Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

Who would give up the Iliad for the “real” historical record?

Today it is only children who believe that stories, by the fact of their being told, are true. Children and fundamentalists. And that is the measure of the 2,000-year decline in the story’s authority.


The nineteenth century indicates more clearly than the Elizabethan Age the mortal writer’s longing to have the story retain its status as godlike revelation. Tolstoy’s Napoleon marches inside a volume of some 1,300 pages. He is not the only historically verifiable character. There is also General Kutuzov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, Tsar Alexander, Count Rostopchin, the military governor of Moscow, and so on. They are presented as if of no different protoplasm than Tolstoy’s families of fictional characters. This fusion of fact and fiction exists in a panoramic world, as in Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma or Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling tale, The Three Musketeers, in which the historical Cardinal Richelieu figures, and none too favorably.

In nineteenth-century America, the historical audacity of novelists tends to be a step behind. Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, his novel of the actual Transcendentalist experiment of Brook Farm, draws an exacting portrait of the proto-feminist Margaret Fuller but gives her a different name. So you have the circumspection, or sly smile, of the roman à clef. But audacity in a different form, audacity as a working principle, is to be found in Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a remarkable you-are-there tale by a writer who was never there. And the most outlandish project of all is, of course, Melville’s Moby Dick, wherein the ruling god-beast of an indifferent universe is composed from the grubby materials of the commercial whaling trade.

Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. A Bronze-Ager at heart, he lives by the total discourse that antedates the special vocabularies of modern intelligence.

A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power—a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn’t write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” describes this empowerment as “an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life … and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is “to guess the unseen from the seen.”

This gift of the practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history.


For the last thirty years or so novelists and playwrights have been crossing into the historical realm in great numbers. (Just why we must leave to the literary scholars. But the decades previous had seen a kind of roping off of fiction while the media, the social sciences, and journalism had moved in on its territory.) Lincoln look-alikes have appeared in several recent novels; such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy M. Cohn have turned up with speaking roles; and novels have even been written about writers—Virginia Woolf, and James himself, for example—which, I suppose, is poetic justice.

Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which a reader of fiction who finds, in a novel, a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.

That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be. When and if the Richard III Society makes its case, there will be two Richards III, neither one interfering with the other. If there is not one Lincoln novel but dozens, the multiplicity of renderings will find the image not flat on the canvas but closer to a three-dimensional hologram.

Historic personages may be gossiped about in bars or seriously portrayed in prose compositions, but in any case they are, inevitably, sacrifices to the imaginative life of nations.


Where do the bona fide historians stand in all of this? Though the scholars of the American Historical Association probably think of the novelist who uses historical materials as a kind of undocumented worker slinking over the border at night, writers of narrative have a natural affiliation, whatever their calling.

The late French structuralist critic Roland Barthes, in an essay entitled “Historical Discourse,” concludes that the important stylistic trope of narrative history, namely the objective voice, “turns out to be a particular form of fiction.” Insofar as any piece of writing has a voice, the impersonal, objective voice of the narrative historian is his stock-in-trade. The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.

But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.

Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

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