeds as an artistic work, regardless of what it does to history.  Whether it inspires the reader to do the nearly impossible, indulge in the vicarious experience to such an extent that it becomes life itself; whether it teaches that reader not only something about himself or herself, but about others, too. I keep telling my students, to their obvious skepticism, that there must be some valid reason why we are still reading Homer and Shakespeare and Twain and . . . the list can go on and on.  Said E. M. Forster:  “Human beings have their great chance in the novel.”  
     So, yes, I believe that the writer has the freedom to manipulate that “first-proof” history in  any way necessary to achieve the Ellison Mandate.  At the same time, the writer must acknowledge the linchpin of verisimilitude:  is it persuasive?  Not persuasive enough to change the direction of a channel of historical scholarship, but persuasive enough to convince readers (or viewers) that in this work of fiction, human beings really are trying to have their great experiences, be they joyful or despairing, heroic or cowardly, loving or hateful.  Escapism, too many literature professors would call it, with great disdain.  The opposite, I would call it:  not escaping, but confronting life through literature.  
     For all of these reasons, I thanked my solemn but passionate challenger at the book-signing.  He seemed genuinely relieved that I did not appear in the least offended.  


Back to home  

History and MultiMedia Center * Department of History *  University at Albany