Reading Georg Lukács The Historical Novel, I think I’m finding one source of the chafing between the writer of fiction set in the past and the historian. In his chapter on “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel” Lukács praises Sir Walter Scott as the original and in some ways the greatest historical novelist. From Waverley onward, Scott chose middle-of-the-road, “mediocre” main characters, capable of fighting for or against and being touched by all sides of a past conflict.
In Scott’s life-work we find marvellous scenes and characters from the life of serfs and free peasants, from the fortunes of society’s outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, and professional soldiers, deserters and so on. Yet it is in his unforgettable portrayal of the survivals of gentile society, the Scottish clans where the poetry of his portrayal of past life chiefly lies.”
Lukács continues, saying that Scott was first to portray the everyday life of run-of-the-mill nobility, not the great heroes and kings making decisions and leading armies, but the people living with the “great” ideas, fighting at the forlorn fronts. “Scott is a giant discoverer and awakener of this long vanished past.”
Scott’s contemporaries and near contemporaries thought a great deal of his work as well. But when Lukács brings in praise for Scott from German poet Heinrich Heine, I think we can spot an irritant to the historian. Heine understood “that the strength of Scott’s writing lay precisely in this presentation of popular life, in the fact that the official big events and great historical figures were not given a central place.” But here’s the friction: Heine says, “Walter Scott’s novels sometimes reproduce the spirit of English history much more faithfully than Hume.”
Uh oh! I think our German romantic poet is planting the flag of literature where it may not be universally appreciated. And worse, Heine rubs it in, streaking right across the treasured turf, laying claim to the attention of a nation’s literate people, the attention for which both historian and novelist compete. Lukács quotes Heine:
Strange whim of the people! They demand their history from the hand of a poet and not from the hand of a historian. They demand not a faithful report of bare facts, but those facts dissolved back into the original poetry whence they came.”
Ouch! Now that would chap any historian of the day or the morrow. A salve to the rash: I think American readers largely have turned Heine’s notion on its end. Of this much more later, but I think American male readers especially desire strongly the opposite of Heine’s market characterization from his day. We are a non-fiction consumer, desirous of “just the facts,” with little to no patience for the flights and inventions of a poet or fiction writer.
Above, though, I think we’ve found our first hint of a sore source between the competing parties. Too much Heine!