Historical Fiction and the ‘Gaps’ in Academic History


John Willingham has an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. His novel The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution will be published in February 2011 by Inkwater Press. http://edgeoffreedom.net/

Governed by evidence and logic in their specialized work, some academic historians have lost their interest in literary and historical fiction, especially in the face of arduous teaching and research duties.  Often scholars initially had to put this interest aside during graduate school while they burrowed into the scholarly literature, an essential but daunting task requiring constant analytical focus.

If that focus should lead to increasingly narrow and tedious research, to what extent can historians rediscover the passion for their subject by reading historical fiction, while being wary, as they must be, of obvious distortions of the facts so dear to scholars?

Reading historical fiction can lead to an appreciation of novelistic insights, and even to collaborative enlightenment between novelists and historians—but not always.

As historian and novelist Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, “Historians and novelists are kin… but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes.”

The question of how and whether fiction can boost serious historical interest is far from new, but of late it has received much attention, perhaps because of the sustained drive toward ever more specialization in historical scholarship.  In 2009, the Key West Literary Seminar featured historians Eric Foner and David Levering Lewis, along with several novelists including Geraldine Brooks, Barry Unsworth, Valerie Martin, and William Kennedy, all assembled to discuss the complicated kinship of fiction and history.

While acknowledging that history is supposed to be about facts and that fiction is concerned with a largely imagined reality, Foner said that “the line between historical scholarship and historical fiction is not as hard and fast as we would sometimes think.”  This is so because novelists and historians alike are trapped in what the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called “the egocentric predicament,” making everything they write an expression of their individual sensibilities rather than an objective representation of the past.

Beyond this “predicament,” Foner asserted that “history has more in common with literature than with disciplines that claim some kind of scientific exactness, like sociology or political science.  History is not and should not aspire to be a science, and historical truth is always tentative, contested, and ever-changing.”  Quoting Oscar Wilde, he added:  “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it.”

He told the audience that rewriting academic history, especially the increasingly specialized nature of it, has distanced it from the broader reading public.  Skilled, non-academic historians answer the public demand for well-written historical narrative and biography.  Although Foner said that he does not read much fiction, he clearly appreciated its appeal to historians and the general public.

At the recent AHA annual meeting in Boston, most of the sessions were well-attended, and the audiences, if not always spellbound, were respectful and offered occasional questions.  But the session on “History and Fiction: Creative Intersections” was packed, with attendees standing in the doorways, lining up along the walls, and even sitting in the aisles.

On entering the room, one reason for the appeal became clear: the language was much more plain-spoken (and colorful) than the discussions in most sessions.  The panel included, among others, Jane Kamensky, co-author with Jill Lepore of Blindspot: A Novel, set in pre-Revolutionary America.  Geraldine Brooks was again a participant, along with fellow novelist Peter Ho Davies.

Kamensky said that she “came to be more passionate” about the human side of events after co-writing the novel.  For her the novel helped to satisfy “a yearning for that séance with the past we know we can’t have.”

Using historical fiction in her classes is “part of the kick now,” she said.  “I am more passionate about the day-dreaming moment.”  Kamensky regretted that such moments were “burned out of me with a red-hot iron when I was in graduate school.”

“We need to create a classroom space where what it was like is as important as what it means,” she said.  And historians should write more for “people who pay to read our books instead of people who are paid to read our books.”

Speaking from a novelist’s perspective, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks described historical fiction as “a gateway drug” used “to interrogate the past.”  

“I have to have that void,” the world of the unknown, Brooks said, because the unverified story allows more room for the fictional interrogation.  But in this process, the novelist often does not welcome new information, if that information disrupts an appealing narrative based on previous research.  (This tendency is not limited to novelists.)

For Brooks, a novel has value if it is “a deception in the service of the truth.”  She is most comfortable when writing instinctively “within a known arc of history,” in search of a voice she can follow to that truth.

The idea from Brooks is that one cannot “know” the past without seeing it, in part, through the consciousness of someone in that past.  Historians can explore that consciousness in some cases through diaries, letters, and other documentation, but often these generate even more questions about what has been left out.

The truth Brooks is after is the same truth that Kamensky and most of the audience sought:  What was it really like?  How did it feel?  How am I like, or different from, those people?  How do they speak to me, human to human?  What is likely to have happened?  And, then, maybe, what does it mean?  As panelist Peter Ho Davies said, the answers to these questions are fiction’s way of “filling in the gaps.”

But if fiction can be a “deception in the service of the truth,” especially interior truths, surely the deception can go the other way, and serve neither the known facts nor a deeper truth.  Kamensky rejected such writing as the pursuit of “banal agendas.”

Her own foray into novel writing might have helped to make Kamensky so candid in expressing her frustration with much historical scholarship.  “We cringe before our work,” she lamented.  Much of what she reads tells her “so much more about what ‘it’ meant than what ‘it’ was.”  And, for her, the expressions of this “meaning” are often too indirect, cautious, or esoteric. 

“Follow the path,” she said, “and if you’re wrong, someone will tell you.” 

Kamensky was probably the focal point for the academic audience, but Geraldine Brooks may have come closest to the best answer about the appeal of fiction.  The Australian-born novelist said, in her clear and melodic voice, that the humanities were “really not interested in individuals.”
This is in fact a “crisis,” she said, and it is the result of our insufficient attention to the pain and suffering, the living and dying, “of everybody we study.”  The retreat from hagiography and the “Great Man” approach was necessary; but the retreat from individual humanity is not.

This retreat explains the public’s interest not only in fiction but in biographies and strong narrative histories that include engrossing personal stories.  The consensus of the group appeared to be that academic history well defines what we think we know, and identifies what we do not know; but that is not enough, not even for most of the historians in the room.

They came to hear how fiction that respects history can inhabit some of the ‘gaps’ in history, and enable them to feel, and see, a more complete and human story.  For most of them, it was that story that led them to the study of history in the first place.

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Jeremy Young - 2/9/2011

A fair point, certainly.

Peter Kovachev - 2/8/2011

Perhaps because most authors of historical fiction include a section, usually in the end matter, revealing where they depart from scholarship for the narrative's sake? I put to you that you weren't just trying to add nuance to the topic (as a public service?); to me it looks very much like you were trying to slam a good, level-headed article with pedantry and snobbery.

And, what "entirely different issues" was I trying to raise with the Kundera-Britannica example? The bottom line is that a reader would learn a lot more about events in 1968 Czechoslovakia by reading Kundera's fiction, as opposed to the scholarly pontifications by Britannica's contributors in the 70s, who abjectly skipped over the whole topic. I presented an example where historical fiction presents a better history than an academic treatise. I would say that academic works have a far greater responsibility to be "true to the history," and to "avoid creating new errors, or reinforcing old ones," and would add that modern, university-generated works appear to fail rather frequently and quite spectacularly in this matter. Something to do with the political culture, I suspect.

Speaking of History 101 and smelly red herrings, what is an "entirely different issue" is your revelations on how you use fiction in teaching, which is the standard method of treating a novel as a document of intellectual history. In anthropological parlance, you would have to somehow synthesize emic and etic information, i.e., what you think the author was describing and what you think the reality was, which is all fine and good, but not really germane to this discussion.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/8/2011

I'm sure you're right that Brooks isn't looking in this direction. But her cavalier attitude to historical reality doesn't lead me to believe that she's got the right idea.

Jeremy Young - 2/7/2011

I really don't think microhistory and understanding what individual lives "must have been like" is what Brooks is getting at. I love Annales-style scholarship, but I think Brooks is raising the issue of the loss of narrative interest, which often manifests as a focus on trends and categories of analysis rather than on individual lives. Microhistory often relies on a mosaic of statistics and narrative fragments to address broader issues, which is extremely valuable but not often interesting to the lay reader.

So I think Brooks would like to see more biographies, not just of "great men," but of ordinary people. She sees historical fiction as a way of doing that within the context of the microhistorical mosaic, of providing narrative interest when you don't necessarily have a real narrative subject to write about. I thought it was an insightful comment.

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

Ah, I see, you meant "synthetic history." Thanks for the clarification.

Funnily enough, speaking of "gutter Marxism" (what's another kind?), most stuff by old Karl, and the leagues of pale imitators and sycophants, easilly fall under the "synthetic history" label. It puzzles me, though, why you would find that approach preferable to good historical fiction; the latter is much more enjoyable, honest and far less pretentious.

PS: "School yard taunts"? Wow, that's some school you must have gone to, to flip a nervous tick over my cavalier tratment of Hegelian and Maxist dialectics.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011


Seriously? You really don't understand the use of the term 'synthetic' in this context without recourse to gutter Marxism and schoolyard taunts?

Fine. It refers to a historical work which - much like our teaching, textbooks, etc. - synthesizes the existing historiography into a coherent narrative. A lot of popular histories are synthetic works, especially those written by journalists and other non-historians who frequently don't acknowledge their intellectual debts.

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

Perhaps. So, please educate me. While at it, I'd appreciate your telling me how you get this thing to italicise.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011

Yes, you're guessing. And, as usual, you're wrong.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011

I didn't create the dichotomy here: the article makes a case for historical fiction without ever including the caveat that good historical fiction needs to be, as much as possible, true to the history, needs to avoid creating new errors, or reinforcing old ones. I was trying to correct that point, add some nuance to the discussion.

As to Kundera, you're raising entirely different issues. I use fiction contemporary to the time period and written by participants as a historical source in my teaching. Like any primary source, it needs to be interrogated for partiality, consistency, but those sorts of first-person narratives, reconstructed experiences, aren't substantially different in quality from other kinds of sources we use to examine past lives.

This is History 101, and a red herring, at best.

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

What, dare I ask, are "synthetic works"? Let me chance a guess first though; this is where a doddery old neo-Marxist plays the thesis and antithesis in his head according to approved script, shudders with great joy upon achieving an imagined, but otherwise politically correct fable and promptly ejaculates what he thinks is a great synthesis? In other words, a near-tangible offspring of a false dichotomy. But go ahead, i'm just guessing.

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

Goodness, Jonathan, did I detect a "false dichotomy" here? As in "valorization" versus "accuracy" and "consistency"? How would you then, for example, evaluate the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who described the Prague Spring rather accurately and consistently, as opposed to a 70s edition of the Britannica which politely fails to even mention it?

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

Such foppish (and foppy)rubbish, Jonathan. I didn't present a dichotomy, much less a false one.

Anyway, what I think annoys folks like you about good and successful ...or dare we say *popular,* at the risk eliciting a sneer... works of historical fiction, is that they rarely pay homage to the short-lived fads and convoluted politics of academia. And no, this is not a "false dichotomy," even though it may look like one to you.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011

I really don't think that's true, though, that we've "lost sight of individuals." Microhistory is still a strong field, and works which recreate the culture and experience of a place and era are quite common. Neighborhood studies, geographic, emotional and sensory history all contribute to a deep understanding of what individual lives must have been like. This is the culmination, in a way, of the annales school project, recreating the physical, psychic, community of historical epochs to comprehend the mentalite of our ancestors.

I agree, and have always agreed with Jeremy, that academic historians can and should do a better job producing synthetic works rather than historiographical essays, but I don't believe that the individual has been lost in history at all.

Jeremy Young - 2/7/2011

What I like about the article is Geraldine Brooks' point that the academy has lost sight of individuals. That's not universally true (in fact, far from it), but could we stand to be nudged a bit in the direction of individual narrative, at least as far as our scholarship is concerned? Sure we could. Your other points are well taken, but I still think this article represents a necessary corrective.

Also, it's worth noting that historical fiction is a gateway market to popular interest in our profession, whether we like it or not. So it behooves us to take a look at historical fiction and to try to make it better (or even to do it better), not simply to criticize it for its lapses (many though there are).

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011

I didn't say there weren't any good historical fictions. However, a valorization of historical fiction that doesn't account for accuracy and consistency is at best incomplete. "Exciting" is great but if what excites you is, for example, ninja, then real history isn't going to be your thing anyway, because there weren't any.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/7/2011

There's one of those false dichotomies I was talking about.

Andrew D. Todd - 2/7/2011

Well, quite frankly, I think you're being a bit parochial.

I don't know if you have read Marshall Sahlins little book, _Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom_, 1981. Admittedly, it has been some time since I read this, about twenty-five years, give or take a bit, and when I went to my Anthropology shelves looking for it, I had to get a dustcloth and do about ten years of spring cleaning. This is not the kind of literature that historians normally read, of course. Sahlins taught in the Anthropology department at Michigan-- he was one of Leslie White's group of Cultural Evolutionists. Sahlins interprets James Cook's final adventure in Hawaii in 1779, in terms of what he calls "Structure of the Conjuncture," ie. the rules of the game. Cook performed certain actions which the Hawaiians understood to be a claim to be Lono, just as, for example, riding into Jerusalem on a certain day on a white donkey has been traditionally understood, since perhaps the fifth century, B. C., to be a claim to be the Jewish Messiah. The difference is that Cook, not being deeply versed in Hawaiian traditions, did not know that he was making such a claim. At that level, truth is not what happened, but the rules of the game within which the events happened, the "deep structure," if I may borrow a term from linguistics.

As a first step, I would like you to consider Douglas C. Jones' novel, _The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer_ (1976). This novel is built around one big counter-factual element, the proposition that Custer survived the Little Big Horn, left for dead among a pile of dead bodies. This not a very preposterous claim-- there are a surprising number of people who survived the Holocaust on such terms, circa 1944. This claim leads to a second counter-factual element, that there was a court-martial. There was, historically, an official inquiry, in 1879, at the request of Major Marcus Reno, and great sections of Jones' book are imported, more or less verbatim, from the Reno Inquiry proceedings. Of course, the scope of the Reno Inquiry was comparatively limited. Major Reno had received his orders from Custer, not from General Alfred Terry, commanding the forces in the Yellowstone valley, nor yet again from General Sheridan in Chicago, or General Sherman and President Grant in Washington. Reno had not made the decision to divide the Seventh Cavalry into four elements of 100-200 men each. The Reno Inquiry found that Reno had done very well, considering his starting position, and that is nothing more or less than the truth. By imagining Custer to be the man on trial, Jones was able to broaden the scope of the inquiry, as in the scene where the prosecutor examines General Phillip Sheridan. There is another expanding element. In historical fact, Libby Custer, with the aid of her official biographer, Frederick Whittaker, defended the reputation of her hero. She did this partly by a sustained whispering campaign, and partly by having the good fortune to outlive the participants, and thus, to have the last word in public. Lastly, no one bothered to listen to the Crow scouts who were still out in Montana. In the 1930's, people like Mari Sandoz and John Neihardt went out and interviewed all the surviving Indians of the various tribes, at the last possible moment before they died. Mari Sandoz, in particular, had grown up in the milieu, circa 1900, a little Swiss immigrant girl tagging along behind an old Lakota medicine woman as they walked over the hills of western Nebraska, looking for medicinal plants. Jones used the device of the court-martial to incorporate these three additional strands of material, and bring them in collision.

"The Crow [scout Goes Ahead] had obviously come to say a great deal more... he pauses and looks at Custer and laughs, a short hard burst of laughter. He waves a finger toward the cavalryman as though scolding a small child. 'Too _many_, Yellow Hair, too _many_.'" (Jones, ch 9, p. 112, pbk. ed.)

By a device of fiction, Douglas Jones is able to bring out the deeper truth.

I suppose I should state my personal interest. I have been involved in web-publishing a series of counter-factual historical novels written by my father, William L. Todd, dealing with the Second World War and the Cold War. During peacetime, the future belligerents were obliged to make choices about what kind of weapons to spend their money on. When the war came, they had no choice but to use the weapons they had, employing the tactics planned around those weapons. My father chose to examine the question of what wound have happened if they had made different choices ten years earlier, treating each major battle or campaign in a different novel. As it happens, his Battle-of-France-that-never-was, written circa 1985-1990, turned out to be an eerily accurate prediction of what would happen in the Iraq war, with IED's and all. My father is a retired Philosophy professor (U. Cincinnati). As he puts it, Philosophy is an intellectual poaching license. In his second scholarly book, _History as Applied Science: A Philosophical Study_ (Wayne State, 1972), he made a case for a history which took account of simulation, of things like war gaming. About five or ten years later, he took up his own challenge, and started writing his Midway novel, and taught himself to write novels by successively revising the thing over a period of ten or fifteen years, while starting other novels going at the same time. He had been playing around with this sort of thing for years, ever since he worked in a highly classified government computer installation in the mid-1950's. Some of his oldest working papers for the Midway book's underlying simulation date to 1958.

Mike Schoenberg - 2/7/2011

So historians use their imagination constantly. And if that is wrong then what. One can go back decades ago when Marguruite Yourcenar was writing "The Memoirs Of Hadrian" or later "The Abyss" or even 50 years ago when Taylor Caldwell wrote "Pillar of Iron" about Ceaser and Cicero to get a real feel for what historical fiction can be

Peter Kovachev - 2/7/2011

Bull-fiddles. Writing "in service of characterization" can preserve accuracy far better than politically correct neo-Marxist drivel in the service of a banal liberal agenda, the staple of current academic historiography.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/6/2011

I'm so, so tired of this discussion. Historians write and speak to general audiences all the time: we teach. Historians use their imagination constantly: there's no other way to recreate the past from the fragmentary evidence available.

Novels can be intriguing and inspiring, though it's rare. But if they're wrong about the history, they can do more harm than good, and nearly every historical novel I've ever read in my field sacrificed accuracy - in some cases sacrificed remote plausibility - in service of characterizations and themes that serve the author more than the history.