Cover image for Novel history : historians and novelists confront America's past (and each other)
Novel history : historians and novelists confront America's past (and each other)
Carnes, Mark C. (Mark Christopher), 1950-
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2001]

Physical Description:
351 pages ; 25 cm
History as told by the devil incarnate: Gore Vidal's Burr / Joanne B. Freeman -- Burr: the historical novel / Gore Vidal -- Notes of a disillusioned lover: John Updike's Memories of the Ford administration / Paul Boyer -- Reply / John Updike -- Russell Banks's fictional portrait of John Brown / James M. McPherson -- In response to James McPherson's reading of Cloudsplitter / Russell Banks -- Why Oswald missed: Don DeLillo's Libra / David T. Courtwright -- The fictional man / Don DeLillo -- The Aztec world of Gary Jennings / Michael E. Smith -- My indignant response / Gary Jennings -- A review of Annie Dillard's The living / Richard White -- On the trail with Gus and Call: Lonesome dove and the western myth / Elliott West -- On Lonesome dove / Larry McMurtry --Real lives and other fictions: reconsidering Wallace Stegner's Angle of repose / John Demos -- The historical imagination of A thousand acres / John Mack Faragher -- Not a pretty picture / Jane Smiley -- Commerce in souls: Uncle Tom's cabin and the state of the nation / Joan D. Hedrick -- Bodies and souls: the Haitian revolution and Madison Smartt Bell's All soul's rising / Michel-Rolph Trouillot -- Engaging the past / Madison Smartt Bell -- William Styron's The confessions of Nat Turner: a meditation on evil, redemption, and history / Eugene D. Genovese -- More confessions / William Styron

Hawthorne's cultural demons: history, popular culture, and The scarlet letter / David S. Reynolds -- The great Gatsby? Yes, a historical novel / John Lukacs -- T. Coraghessan Boyle and World's end / Michael Kammen -- History on two wheels / T. C. Boyle -- Albany the wondrous: William Kennedy's history in Quinn's book / Mark C. Carnes -- Quinn's book: looking for the buried myth / William Kennedy -- White men in Africa: on Barbara Kingsolver's The poisonwood bible / Diane Kunz -- A war like all wars / Tom Wicker -- Some remarks on history and fiction / Charles Frazier -- An essay by (historian) Thomas Fleming on Time and tide / (novelist) Thomas Fleming -- (novelist) Thomas Fleming responds -- Kicking the denial syndrome: Tim O'Brien's In the lake of the woods / H. Bruce Franklin -- The whole story / Tim O'Brien.
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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PS374.H5 N68 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PS374.H5 N68 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Historical fiction is a contradiction in terms. History is what happened; fiction, what did not. Yet great novelists have often disregarded this logical difficulty, taking up the tools of the historian to explore the shadowy recesses of the past. Their labors have brought forth many literary treasures. But how accurately do these masterpieces of the imagination reflect the past?In Novel History, twenty accomplished historians consider this question in relation to some of our most important historical novels. Their essays are followed in most instances by a response from the novelist. These dialogues illuminate one of the most fascinating and perplexing issues of our time -- the relation between the "real" past and our finest imaginative renderings of it. Novel History includes essays by distinguished historians such as John Demos, Michael Kammen, Joan D. Hedrick, John Lukacs, Eugene D. Genovese, Richard White, and Tom Wicker, and responses from notable novelists, including Gore Vidal, John Updike, Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Larry McMurtry, Jane Smiley, Madison Smartt Bell, William Styron, T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Kennedy, Charles Frazier, Thomas Fleming, and Tim O'Brien.Novel History is both a uniquely compelling perspective and a superb collection of literary history.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Historical fiction, in the wake of the popular and critical success of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997), has enjoyed a reading and publishing upsurge. Anyone who enjoys good historical fiction will learn a lot from this remarkably original book, in which Carnes, a Barnard College history professor, presents discussions of significant, contemporary historical novels in a unique format. Each of the discussions comes in two parts: first, an essay by a historian about the historical aspects--accuracies and inaccuracies in tone, tenor, and detail--that are featured in the particular novel being addressed, and second, a companion essay by the author of the novel who reacts to what the historian had to say about his or her book. This is a friendly point-counterpoint exchange. Certainly, no one is out to get anyone else, and no one has any real axe to grind. What emerges in the course of the dialogue is a sense of the qualities unique to both historical writing and historical fiction writing: where the two endeavors overlap and where they differ, and what responsibilities each kind of writer must confront. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

As he did in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Barnard College professor Carnes rounds up a group of historians to comment on the uses made of their craft by creative artists. Since novelists generally stick closer to the facts than filmmakers, the tone here is more respectful (and, unfortunately, somewhat less entertaining) than in the previous book. We read a few too many times that historians are "quite willing to recognizeÄand to learn fromÄthe novelist's license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal truth," as James M. McPherson puts it in his essay on Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, and almost all the living novelists who responded (Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver did not) offer some variant of Aztec author Gary Jennings's defense penned before his death in 1999: "Shit, I was writing a novel, not a Ph.D. thesis." Still, many gems here illuminate the complex interaction between art and reality, including Banks's remarks on the "precision and eloquence" of 19th-century speech that gave him his narrative voice and Carnes's comments on the new social history's neglect of individual experience, which left a gap to be filled by novelists like William Kennedy in Quinn's Book. Other standouts are H. Bruce Franklin's pointed comments on how Tim O'Brien challenges willed historical amnesia about Vietnam with In the Lake of the Woods and John Demos's passionate, very personal appreciation of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. By contrast, Eugene Genovese and Dianne Kunz irritatingly refight the culture wars and the Cold War in their respective pieces on William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The quality varies with the individual authors, but both history buffs and aficionados of literary criticism will find food for thought here. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Having examined how faithful Hollywood has been to the past in Past Imperfect, Carnes (history, Barnard Coll.) turns his attention to historical novels. The topic proves just as fascinating, but here Carnes attempts a "dialog" between novelists and historians that is not entirely successful. Most of the novelists e.g., John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tim O'Brien come from the last third of the 20th century, and their contributions are grouped by category as biography, the West, slavery, religion and culture, and war. Noted historians are given the opportunity to comment, and, where possible, a rejoinder by the author is included. Although Carnes has done well to avoid the overly broad sweep of Past Imperfect, a few problems arise from the varying structure and quality of the historians' contributions and novelists' rejoinders, resulting partly from the expected idiosyncratic style and personality among novelists. On the other hand, one would have hoped for better from several historians. Eugene V. Genovese's personal attack on William Styron seems quite uncalled for, and one wonders whether it is appropriate for Thomas Fleming to comment on his own historical fiction, despite the clever touch. On the whole, though, this book is well done a good work to support either a history or literature curriculum. Public libraries should also find it a useful addition to their collections. Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Novelists who use historical settings, characters, or events to provide the structure or central action of their writings must repeatedly answer questions about the accuracy of their fictional representations of history. Carnes (Barnard College) gathers essays by 20 historians, who question writers of historical fiction, and he publishes novelists' replies. For example, historian Elliott West explores how accurately Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove portrays the mythic West; McMurtry replies that the book now seems as remote from him as "the Arthuriad." Updike responds to Paul Boyer's reading of Memories of the Ford Administration by observing that "insofar as history lives in the telling, and persuades us we are there, it is a species of fiction." Also in the collection: Joanne Freeman on Gore Vidal's Burr, response by Vidal; James McPherson on Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter, response by Banks; David Courtwright on Don DeLillo's Libra, response by DeLillo; Richard White on Annie Dillard's The Living; John Mack Faragher on Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, response by Smiley; Joan Hedrick on Uncle Tom's Cabin; historian Thomas Fleming on his own novel Time and Tide; and much more. A rousing collection on the nature of fiction and the nature of history. Recommended for all levels. H. L. Carrigan Jr. independent scholar



Chapter One A few years ago I was reading a novel with my ten-year-old daughter, Stephanie. It was entitled My Name Is Not Angelica, by Scott O'Dell, about a slave rebellion in 1733 on the island of Saint John. In the final chapter the slaves are trapped by a French army. Rather than risk capture and a return to captivity, the slaves toss down their weapons and leap from a cliff to their death. "Did that really happen?" Stephanie asked. "I don't know," I replied. "But if it's a good story, does it have to be true?" She didn't answer. "I mean," I asked, "does it really matter to you whether the story was true?" She remained silent for a time and then fixed me with a stare: "Dad, is this some sort of psychology question?" Only a professor could ask a question of such ponderous silliness. Of course we want stories to be true. We want to identify with real heroes and heroines. Youngsters and perhaps the downtrodden of all ages may prefer fantasies of transcendent potency -- of Jack slaying the giant, of Superman bounding buildings, of child-wizards zapping evildoers -- but most of us want to learn from real people who have endured what we fear and done what we dream, whose experiences offer guidance as we seek to understand our place on the planet as it spins through the cosmos. We like stories because they tell us about our world and enable us to learn from the experiences of others, an imaginative capacity that is one of the principal endowments of our species. The Iliad, the Bible, the Mahabharata, and countless stories about the past disseminate and explain the cultural traditions that shape our lives. Stories, too, counsel us on existential dilemmas of soul and psyche. In The Call of Stories, child psychiatrist Robert Coles notes that stories "not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers -- offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories attract us by resonating with our anxieties; they allay our anxieties by conveying information or conferring wisdom. If we rely on stories to guide us through life, we want the guide to be reliable and truthful, and to tell it like it really is; however, we also want the guide to be artful and witty, and to lead us along paths with which we are familiar. The historical novel has emerged to satisfy these conflicting desires. It is inescapably a contradiction in terms: a nonfictional fiction; a factual fantasy; a truthful deception. In the Poetics, Aristotle contrasted the constricted world of actual events -- history -- with the boundless imaginative realm of the storyteller's art. History was circumscribed and particularistic: "the thing that has been," poetry was unconstrained and universal: "a kind of thing that might be." An artful story was thus "a higher thing" than history. Herein rests the justification for poetic license. If the merit of a story is derived from the moral or poetic "truths" it teaches and the artistry with which it is told, why fuss over whether the story actually happened as set forth by the storyteller? Whatever the morality of the matter, however, people have persisted in demanding that stories be "true." Diodorus, writing several centuries after Aristotle, was disturbed that so many listeners were put off by the classics. Too often, he wrote, the Greeks set up "an unfair standard" and required of the ancient myths "the same exactness as in the events of our own time." This, he said, was wrong. "A man should by no means scrutinize the truth with so sharp an eye." What he meant by "truth" here is unclear; presumably he defined the concept in aesthetic or psychological terms. This nebulous formulation, or one similar to it, has sustained storytellers for millennia. The tension between good storytelling and "truthful" storytelling, between art and history, is similarly bound up with the evolution of the novel. Daniel Defoe, father of the English novel, steadfastly maintained that Robinson Crusoe (1719) was based on a real person. For the introduction to the sequel, Defoe even produced a "Crusoe" who obligingly insisted that the original tale was truthful and not a "romance." Defoe later chafed at the "envious and ill-disposed Part of the World" that challenged the book's authenticity: Robinson Crusoe, he insisted, was "all historical and true in Fact." Defoe's subsequent assertion that the novel was an allegorical representation of his own life did little to clarify what he meant by "historical," "truth," and "Fact." Sir Walter Scott, generally identified as father of the historical novel, was more candid about the contradictory elements of the genre he did so much to advance. In the preface to Ivanhoe (1820), he explained that while a novel should be faithful to history, it must also "translate" the past into "the manners, as well as the language, of the age we live in." The past was distant and shrouded in impenetrable shadows, but somehow the artist would illumine its real features and make them recognizable to contemporary readers. How this was to be done, he did not say; and, in fact, his novels did not reconcile the opposing elements of the historical novel so much as make readers unmindful of them. For the past two centuries, novelists and critics have wrestled with the problem, with literary fashion oscillating between "realism" and "romance," or some variant of these terms. But never before has the tension between "history" and "art" been more debated, or the boundary between fiction and nonfiction more porous. Television producers routinely enhance the news with reenactments and "docudramas" and they invent fantasy islands where accountants and hairdressers pretend to be survivors of shipwrecks. (Are these latter-day Crusoes more or less "real" than the original?) We discuss "virtual reality" in all seriousness and communicate with Internet "buddies" in on-line "chat rooms" with people whose identities are fictitious. We "reenact" Civil War battles that are "authentic" to the tiniest detail, save the bullets, while actual soldiers push buttons to fight simulated battles (and an occasional real one) in war rooms that resemble video arcades. Novelists write fictional accounts with accurate footnotes, while historians write biographies with fictional characters and imaginary footnotes. And then there's Hollywood, whose watery notion of reality has seeped deep into the bedrock of American culture. Ever since D. W. Griffith blended history with racist romance in Birth of a Nation, the movie industry has pointed its cameras at sets resembling the past and steadfastly depicted the sensibilities of the present. Filmmakers now routinely blur fact and fiction, as when Oliver Stone slyly spliced documentary footage of the JFK assassination into his own grainy shots in JFK, or James Cameron showed fish gliding silently through the actual wreckage of the Titanic, or the directors of The Blair Witch Project nurtured rumors that their film had indeed been recovered from missing teens. This subject was considered in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1995), a collection of essays I edited that bears some resemblance to the present volume. While working on that book, however, I was struck by an awkward asymmetry in the way historians and filmmakers went about their business: filmmakers worked with images and thought chiefly in visual terms; historians worked mostly with words -- historical documents and texts -- and relied on verbal expression. In a good film, the pictures replace words: a wordy movie script is almost by definition a poor one. But the historian's art is all about words. (Some in the profession judge a history book by the distance between its covers.) Filmmakers' emphasis on the appearance of films and historians' preoccupation with the scripts often resulted in a fundamental disjunction in purposes. I concluded that Past Imperfect had only begun to explore the tangled conceptual realm that lies somewhere between art and history and yet encompasses both. * This book was conceived as a more thoughtful expedition into this difficult terrain. The focus is on novels because many novelists have thought hard about the past and made it an object of concerted study, and novelists use words, and often use them better than anyone else. Here, there is no incompatibility of medium. Because there is no single "historical" or "novelistic" perspective, I recruited twenty important historians and nearly as many important novelists to give their views on the subject. Each historian's essay on a novel is followed, wherever possible, by a response from the author of that novel. (An exception is Thomas Fleming, who here is allowed to display his professional schizophrenia as both historian and novelist.) I have grouped the essays into five topics: "biography," the West, slavery, religion and culture, and war. This book is about the historical imagination; it does not pose as literary criticism. The novels included here were chosen, sometimes in consultation with the novelist, sometimes not, because they illustrated important issues related to the novelists' conception of the past. John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration and William Kennedy's Quinn's Book may not be their most representative literary works, but these novels best convey their thoughts on history and fiction. Some of the novels included here are fairly traditional in narrative structure: Gore Vidal's Burr, Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Tom Fleming's Time and Tide, and Annie Dillard's The Living. But because the volume seeks to examine the historical imagination rather than a literary genre, it includes experimental approaches to the past such as Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, T. Coraghessan Boyle's World's End, Don Delillo's Libra, and Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Several other novels, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, concern history more obliquely. The volume includes essays on some traditional classics, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but to promote a dialogue between historians and novelists, the book is heavily weighted toward contemporary fiction. The geographical framework of the book is America, though it has been defined expansively so as to include Gary Jennings's Aztec and Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls' Rising (about Toussaint Louverture and the slave rebellion in Haiti). I regret the absence of some important contemporary historical novels. A few novelists declined or failed to respond to my invitation to participate. But the great majority of the novelists were supportive of the enterprise if understandably wary. "It is neither the novelist's business nor right to explicate his own fictions," T. C. Boyle explained in his response. Jane Smiley professed to be weary of A Thousand Acres, her most famous novel but the one least "congenial" to her sensibility. Larry McMurtry reported that Lonesome Dove was now as remote to him as the Arthuriad. Annie Dillard despaired of explaining how she devised the compelling stories in The Living. "It began with a solitary figure in the distance," she told me. Then her voice trailed off. But most novelists were intrigued, even bedeviled by the relation of the past to their fictional imagination, and nearly all agreed to participate in the discussion. In a few instances, a novelist agreed to write a response, but the historian I commissioned failed to write an essay worthy of inclusion. I apologize to those novelists who were thus denied, through no fault of their own, the opportunity to contribute. The book contains some sharp criticisms, and the historians did spot some mistakes. The cattle drive from Texas to Montana in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove fails to cross any of the transcontinental railroads: McMurtry explains that in plotting the novel, he planned to have the crossing occur during a windstorm and even left a note to himself to this point, but subsequently forgot it. Madison Bell, author of All Souls' Rising, learned to his horror that Toussaint Louverture was himself free and a slave-owner at the outset of the rebellion, an awkward fact that Louverture sedulously concealed from other rebels and posterity. The loggers in Annie Dillard's The Living unwisely located in remote mountains, when they could have more sensibly camped along rivers upon which they could have floated trees to market. In Burr, Gore Vidal underestimated eighteenth-century sensitivity to questions of honor, which prompted him to assume, perhaps wrongly, that only a charge of incest with his daughter could have been sufficiently heinous to provoke Burr to demand satisfaction from Hamilton. But "mistakes" such as these do not reveal much about novel history. Historians make mistakes, too. Indeed, Gore Vidal bids that the historian-critic of Burr pay for hers by mounting the scaffold. In any case, novel research is not inherently inferior to that of the historian; moreover, the novelists' mistakes are counterbalanced by numerous instances where their inspired intuitions proved more accurate than the historians' research. For example, Gary Jennings maintained that the warring Aztecs and Tarascans persisted in trade relations, though the surviving documents suggested otherwise. Only after Jennings's Aztec was published did archaeologists find evidence of Tarascan trading objects in Aztec sites dating from this period. In A Thousand Acres, published in 1991, Jane Smiley hypothesized that the circumstances of midwestern farm life in the 1970s left women especially vulnerable to spousal abuse. Subsequent interviews and historical studies have confirmed this judgment. William Kennedy's Quinn's Book, published in 1985, recounted all manner of irrational religious and sexual excitations in antebellum America, a theme developed by social and cultural historians during the past decade. And if Vidal misunderstood eighteenth-century notions of honor, as historian Joanne Freeman asserts, then his delineation of the foibles of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings, has been amply confirmed in recent years. Novel history is neither slipshod nor inaccurate. * A book containing so many diverse and strong opinions is not intended to generate consensus. However, I was struck by the novelists' repeated and uncritical acceptance of poetic license. "I assume," Russell Banks writes, "that when a reader opens my novel, he or she will do so knowing that I have not written it as a biographer or historian." Gary Jennings's response to requests for footnotes was yet more emphatic. "Shit," he wrote to me, "I was writing a novel, not a Ph.D. thesis." A novel, being a species of fiction, was entitled to be fictional. The argument is incontrovertible, but none of the novelists regarded it as sufficient. Most professed a preference for historical facts and confessed to a reluctance to modify them. Charles Frazier explained that he initially lamented the lack of information on Inman, his great-great grandfather's brother, the protagonist in Cold Mountain. (The surviving facts about Inman, Frazier writes, could be scrawled on the back of an envelope.) This paucity of information, rather than a claim to poetic license, provided Frazier with the moral justification to "make it all up." Madison Smartt Bell had the opposite problem, given the richly documented record of the Haitian revolution: "I found myself extremely unwilling to invent actions or speeches for Toussaint that I could not document in some way, or at least reason to be probable." He believed that this historical literalism resulted in some degree of "aesthetic failure." Wallace Stegner's desire for authenticity in Angle of Repose prompted him to incorporate -- verbatim -- large chunks of the actual correspondence of Arthur and Mary Hallock Foote, on whom the characters of Oliver and Susan Ward were largely based. The borrowings were so extensive that the owners of the Foote letters accused Stegner of committing a kind of plagiarism. Good novelists, in short, not only endorse historical accuracy in principle, but also pour much of the actual historical record into their work. When novelists have altered or added to history, moreover, many have felt obliged to enumerate and justify their actions. In an afterword to Burr, Vidal begins by asserting the novelist's "right not only to rearrange events but, most important, to attribute motive." He confesses that "in three instances, I have moved people about" and then justifies his manipulations. The historical facts matter enough to be set straight. The novelists' pursuit of the real past is reflected in their extensive research. When describing their labors in the archives, moreover, they sound like historians. They write of their preference for old letters and original documents, and they say that they prefer the researching to the writing. "It was pleasant," Updike wrote, "and, the mind ever accumulating rust, salutary for me to feel how one's ignorance widens along with one's researches, wherein book would lead to book ad infinitum." Nearly all historians can relate to this statement. The novelists' identification with the historian was often literal. In fully one third of the novels in this volume, the story is told through an "historian": Updike's Alf Landon Clayton presents his researches on Buchanan, as well as his addled ruminations on his own confused life, to his colleagues in the Northern New England Association of American Historians. Vidal's Charles Schuyler compiles, for political purposes, a partisan history of Aaron Burr. Wallace Stegner assumes the persona of an historian who seeks to gain perspective on his own marriage by refracting it through the parallel experiences of his grandparents. Thomas Fleming's Time and Tide is told as the reminiscence of a sailor-turned-historian, rather like Fleming himself. T. C. Boyle's World's End is filled with historians: some litter the countryside with historical markers, and others sift through the archives as local or amateur historians. William Kennedy entitles his first-person novel Quinn's Book so as to allow it to be the story of a memoirist. Tim O'Brien's novel on the remembering (and forgetting) of the Vietnam War introduces a shifty narrator who produces footnotes and scours the actual historical record. But unlike historians, who are not supposed to change facts or exclude those that contradict their theses, nearly all of the novelists were obliged to make some changes in the historical record. These they justified, after Aristotle, on the grounds that their art cast light on the human condition rather than on any particular historical episode. Walter Scott maintained that the passions are "generally the same in all ranks and conditions, all countries and ages." "Emotions," novelist Russell Banks similarly writes, "do not grow old": This, to me, is the true voice of history in fiction, the voice that insists on our enduring humanity and deliberates it. We are the species that over and over has to learn what it is to be itself. Jane Smiley alludes to this enduring humanity to justify her use of Shakespeare's King Lear as the framework for a novel about an American farm family: "It is because the Lear material is so basic and so ancient that we can link it to the behavior patterns of wolves, horses, chimps, gorillas, farmers, corporate executives, movie stars." Don DeLillo's Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald, illustrates how a novelist's fictions transcend any particular person or moment. DeLillo's Oswald is a paradigmatic loser. Thus, DeLillo assumes that Oswald's third shot at President Kennedy in Dallas missed, a matter of consternation to historian David Courtwright, who points out that this detail contradicts DeLillo's overall conclusion about the assassination and the Warren report. To DeLillo, these historical particulars, weighed against the larger meaning and purposes of the novel, are irrelevant: I thought Oswald would fire prematurely and he does this in the novel...Oswald in my mind had to act impatiently. He could not get things right. This is why he misses the third shot. Not because the ballistics evidence is so deeply shaded by endless conflicts of interpretation and ideology that one might justify any number of deductions concerning gunshot patterns or types of wounds. And certainly not because I felt it would be otherwise awkward to account for the curbside bullet mark found in Dealey Plaza. He misses because he is Oswald. Novelists aspire to universal truths, and assert that people are basically the same in all places and all times, and yet novelists ultimately look within themselves to find their words and ideas. The "inner voice" of a novel, Russell Banks observes, is "as individual, as personal, as downright physical as the voice of a lover, a child, or a parent." The quest for universal truths -- for art -- is thus bound up with the subjectivity of the individual novelist. Indeed, novelists search the past (as do historians) in order to learn who they are. T. C. Boyle explains that in World's End he conceived of Colonial Peekskill, New York, "as a point of departure for a meditation on what my life has been, where I came from, what my antecedents and the antecedents of the region I grew up in were." Boyle puts words down on paper, he explains, to "chase the meaning I need to build my own life." Tim O'Brien's novels on Vietnam are similarly part of an anguished journey of self-discovery. In the final footnote (!) to In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien (as novelist, or as a character in this "historical" novel?) surrenders to the subjectivity of the enterprise: "Nothing is fixed, nothing is solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of conclusion. Mystery finally claims us. Who are we? Where do we go?" As novelists listen to the voice within, straining to hear larger truths that reverberate into the future as art, they cannot filter out the steady din generated by their own culture. Which meanings genuinely come from the soul, and which from parents, or teachers, or lovers, or popular songs, or books? Insofar as their novels appeal to a mass audience, moreover, novelists must possess a special affinity to their own culture. How, then, can they find meanings that transcend it? The Scarlet Letter is a timeless consideration of the corrosive effects of hypocrisy. Yet, as historian David Reynolds points out, Hawthorne's classic was derived from an extensive body of antebellum fiction on adulterous ministers. Joan Hedrick similarly observes that Uncle Tom's Cabin ingeniously reworked existing middle-class notions of women as crusading reformers, and drew a powerful parallel, in an age of religious ferment, between Uncle Tom and Christ. Both classics were products of the antebellum era. Great art rises far above the world from which it issues, but never floats entirely free of it. * Historians and historical novelists do many of the same things and in much the same way. They research old documents and materials; they work with words, both as objects of study and implements of their trade; they seek perspective on the human experience by examining it from a chronological remove; they endeavor to speak to a contemporary audience; they aspire to represent the past truthfully and yet know that their representations cannot be "truthful," "objective," or "accurate" because logical clarity is incompatible with human affairs. But the differences between novelists and historians are profound. If they scour much the same sources, they look for different things. Updike explains that when he undertook research he sought "the kind of fact which a fiction-writer depends upon, the witnessed and experienced particular" -- the sensory or revelatory detail that subtly conveys an image or sensation that inflects an entire paragraph, or chapter, or book. Charles Frazier similarly finds that he was drawn less to the historical record than the evocations of nature. "Walking a few miles of remnant dirt road that once linked two now-vanished villages," Frazier recalls, "often proved more useful than a stack of Mathew Brady photographs in shaping my sense of the past." Historian John Lukacs observes that often the novelists' chief contribution to historical understanding is their ability to discern the elusive "style" -- the feel, the sensation, the aesthetics -- of an historical moment. Novelists explore the subjective realm of the self that, though molded by the social and cultural pressures of their own place and time, acquires suppleness through immersion in a deep literary tradition. When novelists fail to communicate their personal revelations, even revelations steeped in historical context, they cease to be novelists. Historians are unalterably enslaved by facts, the essence of their discipline. Some historians may reach far into regions devoid of documents and proof; some may abandon or modify the rhetorical conventions of the profession so as to ponder the human condition. But few historians are constitutionally capable of cutting their imaginations free from the facts and from a particular historical context. When their ideas wander too far from a verifiable source, most historians become uneasy, and their colleagues reach out to pull them back. And there are always posses of volunteers, deputized by the professional journals, who patrol the frontiers of the discipline to lasso renegades and outlaws. This is perhaps as it should be. The facts do matter. Tim O'Brien reminds us that real people died in Vietnam. This reality grows indistinct over time, blurred by distance and rendered hazy by the imaginative fictions we superimpose upon memory, but real bones decompose in the dirt. When historians alter facts or suppress those that bear awkwardly on a point at hand, or when they retreat from a commitment to the particularities and peculiarities of the historical moment, they cease to be historians. The past exists only in our remembrance of it. Historians and novelists remember in different ways; either is incomplete. The historians' preoccupation with facts and confirmatory evidence renders them less sensitive to the imaginative and emotional aspects of life, while the novelists' craving for personal meaning and contemporary relevance may inhibit their ability to perceive the ways in which people in the past differ from us. Historians need the novelist's guidance on the workings of the emotions and imagination. Novelists need the historian's discipline to anchor the imagination to fact. The joining of these perspectives is not accomplished in the oxymoronic historical novel, in which fiction has been infused with historical detail. In novel history, however, the fragmentary and fossilized facts of the historical record are reanimated with imaginative meaning and aesthetic truth. Novel history, like alchemy, is an inaccessible science and elusive art, but to readers who seek understanding of themselves and the world, its riches are real. Excerpted from Novel History by Mark Carnes. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Carnes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part I Biography Gore Vidal, Burr (1973)
History As Told by the Devil Incarnate: Gore Vidal's Burr, by Joanne B. Freeman Burr: The Historical Novel, by Gore Vidal John Updike, Memories of the Ford Administration (1972)
Notes of a Disillusioned Lover: John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration, by Paul Boyer Reply, by John Updike Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter (1998)
Russell Banks's Fictional Portrait of John Brown, by James M. McPherson In Response to James McPherson's Reading of Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks Don DeLillo, Libra (1988)
Why Oswald Missed: Don DeLillo's Libra, by David T. Courtwright The Fictional ManDon DeLillo
Part II The West Gary Jennings, Aztec (1980)
The Aztec World of Gary Jennings, by Michael E. Smith My Indignant ResponseGary Jennings and Annie Dillard
A Review of Annie Dillard's The LivingRichard White and Larry McMurtry
On the Trail with Gus and Call: Lonesome Dove and the Western Myth, by Elliott West On Lonesome DoveLarry McMurtry and Wallace Stegner
Real Lives and Other Fictions: Reconsidering Wallace Stegner's Angle of ReposeJohn Demos and Jane Smiley
The Historical Imagination of A Thousand Acres, by John Mack Faragher Not a Pretty PictureJane Smiley
Part III Slavery Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
Commerce in Souls: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the State of the NationJoan D. Hedrick and Madison Smartt Bell
Bodies and Souls: The Haitian Revolution and Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls' Rising, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot Engaging the PastMadison Smartt Bell and William Styron
William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner: A Meditation on Evil, Redemption, and History, by Eugene D. Genovese More ConfessionsWilliam Styron
Part IV Religion, American Culture Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
Hawthorne's Cultural Demons: History, Popular Culture, and The Scarlet LetterDavid S. Reynolds and F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby? Yes, a Historical NovelJohn Lukacs T. and Coraghessan Boyle
T. Coraghessan Boyle and World's End, by Michael Kammen History on Two WheelsT. C. Boyle and William Kennedy
Albany the Wondrous: William Kennedy's History in Quinn's Book, by Mark C. Carnes Quinn's Book: Looking for the Buried MythWilliam Kennedy and Barbara Kingsolver
White Men in Africa: On Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood BibleDiane Kunz
Part V War Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)
A War Like All Wars, by Tom Wicker Some Remarks on History and FictionCharles Frazier and Thomas Fleming
An Essay by (Historian) Thomas Fleming on Time and Tide, by (Novelist) Thomas Fleming (Novelist) Thomas Fleming RespondsTim O'Brien
Kicking the Denial Syndrome: Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, by H. Bruce Franklin The Whole Story, by Tim O'Brien Contributors