In his illuminating chapter, “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel,” Georg Lukács outlines writing strategies that would set the historical novelist at odds with the historian. First Lukács argues that the historical novel makes a major departure from the age-old form, the national epic. In an epic, “Achilles is not only compositionally the central figure of the epic, he is also a head taller than all his fellow actors, he is really the sun round which the planets revolve.” In Waverley, which Lukács identifies as the touchstone historical novel, Walter Scott invents something uniquely different. He creates a middle-of-the-road character as the protagnist, the main character, of his novel. “It is their task,” Lukács says in The Historical Novel, “to bring the extremes whose struggle fills the novel, whose clash expresses artistically a great crisis in society, into contact with one another.”
So Waverley is a country squire swept up in an English civil war, at first mildly sympathetic to one belligerent side, capable of becoming more caught up and fighting bravely. But because he is not a fanatic, he is able to understand, relate to, and bridge the gap to the Hanoverian side of the conflict, and represent largely the status quo, ruling class Englishman navigating a riven kingdom.
This strategy of choosing a “mediocre” character, a chap in the middle, brought a lot of negative criticism Scott’s way. It seemed some readers in his day and after wanted to see him create heroes that were screaming partisans rather than average guys beset by passionately divided combatants.
And the major historical figures, the kings, queens, lords, ladies, and captains of war? In Scott, says Lukács, they are minor characters appearing on stage only when they are about to do something really significant, historic. So readers get to meet them, and then learn what it might have been like to live with their decisions, good or bad, monstrous or angelic. The hero in the classic historical novel is, then, the middle guy, and he has to clean up the giant mess left after the clash of titans.
Aside from the yeoman work of Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and later The Life of Billy Yank, and some of the sociologically and statistically informed arguments in Michael Fellman’s Inside War, it’s hard to find this mediocre, average guy in a book of American Civil War history. For every book centered on what the average soldier or civilian experienced, we have five and ten books about what Robert E. Lee thought at Gettysburg, not to mention the marching columns of history books about the other titans and partisans of the war.
Note to self, see what publisher will think if in page proof stage we make main character even more “mediocre” by renaming main character Joe Middlemudd. Middlemudd’s Quarry: A Novel in Which an Average Guy is Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Argue that huge cost will be worth it to create a “classic!”