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  



a virtual conference session  
This virtual conference session was created for two purposes. Its first purpose was to promote a serious discussion about the promises and perils of writing fiction by historians who had written fiction. To that end, the History and MultiMedia Center took the same steps that the organizers of any scholarly conference would do in forming a panel presentation. Its second purpose was to experiment with a new form scholarly communication. To do this, given the dual purposes of this installation, there are two comment rooms attached: comments about content and comments about the form. All visitors are encouraged to join into our conversations.  
Richard F. Hamm 
For the History and MultiMedia Center
Associate Professor of History 
& Public Policy 
University at Albany--SUNY 

Photo of Steven LeiboFrom: Steven Leibo  

I have finally had a chance to look over the various essays my colleagues submitted and found them very interesting. There was though one issue I would be interested in hearing people discuss. Clearly, we all believe in the power of fiction to teach history, but I would be interested in how people feel about using such works, our own and others, in the history classroom. And when it is--how is that material evaluated?  

Photo of Allen BallardFrom: Allen Ballard  

Hello Everybody:  
This is my reaction generally to the papers on historical fiction. It wonít be long, but as I see it there are two separate questions, on both of which we could write or talk forever. The first is the use of historical fiction in the teaching of history. And here I would think that unless the novel was actually written by a participant in an event and thus can qualify as a sort of primary source and be used in that fashion, I would argue that historical fiction can only serve as an adjunct to regular history texts. The students should get the facts cold and undiluted, then can read fiction dealing with the period under study. First a textbook on Russian history, then reading the short novels of Turgenev on the period in question.  
The second major question that I see before us concerns the actual writing of historical fiction, and the major question is whether one should feel free to distort the actual facts of an event or events in pursuit of fictional goals of plot or character development. Here I can only give my own sense that this should never be done with a real character or event. One can make up a character, put him or her into a historical stew and let him or her do as he or she wishes, but if an event took took place on March 23, 1862, thatís the way it should be in the historical novel. If General x was at a certain spot on January 20, 1915, he should remain there forever, even in the novel. Thus my preference for creating a fictional character without the actual name of the real person whose actions may serve as the basis for the actions of the fictional character in the novel. Once one has created the fictional character, all bets are off. One can do with that person as one wishes, and even create embellishments in the events in which that person participated, so long as the general contours of the action--be it a battle, or a political debate--are described accurately.  
Well, thatís my two cents worth. Iíd be interested in reactions.  

Photo of Reid MitchellFrom: Reid Mitchell  

On using fiction to teach history.  
The question raised by Steven Leibo and Allen Ballardís answer are well taken. I used to use a non-contemporary novel when teaching Civil War history--Michael Shaaraís The Killer Angels. Students love it and many have read it already; they are also interested because of the movie Gettysburg. But I have come around to Allenís point-of-view and now would not use a novel unless it was written at the time. When I taught a course on US history 1877-1920, I assigned a great deal of fiction--Henry Adams, Democracy, Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky, and so on. Iíd be more comfortable in teaching a novel written by somebody living in a later period in an American Studies course, and I have taught courses on literature about the Civil War and on William Faulknerís South.  
There is something in Leiboís email I need to comment on. While I believe in the power of fiction to teach history, I do not write fiction to teach history. There isnít much history a reader would learn from my novel A Man Under Authority. Perhaps I am not a historical novelist in the sense the rest of you are.  

Photo of Steven LeiboFrom: Steven Leibo  

Well, we now seem to be making some progress here. On the issue I raised about teaching history with fiction... it seems important to look more closely at the question. Over the years I have developed several different goals when organizing a "history" course. Not surprisingly my goals are tied to my own teaching areas and discipline. Thus in my case I teach largely about the world beyond the west... mostly Asia and am only in part a historian. My actual title is as a professor of Modern Global History & Politics. Thus I am more "contemporary" minded than many historian I know. So with all this end in mind my goals when entering a history classroom are as follows:  
A) To teach the content as I understand it. This is done with regular textbook readings, fairly standard lectures, discussions based on primary sources. Web stuff etc.  
B) To help students visualize the world I am describing and to begin to have some sort of emotional connection to it. This is done with novels and films. 
C) To help students understand the relationship between the past and today here again this is largely done through discussion.  
D) To prepare them to intelligently use the common history presentations they will encounter as they move through life... i.e. films and novels which are much more commonly read or viewed than monographs. This is done by using class time to get them into the habit of thinking critically about novels and the relationship between fiction & history  
So... in short I donít really use fiction to teach the more formal historical facts, especially political and economic... I use fiction to make students more receptive to learning about a particular historical period.  
Going on to the question of whether we should only use novels from a particular period... it seems to me the real question is--- what is the goal. If I want to emphasis how a particular period fictionalized itself... fine... these can be delightful primary sources... and I like to use them but I see no point in avoiding good historical fiction. The best historical fiction writers do every bit as much work as professional historians and if we accept historiansí views as having validity (which I assume we all do) how is the writer of historical fiction any different?  
And of course just as historians of earlier ages asked different questions... so to do novelists... modern novels have concerns that address and move modern readers. I certainly would not use Robert Graves as a primary source for ancient Rome but if I wanted to excite students about Ancient Rome I would go for it.  
In short, we canít teach anything if they are not listening or donít care.  

Photo of Reid MitchellFrom: Reid Mitchell  

I was wondering what my colleagues think of the so-called "nonfiction novel," the most famous of which is Truman Capoteís In Cold Blood, and which is currently represented by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the case of In Cold Blood, as much as I admire the book, I wonder if there isnít something fundamentally deceptive in the way he keeps any mention of himself out of the book while in fact he formed a close attachment to Perry Smith and was present at many of the events he describes.  

Photo of William RainboltFrom: William Rainbolt  

I have a series of responses to the original essays and the ensuing posts. In no particular order they are:  

(1) I agree very much that historical fiction should serve only as supplemental reading, to be used after students have some footing on a bedrock of facts and scholarly interpretations. And certainly, fictional works from the period under study are valid primary sources, windows through which we can look into the consciousness of the times.  

(2) On a related point, I strongly agree with Stevenís four goals Ė a nicely succinct, reasonable list that I will shamelessly steal.  

Too many historians emphasize points A ("to teach the content as I know it") and C ("to help students understand the relationship between the past and today"), even over-emphasize to the point of becoming either uninspiring or irrelevant, or both, to their students.  
Too often points B ("to help students visualize the world I am describing and to begin to have some sort of emotional connection to it") and D ("to prepare them to intelligently use the common history presentations they will encounter etc.") are either ignored, given only a pedantic nod, or scoffed at. But it is through points B and D that we will actually "reach" many, many students (and others outside the classroom, too).  
A history professor of mine once said that the would "never allow fiction or film" into his classroom because they "cannot be history." He also said that he would not teach such things because students probably could not tell the difference between fact and fiction. I did not suggest that perhaps it is a professorís responsibility to teach the difference so students will know it. I might have then suggested that the really creative history professor will find a way to use fact and fiction in the most engaging, expansive, educational ways. But I also would have added quickly that the historical fiction would have to be carefully chosen and explained (again, my responsibility), and would have to meet high standards of actually imparting what in my own judgment would have convinced me was the sensibility of the time under study. I would not use it otherwise, even if it were mostly just a "good read."  

(3) On the "distortion" of facts in historical fiction: in my own essay, I suggested that the ultimate criterion for judging the worthiness of a piece of historical fiction rests in the realm of its fictionality, rather than its historicity. My clarification does not contradict this principle (nor does it contradict what I said at the end of point 2): I believe strongly in the verisimilitude that marks significant historical fiction. That sense arises in readers when they believe things actually "happened that way" or "could have happened that way." I do not believe there is any reason to depart from accepted "facts" UNLESS the author believes--and this is the only justification needed--that it is essential to do so to enhance the fictional quality. Of course, the author may be wrong. This should not be done haphazardly, and should never be done out of ignorance. The purely fictional character gives the author a lot of freedom in which to roam among the "facts," as Allen points out. And, yes, I know it is tiresome to keep putting "facts" into the form of "facts," with all the quote marks. But I also believe that good historical novelists recognize that often what is accepted to be verifiably true might indeed be slightly wrong, innocently inaccurate, and intentionally false Ė a realization some historians have either forgotten or refuse to admit. In my own case, the bulk of the criticism I received from some Texas history buffs and teachers was grounded in the belief that they know the "facts," and I had--well, distorted them, and distortion was never acceptable. But I know from extensive research that--especially in 1836 Texas--"facts" can be as elusive as hyper water bugs, and as open to interpretation and outright contradiction as any assertion.  

(4) In relation to the point just made about verisimilitude: I accept Reidís suggestion that we consider the "literature of uncertainty" idea. But I already know that I am one who would argue that any good fiction promotes a sort of uncertainty anyway: Coleridge put it in terms of "the willing suspension of disbelief." The reader (viewer etc.) knows that what is being given is not "true," but is asked to assume that it could be, or even is, and start the trip from that point. The journey is one into an enhanced state: knowing the work is fiction, but thinking and feeling as if it is fact. Out of the blending of the two comes a third state of being that I am not sure can be defined adequately. I agree that it can be particularly meaningful for historians (and other readers) when an author is accomplished enough to "raise the question (of not reassuring readers) more purposefully than others;" I hope that some novel of mine will actually accomplish what Reid describes in the penultimate paragraph of his essay. But I think it might be equally worthwhile to deliver a fiction that reassures readers--reassures them that they can travel into the realm of fiction/uncertainty, but find ideas that are true to their own lives, beyond realizing the obvious, that often things are not as they seem. Most people who live life even half awake know that lesson pretty well.  

(5) I will add that we should stay far away from postmodernist approaches, most of them anyway. Many years ago I both learned and loved literature simultaneously; vast numbers of works gave me lessons in life. My impression now (and this is from a very close observation) is that literary theory today is eviscerating. I am not convinced that many of the theorists actually love literature. Certainly their students do not. And though we are historians teaching fiction, film, etc., still I think we have to confront such trends.  

(6) When does fiction set in the past become "historical fiction"?  
My own second novel is set in a small East Texas town in the 1930s, but I do not think of it as historical fiction. In my own mind, it is a Southern Gothic. It has plenty of the "verisimilitude" details of the Great Depression in small town Texas, of course. And maybe readers will get a good sense of what life was like there at the time. And maybe thatís enough to qualify for being historical fiction. The authorís own sensibility of the novel may be irrelevant, compared to how readers accept the work. In answer to the question (put to me by someone else), "If itís not meant to be historical, then why set it in the past?" I feebly answered: "Well, because when I see the story in my mind I see it set in a small East Texas town in the 1930s." So much for writers actually understanding what they are doing.  

(7) At some point within the next two or three years I hope to develop a course devoted to examining the production of history in a variety of forms--from the accepted scholarly approaches to those were are discussing, and others (documentary films, for example, or forms of journalism). A significant part of that course would include considering how most people other than professional historians come to know what they call "history." I already have a bibliography in progress but does anyone have any suggestions for works, themes, assignments, directions?  

Phto of Steven leiboFrom Steve Leibo  

Per the question about the so called "non-fictional novel" I personally feel very strongly that I would not assign, would not purchase nor would I read one. In fact, I don't think I would even touch such a work. To my mind the line between such works is a powerful one I will not cross. I am willing to try to learn from fiction when I feel I can trust the author to recreate well a particular cultural era etc., but when I hold a non-fiction work in my hand I need to trust that the author has done everything they could to try to be as accurate as possible.  

A quick note on the use of historical fiction in the classroom. I just finished reading a huge number of papers from several different classes which discussed the novels Black Rain by Ibuse, Nectar In a Sieve by Markandaya and Death in Beirut by Awwad. In every essay the students were required to compare what they read in the novel to the other course materials assigned... in my case, course web sites, discussions from readers, textbooks, films and lectures. And while the responses and levels of sophistication varied as it always does almost every student included some sort of comment about how much the use of the novels helped them to care about these foreign communities under study. Now, it may very well be that people who teach American history don't need such tools to make these new worlds meaningful but for someone like me they remain essential.  

In my own experience with historical fiction I must explain that I think my approach was a bit unusual. In fact I think I could say that with my one project thus far Tienkuo: The Heavenly Kingdom I did enough research to get a Ph.D. In fact I did get one. What I am saying is that I had just done two books, Transferring Technology to China: Prosper Giquel and the Chinese Self-Strengthening Movement and Journal of the Chinese Civil War 1864 both of which took place along the coast of China in the period from 1858 through about 1870. In the novel I created three figures and simply dropped them in the middle of the world I had spent six years studying. Thus what happened to them and what they saw... often those they talked to was built around real events and real people. Mostly I just mixed up specific people's conversations and experiences rather than  
making them up. And since my main character is a newspaper reporter what he "sees" in the novel was usually stuff that had appeared in various China Coast newspapers.  

So, overall, I suspect my experiment was much closer to the idea of trying to use fiction to teach history than most writers of historical fiction have in mind when they start out.  

Photo of Reid MitchellFrom Reid Mitchell:  

I have to say, I'd rather surprised by the vehemence of Steve's reaction to the so-called nonfiction novel. After all, Steve, you were the one who pointed out that an historical novel could be as well-researched as a monograph. Truman Capote spent six years doing the research for In Cold Blood, which he then wrote up "novelistically"--ie, but selecting incidents he thought best revealed character, by selecting details to create patterns of images and symbols. There are no footnotes, sure, but neither are their footnotes in historical novel.  

Well, I've one quick question for my colleagues. I'm starting a novel about Socrates. Any advice?  

Phto of Allen BallardFrom Allen Ballard:  

Hello Reid:  
You asked for some advice on writing your novel on Socrates. I guess the one thing I've learned in my years of serving an apprenticeship in the writing of fiction is the necessity to develop a full outline of the novel before I write down a word. It gives me a sense of knowing where I'm going, just like looking at a road map before taking a long trip. Now, I definitely deviate from that outline once I get into the novel, much as I sometimes take the scenic route even after I've planned a trip. But just knowing that you can get from here to there is comforting and empowering as one begins to write. Hope this helps. Good luck.  

Photo of William RainboltFrom William Rainbolt:  

(1) The British playwright Harold Pinter said: "The past is what we know we remember, what we think we remember, what we imagine we remember, and what we pretend to remember." Perhaps this is an encompassing principle for justifying fiction's contribution to the knowledge and beliefs and feelings we all have that we label as history. History is, after all, not the product of only a particular practice and presentation, but is a work in progress: part of history is set in the past, and part of it in the present; it is not only what happened, but what we now think about and feel about and understand about what happened. Pinter's idea also can be used to acknowledge a point made early on by Steven, concerning the realistic need to prepare our students to be lifelong consumers of history, admitting that the overwhelming majority will turn more to novels and films and plays than to Bancroft winners (my paraphrase of his point, not his). I believe that when so many non-specialists I know say they "love history" they are really saying, "I love knowing and imagining what happened in the past; I like to pretend I was there."  

(2) We should take note of an interesting essay in the March 1998 special issue of Reviews in American History: "For the Love of Stories," by James Goodman. It explores the place of -- and controversies about -- narrative history, with some attention to fiction.  

(3) For Reidís novel on Socrates: it seems to me that the choice of point of view is even more crucial here than it normally is. I vote for first person. Isn't it true that almost everything (maybe everything?) that we know of Socrates comes from Plato? Why just repeat that point of view in a novel (what's the point of doing a novel if you won't take advantage of the freedom  
it offers/) -- that is, why tell the story through Plato again (fictionalized) or another character, or even through limited omniscience? All of those keep Socrates at the distance he's always been at; I would rather read a few hundred pages of imagining what he might have been like. I would also avoid the "flashbacks-on-my-life-as-I-await-the-hemlock" structure -- formulaic, it seems. I'm sure you are (or will be) well read about Socrates, but I hope you don't overlook I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates -- it is greatly informative and enjoyable to read. He just could not stop being a reporter even after he was forced to give up his I. F. Stone's Weekly in 1971. The Preface is an inspiration to anyone who wants to live the life of the mind. Stone, in his seventies, decided to learn Greek in order to properly understand and use the documents he consulted for the book.  

(4) And now, probably a lot more than anyone cares to think about the troublesome notion of the "nonfiction novel": The true "nonfiction novel" should not raise questions about "accuracy," in the sense that Steve used as his criterion for being so wary of such a document so labelled. If it's not accurate -- admittedly, an elusive term -- then it's not worthy of being called literary journalism (or creative nonfiction or the documentary novel or any other dressed up appellation for what should be good research and good writing). It's a term that Truman Capote promoted (for himself, mainly) in order to remind critics that he should still be considered a "serious writer" even though he was producing -- gasp! -- nonfiction; it was an apology in the guise of a theory. Reidís response is more to the point, although I will change it somewhat: to me (and I have been teaching journalism/creative nonfiction for two decades) the term suggests an extended, thoroughly nonfiction work that (a) uses as best it can, within the limitations of being factual, the literary techniques of fiction, especially with attention to narrative structure, character, setting, scene, etc., and (b) at its best might convey the sort of "truth" that all of us are fond of assuming only fiction can yield. The question is not whether it is "accurate" in terms of being reliable enough to draw upon for lectures, but whether it teaches into the reader in a way that a novel can reach. Of course, sometimes the definition of the "nonfiction  
novel" can be challenging, or even muddlesome: I believe critics had some arguments over Mailer's The Executioner's Song as to its label as fiction or nonfiction, and the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded it the fiction honor in 1980. I assume there have been historians more "inaccurate" than a good many nonfiction novelists.  

Two further points on Capote: Plimpton's current oral biography is indeed illuminating about the production of In Cold Blood, and raises issues directly relevant to our discussions. And, of course, In Cold Blood was not the first of whatever Capote had in mind when he embraced the term. Last semester, in my News as History and Literature class, I used Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches (1863) to very good success, and it certainly qualifies as a nonfiction novel in the way that I have described it, even allowing for the fact that names were changed (and in some cases, made quite Dickensian). Finally, let us make sure we do not assume that fiction is a priori "more truthful," "more powerful," "better" in any sense than nonfiction. Who was it who said something like, "the proof of God is in the details"? I would say the proof of the artistry is in the work itself, not its genre.  

(5) And so, I reiterate the question underscoring so much of our discussion: if we use fiction (in any form) in our history classes, exactly how is that fiction teaching history?  

Conversation to be continued 


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