[Starting a week’s series on great American historical fiction! Nominations, feedback, and other responses very welcome as always!]
One of the central questions with which any scholar or reader (or even any writer) of historical fiction has to engage is what works in the genre hope to accomplish. There are lots of potential answers to that question, but the fundamental divide is, it seems to me, between accuracy or authenticity on the one hand and effectiveness or readability on the other; between, that is, doing justice to the historical details and periods and events on which a particular novel focuses and doing right by the readers who have picked up said novel. Obviously the choice is not an either/or, but I would argue that as a matter of emphasis and priority these are two very different starting points; and I would go further and argue that much of what we have called historical fiction over the years has chosen very fully to focus on creating entertaining novels for which the history is a backdrop, rather than on creating historical worlds for which the novel is a foreground.
If that has been the emphasis much of the time, it’s an entirely understandable one; readers who seek historical accuracy can always turn to works of historical narrative and scholarship, after all, and a historical novelist who does not connect to his or her readers is likely to produce few sales and a short career. So long as the historical focus is not being explicitly falsified or mythologized, as I have elsewhere argued that the historical details surrounding Reconstruction explicitly and destructively (to the book’s contemporary moment and for our overarching national narratives) are in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a historical novelist focusing mostly on creating compelling characters and story rather than on exploring all of the nuances of that historical world. But if and when a novelist makes that choice, I think it would be very useful for us to have a separate generic category in which we could place the resulting work: not historical fiction but, perhaps, period fiction? If we were to employ that second category in that way, it would allow the term “historical fiction” to be used solely for those novels that do work to create historical worlds first and foremost—and would hopefully likewise allow us to make clear that many such novels and novelists have been able to do so without sacrificing any of their engaging and entertaining qualities in the process.
At or near the top of that list, for me, are the novels in Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle, a series which Vidal has been writing since the late 1960s and which now includes at least six novels (which I will list in chronological rather than publication order; not included here is the recent The Golden Age , only because I haven’t read it and so don’t feel able to comment on whether it’s really part of the series or not): Burr (1973); Lincoln (1984); 1876 (1976); Empire (1987); Hollywood (1990); and Washington, DC (1967). The novels certainly vary in quality, and the more recent novels in the series seem somewhat more explicitly driven by Vidal’s own contemporary political agenda and purposes (a charge that, from what I can tell, applies even more directly to Golden Age); it’s fair to say that a decent percentage of even the kind of genuinely historical fiction about which I’m writing here does feature such central political purposes, and while they don’t necessarily diminish the texts’ success at creating historical worlds, they do often provide the lenses through which we view those worlds. But the earlier books in Vidal’s series, and most especially Burr, are among America’s most fully realized and successful historical novels: both because of how richly they construct their historical worlds (Burr imagines no fewer than three such worlds: the Revolution, the turn of the 19th century, and the 1830s); and because of how immensely readable and fun they are. To coin a phrase, Burr made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think long and hard about—and in fact even do further research into—its historical and national subjects and stories, and that’s a pretty successful historical novel if you ask me.
Next nominee tomorrow.
PS. Two more links:
1) Empire, one of the few in the series that you can preview through Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=RiYadJIIy80C&printsec=frontcover&dq=gore+vidal&hl=en&ei=cLOHTfG3CozUgQfsq5jVCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=book-preview-link&resnum=9&ved=0CFgQuwUwCA#v=onepage&q&f=false
2) One of the more interesting books on historical fiction, in which scholars write about historical novels and the novelists write back (two excerpts included through this site): http://books.simonandschuster.com/Novel-History/Mark-C-Carnes/9780684857664/excerpt_with_id/5185
PPS. Any historical novels or novelists you’d recommend?
5/1 Memory Day nominee: Joseph Heller, who never equaled the scathing satire and bite of his great Catch-22 (although few other American authors have equaled it either), but whose later novels reflect an evolving and complex satirical and humanistic perspective for sure.