EssaysEssay by Allen Ballard
Guest EssayEssay by Thomas Mallon
Writing samplesMoses Rose
by William Rainbolt
Man Under Authority
The Heavenly Kingdom
a virtual conference session
Richard F. Hamm
For the History and MultiMedia Center
Associate Professor of History
& Public Policy
University at Albany--SUNY
From: 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?
From: Allen Ballard
From: Reid Mitchell
On using fiction to teach history.
From: 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:
From: 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.
From: 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.
(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"?
(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?
From 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
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.
From 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?
From Allen Ballard:
From 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
(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
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?