[March 22, 2013, I’ll be on a panel at the Missouri Conference on History in Cape Girardeau put on by the State Historical Society of Missouri. A double honor, in that all through graduate school and my stint at University of Arkansas Press I was a subscriber and devoted reader of the Missouri Historical Review, the society’s journal of record, and was much informed by that reading. Second, I’m really honored to be on a panel with fellow novelist Steve Wiegenstein and writer Jim Erwin. It’s my understanding that this panel will be a Q&A format, so likely my thinking on “The Uses, Misuses, and Boundaries of History in Fiction about Missouri’s Civil War” will never be expressed in one utterance like this below. But I’ll put it all down here not because I think it’s so golden and worthy, but so that I might remember what I think I know.]
What I say here I would never pass off as advice to other writers or vainly insist as THE one way, THE one set of rules to write fiction set in the past or set in a time before the writer was alive. All works that hope to be considered literary fiction (hereafter “attempted literary fiction”) operate under only two rules, and consubstantially two purposes: 1) entertainment; and 2) empathy. There are no other universal rules and really no other rules particular to any piece of attempted literary fiction save those dictated by the requirement to finish the writing of the work. Each short story, novella, or novel, each seamless dream of fiction dictates its own ground rules from its first sentence onward, in ways similar to Maurice Halbwachs lovely sayings about memory: “The dream is based only upon itself, whereas our recollections depend on those of all our fellows, and on the great frameworks of the memory of society.”
Aside from science fiction, and maybe some very annoying fictions written in second person, present tense (“You pick up the hammer. You mash your thumb with it.”) fiction is all set in the past. Think about it. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. What’s it about? Events in 1922. Was F. Scott Fitzgerald writing historical fiction, then? Of a sort, yes. As E.L. Doctorow said, all fiction is historical. It is all about the human heart in conflict with forces some time ago.
And, I have no advice or much feeling for any kind of fiction outside literary fiction. And by that I mean the novelists and fiction writers that I hold dear on my shelf and defend—Fielding, Sterne, Chekhov, Babel, Tolstoy, Hardy, Crane, Twain, Fitzgerald, Joseph Roth, Evan S. Connell, Donald Harington, Daniel Woodrell, and the like. When I say attempted literary fiction is what I write, I mean that my fiction is written because I read and reread those novelists and was compelled by the forms and choices of these great predecessors. But I am not the one to declare something I write “literature.” That would be ridiculous. That declaration happens only if, when I am dead, people are still reading and talking about what I have written, and even more important writing something because of it. So for now, the best I can claim is attempted literary fiction.
I did find a reading of the old Marxist critic Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel very useful to my understanding of what I had done and what I had not done in Morkan’s Quarry and what I am still doing in the fictions in Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Lukács, writing about what he considers the first “historical novelist” Sir Walter Scott, claims that Scott’s great innovation was to write not about the mighty, epic men of history, but instead about the middling men to whom great sweeps of history happen, ideal reader’s ambassadors in that these protagonists may be pulled to all sides of a historical conflict.
There is, especially in America and Great Britain, a bestselling kind of historical fiction, one that is almost always centered upon what Lukács would call “the world historical figure,” be it protagonists such as King Arthur, or Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee. This is The Epic Historical Novel, a novel in which all main characters are outsized, Achilles-scale, major players of history. Most often there is no reader’s ambassador here, no single protagonist to focus upon, as there would be in say Scott’s Waverley or Heart of Midlothian. The narrative vision in the Epic Historical Novel can range from the sweep of continents to the creases beside Robert E. Lee’s tired eyes. Historical accuracy in this kind of fiction is lifeblood: the course of the narrative follows history closely, and the fiction’s purpose is frequently to give some feeling and emotional flicker to the actions of the great makers of history while at the same time affirming legend held dear in a people’s collective memory, the great frameworks of the memory of society. Especially for an American market that hungers for nonfiction learning and strongly prefers prose to poetry, these creations seem to me rather like attempts at national epics. See Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels or the ongoing, entertaining, and worthy franchise now run by his son, Jeffrey.
I find some of these novels rousing and enjoyable, but I am too dumb and too cynical and jaded about power and its usury of nobodies like me to find any empathy in these books. More important, I am brought no closer to an understanding of another human soul in these books. And so, while often superbly written and immaculately constructed, these are not books I could ever emulate, certainly being too stupid to know how, and even more certainly not caring about what I was doing long enough to keep writing if an epic historical or military historical novel were the project.
Maybe I can open up, unpack if you will what I mean about middling characters and empathy, and get us a little closer to what I mean about fiction’s responsibility to history, if there even is such an encumbrance as that dictated outside the particular rules of the piece during its creation. Let’s look at two paintings. Both of these were painted within the same historical period and both of them involve the world historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte.
First is a painting by a painter much picked upon, Jacques Louis David. This is “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” one of many extraordinary paintings David created of and for his Emperor. Now some of us know the backstory—young Napoleon did not cross the Alps on a white charger, but upon a steed more like one of the artillery ponies or mules laboring in the background. So in history Napoleon crossed the Alps much as Balaam rode in the Bible, upon his ass. But even this purposeful inaccuracy of David’s is helpful to my metaphor of what the epic historical novel tends to do. Through an amassing of seemingly and astutely accurate details, and through the focus upon the world historical figure, the artist may affirm and in this case shape the great framework of the memory of society.
But we, the viewer, we don’t get anywhere near the human heart of another. I am roused by this painting, delighted by its blaring majesty, its density of detail and its technique. But is it a work of art involving the human heart in conflict? I see only purpose here, the drive to conquer, subjugate, and rule. And I see the creation of the cult of the great man. I see an enthralling painting and the mighty brushstrokes along the great frameworks of the memory of a society, a memory, a framework busy justifying mastery under one ruling individual, and an artful attempt at justifying an epic release of destruction and bloodshed in his name.
Second is a painting that along with works of Gustav Courbet I count among the greatest works of art ever created. This is Goya’s “The Third of May 1808.” This scene transpires because of the epic, great man in the previous painting. In this painting, Spanish Bonapartists are busy demonstrating the greatness of Napoleon. Vive le Emperor, baby. But who are these people? Spaniards, likely most all of them Spaniards. Catholics some of them. Spanish Catholic subjects of the once King of Spain. But neither they nor the soldiers doing the killing are men of renown. These are monks and peasants. Middling commoners. My kind of people. Surely the historical details here are more or less accurate. Nothing I see pulls me out of the seamless dream now turned nightmare.
But the history and its details are hardly what’s important. This painting still changes people’s lives, changes how they see, and they don’t need to know anything, really, about the history of this moment to experience that jolting, synaptic circuit of shared recognition and empathy with someone totally unlike themselves. Look at the man in Baptismal white, the expression, the passive, Saintly, Christ-like defiance. But wait … Goya will turn even that great narrative on its end. Based on the already dead around him, this looks to be no renowned martyrdom coming for him. He is no hero. He is about to become an anonymous carcass among the forgotten. These are the deeds done outside of town, in the dark, done by shameful men who cannot face the viewer. This is Goya painter of another great commoner’s painting “The Forge.” When before Goya did a line of warriors ever hide their faces in a painting? When before Goya did warriors and heroes operate at night, and operate so expertly and purposefully in the dark that they carry a terrible lantern like the one here that gives this ghastly blaring yellow of cowardice to the grim action in the painting?
Now did this exact scene happen? We don’t know. Who are these Bonapartists, these murderous soldiers? Significantly, we don’t know. But we do know men such as the monk, or the man in white, or the tensed little mason there with his fist raised. Or the poor deceased men. And some of us may know men or may have been men operating under shameful orders and doing the terrible work of the mighty, epic men of history. There in “The Third of May” is the human heart facing unforgettable horror and conflict. This painting to me says more about what it would really be like to live during the time of Napoleon than David’s work, or Napoleon’s own book The Corsican or any of the many military historical novels or epic historical novels that are still published each year about the Napoleonic wars.
So what is literary fiction’s responsibility to history? That depends entirely upon the individual work of fiction underway, and whether or not the author set out to create an attempted work of literature, a dream that depends only upon itself, or instead an act of epic historical fiction, an expansion upon and an affirmation of the great frameworks of collective memory within a society.
Despite many attempts, no art historian has been able to place and corroborate Goya’s witness or even near presence to events outside Madrid like what is depicted here, one execution among the many French reprisals after Madrid rose up in rebellion on May 2. And yet, without that witness, without any fanatically meticulous attention to historical “accuracy,” Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes transformed a known moment in his people’s history into a universal and eternally moving encounter with the human soul of others not like us but made corporeally, indelibly kin and accessible to us through great art.
I see no reason for my own fictions, which are attempted literary fictions, to strive to operate in any other way. The dream depends only upon itself.
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