The American Historical Novel
A VERY essential preliminary to the consideration of the American historical novel, in the light of either the achievements of the past or the possibilities of the future, must be a decision as to exactly what components go to constitute historical fiction. Though the term is one of common use, and in such use seems sufficiently definite, analysis reveals that it is a very loosely applied expression, and that a satisfactory definition is by no means a simple matter.
Superficially it is apparent that an historical novel is one which grafts upon a story actual incidents or persons well enough known to be recognized as historical elements. But this is inadequate as a line of demarcation, for it is necessarily based wholly on the reader’s knowledge of history and thus cannot be accepted as a test, since it becomes solely a matter of personal view. An old story runs that a turfman bought a Life of Petrarch, conceiving it to be a record of his favorite race-horse, and was loud in his complaints when, as he phrased it, the book proved to be “ all about a bloomin’ poet.” Clearly to this gentleman a novel which introduces Petrarch would not inherently be one founded on history. Is Stevenson’s Treasure Island historical, in that we are somewhat concerned in the doings of Blackbeard and Flint, pirates of much fame in their own day ? Is Melville’s Israel Potter historical, in that it is elaborated from the old prisoner’s pamphlet autobiography which he himself hawked about the country ? Yet to most novel-readers Flint and Potter are as absolutely fictitious characters as any in romance. Thus an attempt to use the knowledge of the reader as a test is entirely inadequate.
Nor is the question of accuracy any more serviceable, for the most correct historical novels fall far short of what can be called historical truth, and any separation educed by this test becomes admittedly one merely of degree and, therefore, so wanting in exactness as to be wholly inapplicable for classification. The Pretender never came in disguise to England, as Thackeray by his Henry Esmond has made so many people believe, and the colonial laws of Massachusetts decreed a totally different story from that Hawthorne tells in The Scarlet Letter.
Granting that we must include all stories involving actual events or characters, even though no attempt is made to be historically correct, we still have not established a satisfactory limit, for another range of books at once claim inclusion. To most of its many thousand readers, Mrs. Foster’s famous old story of The Coquette, or the History of Eliza Wharton, is simply a piece of imagination, ranking with Clarissa and Evelina, but to the antiquarian the tale told by the letters of Eliza Wharton and Major Sanford is in truth the narrative of the intrigue of Sarah Whitman and Pierrepont Edwards. Whether Mrs. Rowson’s Charlotte Temple was really Charlotte Stanley, or her betrayer. Colonel Montreville, the Colonel Montresor whom students of Revolutionary history know as one of the engineers of the British army, is still a matter of dispute. When the truth of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was challenged, she published in a volume her authorities, thus revealing the strong historical basis the book had. The giving of aliases to actual individuals in putting them into novels is certainly but a piece of fictional license akin to the twisting of events, and can scarcely exclude the books in which such liberties are taken from being fairly judged historical.
Still more difficult of classification is what may be termed the Novel of Manners, or, perhaps, more descriptively, the Novel of an Epoch. A book of this class, though dealing with neither historical incidents nor real people, may yet convey a far truer picture of the time than the most elaborate stories of the beforementioned kinds. An atmosphere can be as historical as an occurrence, and a created character can transmit a truer sense of a generation than the most labored biography of some actual person. It is scarcely possible to obtain a more vivid idea of the eighteenth-century life and people than is to be found in Fielding’s Tom Jones, and in this sense it is the best of historical fiction. In the three volumes of the Littlepage MSS. Cooper took as his central theme the history of the great land grants of New York ; Satanstoe relates the motives of state which induced the granting of the patents, the means taken to secure them, and the struggle with the Indians for their possession ; The Chainbearer carries the history one point further by showing the method of settling these land grants, and tells of the struggle for possession between the owner and the squatters ; and finally, the third of the series, The Redskins, deals with the fierce “ antirent " war which broke out on the same estates some fifty years later. It is apparent, therefore, that these three books are historical novels. In fact, however, they are not more truly historical than the early works of Bret Harte, and it is a safe assertion to make that if the day ever comes when his stories of California are no longer held to be the classics of the West, they will still be read as pictures of the up-building of the Sierra States, or as historical novels.
It appears doubly defective to limit the historical novel to works describing occurrences that have passed out of the realm of contemporaneity into that of history, for it is obvious that every decade and every century must serve to make the pictures less true to life. Possibly it will be urged that time is needed to gain the perspective requisite for historical treatment ; that is, to be able to write with breadth of view and without party feeling. This is to overlook a fact long since recognized in the writing of true history : that partisan feeling is a matter not of a generation, but of an individual ; it is as rare to find history written without a bias as it is to find an unbiased man. In other words, partisanship is a matter of personality, and it is as easy for a fair - minded writer to treat of contemporary events without feeling as of those of a hundred years ago. Furthermore, the introduction of party feeling, or of bias, tends rather to make a novel truer to life than if it is written from a broader standpoint. In reading Westward Ho ! few can fail to be irritated at its intense and narrowminded anti - Romanism, yet no atmosphere could be truer from the English standpoint of the period of the Spanish Armada. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was almost a party platform, and therefore is absolute truth from one point of view. Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand at the time of its publication could be read as a novel or as a contemporary essay on reconstruction problems in the South, and eventually it should unquestionably rank well up in historical fiction. Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn was printed almost immediately after the events described, but that does not prevent its being the best description, in an historical sense, of the Philadelphia pestilence of 1793.
Nor is party feeling avoided by lapse of years, tradition being as partisan as the men who transmit it. Save in one or two of Cooper’s novels, it would be well-nigh impossible to find a romance dealing with Revolutionary history which does not make the Whig of that war the patriot, and the Tory the disloyal and, usually, evil-acting man. Yet the student of history knows that the loyalists, if a minority, were largely composed of the gentry and educated classes of the country ; that they were the equivalent of what to-day are termed the “ better element,” and were superior in character to many of the men who opposed them. No American novelist has ventured to write of John Hancock and Jonathan Trumbull as men suspected of smuggling, or of Samuel Adams as a public man who sought, as other officials have done more recently, to vindicate himself from the charge of defalcation by an appeal to the ballots of the masses. Would any American author, striving to write popular fiction, dare to picture one signer of the Declaration as selling the secrets of his country to the French Ministry for a paltry pension, or another taking advantage of information of the need of the Continental cause for wheat to corner the supply at once so far as he was able ? In one case alone have our writers dared to draw an approximately faithful portrait of a man who came to the front in early Revolutionary days, to describe the bounty-jumper, deserter, smuggler, and drunkard, who, nevertheless, rose to high honor in the American cause, and the reason for this exception is explained when the name of the man is given as Benedict Arnold.
This ability to see only one side of the Revolution is the more extraordinary since, in another respect, the American people, and the translators of their thought, have shown for the most part a very unusual fairness, and this distinction is in itself proof of the main point contended for : that distance or lapse of time has nothing to do with fairness of view. Already we have a material amount of romance dealing with the civil war period, with scarcely an example that does not take a broad and generous view of both sides, while, as already noted, a fair-minded Revolutionary novel is almost an unknown quantity. In fact, it could be claimed without much exaggeration that Thomas Nelson Page’s Meh Lady contains more that is irenic than any ten novels treating of the Revolution. This distinction merely is proof, it will be said, of the inherent alienage towards Great Britain, and of the inherent nationalism of the American people ; but the rancors of 1783 were little more bitter than the rancors of 1865, and that the first should find continuous expression in historical fiction and the other scarcely at all, though they are equally valuable from the novelist’s point of view, illustrates the influence of popular view on the writers, and shows how absolutely reflective they are of the opinions and prejudices of their own generation. Still more it shows how little lapse of time goes to make the historical novel, and therefore how absurd it is to use the most obvious line of demarcation as an adequate limit.
No less absurd, however, would be the inclusion of all stories of contemporary life, for novels of manners do not intrinsically contain the faintest historical suggestion. A host of popular novelists of to-day are drawing for us the life of New York or Boston without embodying in their work the coloring which, in the future, might give their romances the quality of interest that we find in some of the books already mentioned. Yet these contemporary writers intend to convey as true a picture of the particular life they are delineating as did Hannah Foster, Charles Brockden Brown, or Bret Harte. It would be easy to pick out from the novels of the last decade one hundred dealing with the every-day life of New Yorkers, most of them written by indwellers of that city of considerable literary reputation, but it would be a bold prophet who should venture to predict for one of these books that it would be read fifty or one hundred years hence for its description of New York life and people.
Recognition of these facts must force the conclusion that a novel is historical or unhistorical because it embodies or does not embody the real feelings and tendencies of the age or generation it attempts to depict, and in no sense because the events it records have happened or the people it describes have lived. That is, the events and characters must be typical, not exceptional, to give it the atmosphere which, to another generation, shall make it seem more than a mere created fancy ; and just because it is so much more difficult to draw a type than a freak, and because the exception appeals to the literary mind so much more than the rule, we have in every decade a great mass of romance nominally describing the life of the period, which, if read a few years later, is so untrue to the senses as really to seem caricature rather than true drawing.
Viewing the historical novel from this standpoint, it is obvious that two elements go to constitute it : First, that it must reflect a point of view either of a contemporary party, or else of a succeeding generation, upon some subject which has at one time been a matter of controversy, if not of conflict. Second, that some one or more characters in the novel must be true expressions of the period with which the book deals, or must approximate to contemporary belief of what the people of that period were like. In both these senses the inaccuracy of treatment which probably results does not flow from the writer, but rather from the reader. This possibly explains what at first thought seems a curious fact in historical fiction. With hardly an exception, true historians have failed signally when they came to write historical novels. In America, John Lothrop Motley, Edward Eggleston, W. Gilmore Simms, and J. Esten Cooke, all of whom have won success in historical writing, have essayed to turn their knowledge to use in historical fiction ; yet it is to be questioned if the average reader of to-day has ever heard of Merry Mount, Montezuma, or The Virginian Comedians ; and if the works of Mr. Simms have somewhat more repute, it is scarcely because of their greater interest, but because of their greater number. Dr. Eggleston has, notwithstanding, quite unconsciously given us in The Hoosier Schoolmaster a novel which in its descriptions of mid-western life deserves in every sense a place as an historical novel, and this in itself is proof that the historian is not fundamentally incapable of writing historical fiction.
All this tends to show that the great historical novel in the past has not been notable because of its use of historical events and characters, but because of its use of an historical atmosphere, such as Scott created in his Ivanhoe and Thackeray in his Esmond. It is an actual fact that Queen Anne’s time stands out in the latter book with far more clearness than can be obtained from any history of the same period, and a similar assertion can be made almost as strongly of the former. In neither case, however, is it due to the introduction of real characters, and the incidents in both books are notoriously unhistorical. In Ivanhoe, by the use of certain elemental moods of mind, as by the struggle between Norman and Saxon, by the universal attitude towards the Jew, by outlaw and Templar, the big feelings of the time of Richard I. stand out clearly ; and the book has satisfied the imagination of millions of readers. So in Esmond wae have the contest between the Jacobite and the Georgian, with its background of religious conflict, but in place of the tourney and the battlement as the means to an end, we have the intrigue and plotting which belong to the time of Marlborough and Bolingbroke. Briefly, in each case the atmosphere of the book is correct, falsify or pervert history as it may, and, therefore, as already said, each satisfies the imagination of the reader. For a like reason The Scarlet Letter and The Deerslayer have done the same. The reader breathes Puritanism throughout the first. It is not alone the descriptions of Massachusetts life that give the story this wonderful quality. Dimmesdale’s conscience and the intellectual cruelty of his tormentor are truer historically than what in the book purports to be reconstructed from documentary sources. The Deerslayer is a description of an isolated outpost struggle between white and red — a series of adventures that Cooper might have placed at almost any date, and in almost any spot in this country. Yet the world over it has been accepted as the classic of the wonderful two hundred and fifty years’ struggle between two races for the possession of a continent.
There can be little question that the historical novel has two advantages which well-nigh make it preëminent in interest. Foremost of these is the atmosphere of truth which is conveyed to the mind of the reader by the mention of real persons and places and events. This is equivalent to proving that a part of the book is based on fact, and, admitting this as so, most people fail to make the slightest distinction, but assume that all that is told them is of the same credibility. In other words, the whole story is made more reasonable, that is, more believable, to people, and therefore more interesting. For in however intellectual an attitude a romance is read, its primary enjoyment is due to how far the reader is made to accept, the tale as something that has happened or might have happened.
The secondary advantage is but a development of this first one. As most people like or dislike a book because of what is termed its “ convincingness,” so a large number of readers seek to combine with their fiction a certain amount of instruction ; and this has made the novel in our day a favorite means of education in an historical sense : a tale which would not be read as a story, and which would be laughed out of court as a history, may by the combination of the two obtain a distinct success, much as an inferior cordial and inferior spirits by blending can be made to pass for a fair brew of punch.
The chief advantage already dwelt upon involves none the less two distinct difficulties which seriously handicap historical fiction. The lesser of these is the rigidity of the events and conditions. It will, perhaps, be answered that the most glaring inaccuracies and twistings have been condoned. This cannot be denied, but it can be answered that anything is pardoned in a book with merits positive enough to balance its defects, and that thousands of novels with good in them, which have failed and been forgotten, fully offset the few which have succeeded in spite of their faults. On the contrary, even the most heedless and uninformed writer who attempts to use the materials of actual history must at once become conscious of the enormous hampering of pen freedom, though incidents and character are seemingly twisted at the will of the writer. The knowledge that he is falsifying facts gives to his work a resulting want of verisimilitude in the treatment that materially injures the book. What is more, the effect on the reader who detects this untruthfulness is a most important if intangible quantity. The writer can remember the little shock, and the resulting changed attitude of his own mood towards a novel treating of Shakespeare’s life, upon coming to the statement of the number of guineas paid the dramatist for a play, simply because he happened to know that the guinea was the coinage of the East India Company, and was not in use till Shakespeare had been many years in his grave. So, too, the best American historical novel of English writing excited the utmost merriment among its critics by a mere passing allusion to maple-sugar making in October. The greatest license is allowed the poet as compared to the novelist, but it is to be questioned if an American ever read Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming without a laugh over the “ happy shepherd swain ” who danced on the frontier “ with timbrels ” and “ lovely maidens prankt with floweret new,” while the “ flamingo disported like a meteor on the lakes.” Just because the novel purports to be historical, such slips are noted with far closer attention, and to avoid them is a task of great difficulty.
The second difficulty, and one is tempted to say the inherent defect, is the delineation of character — a difficulty so strongly marked that it extends not merely to the historical characters embodied, but often as well to the imaginative ones. Few who have written fiction have escaped the accusation of taking their characters from living models, for the lay reader apparently never realizes how much more easy it is for the author to imagine a type than to copy it. In the one case the plot practically produces the character : that is, your hero or heroine, your good man or your bad man, must, to make your story, speak or be silent at such a point ; must make a sacrifice here, or draw back from one there. If your plot is properly made, if there are enough “ things to be done,” or “ action,” to use the playwright’s technical expression, your character is really created ; and the only work left for the writer is to fill in the minor details so that the character shall seem a consistent whole. The task is quite different, however, when an attempt is made to copy from life. Knowledge of any one person is at best superficial, and in conventional life is limited to little more than an impression of drawing-room conduct, or what might be properly termed the dress-parade moments of life. To meet a woman at half a dozen teas, to spend an hour in her opera-box, and to sit on her right hand at a dinner or two, is very far from knowing what her behavior would be in the exceptional moments of life, which is the concern of romance. Inevitably an attempt to copy from life must be but little better than trying to sketch from a model who is differently posed from the attitude you are endeavoring to draw, and it must necessarily produce a sense of unreality in the character. Nor is it an answer to say that as no living person is wholly consistent, if an action of an imaginary man or woman seems uncharacteristic it is only the truer to life. This is to lose sight of a law as fixed as that of perspective in painting. A character in a novel, as in a play, is a failure unless there is in it a distinct quality of fatalism. Your audience in each ease must be absolutely prepared for the action taken in the crisis or climax. The situation may be original, there may be entire surprise ; but the action of the character in that situation must be as definite and as expected, or, in other words, as reasonable (in accordance with the known qualities of the person) as the movement of pawns in a well-analyzed chess opening.
It will easily be conceived, then, with what difficulty an historical personage is transferred to the pages of a novel. The character is definite while the conditions are new, and unless the events are selected to suit the man, that is, unless the plot is built from the character, instead of the character being evolved from the plot, the result is almost hopelessly artificial. As an example, take the idea of Washington as presented in The Virginians. How shadowy the drawing is, how absolutely weak the personality, as compared with those of George and Harry Warrington ! Thackeray had studied the conventional historical portrait of the man and then transferred it as well as could be to new surroundings. But just because the man was so well known, the author was all the more hampered in his treatment of him, and painstakingly as he sought to vivify him, the portrait is at once colorless through its attempted accuracy, yet defective in its truth. Who in reading of the prim, formal, sensible man of twenty-six in the novel could infer from his reading the reality ? — the gay young officer who was over-fond of “ fashionable ” clothes ; who held a good cue at billiards ; who passed whole days winning or losing money at cards ; who loved the theatre and the cock-pit ; who could brew bowls of arrack punch, and do his share in drinking them ; who could dance for three hours without once resting ; and who fell in and out of love so fiercely and so easily. Nor is this artificiality due to a transatlantic point of view of our greatest American. The portrait of Washington as given by Cooper in The Spy is equally absurd, though drawn by an American writer who could have talked with many who knew Washington personally. In each case the attempt is made to give us, not Major Washington of the Virginia regiment, or General Washington of the Continental army, but the sobered and aged President Washington of tradition.
These restrictions and limitations have produced their natural result, for in all American historical fiction there cannot be found a celebrated character who was as well a real character. The assertion might, indeed, be extended to English literature, for if Scott’s Louis XI. or Shakespeare’s innumerable characters are cited, it can be said that these characters are so absolutely the creation of the writers that they fall really within the imaginative rather than the historical class, and to this day the historian finds one of his distinct difficulties to be the existence of preconceived ideas of many historical characters, due solely to the novelist and dramatist. If this goes to prove that there has been no great historical character in fiction, it does not imply that historical fiction has not given us its full share of people who have passed into literature as types.
American historical fiction has done even more, for it has created for us our idea concerning two great races which, it is probable, will remain through all time. The character of the black as delineated in Uncle Tom and in Topsy for some reason satisfies the imagination, and however much one may know and see of the negro in the South to counteract this view, it remains the one to which the mind recurs in thinking of the negro in the abstract. Even more remarkable is the second type, created for us by one man. To Cooper alone is due the accepted idea of the American Indian, and the application of the adjective “ noble ” to his race. The historian, or even the reader, who has sifted the truth of the red man as told in the early Jesuit Relations and the writings of such voyagers and explorers as Carver, Mackenzie, Lewis and Clark, and Schoolcraft, knows that the Indian ranks low in the scale of man ; that he was always so much inferior to the white in intelligence and vigor that the frontiersman excelled him in woodcraft and physical endurance ; that he was something of a coward ; and that he is practically incapable of romance, or even of kindness, toward a woman. None the less, the Indian Cooper created, typified in Chingachgook and Uncas, will probably remain for all time the model from which future draughtsmen will work. But the historical novel of the past has done more than this for American literature. It has given us in Cooper and Hawthorne our two most famous novelists ; and in the best of their work, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur, we have what to this day are the most positive successes of American fiction.
What a blending of history and romance may do as to the future it is idle to attempt to prophesy. At the present moment there seems a revival of interest in American history, and the novelist has been quickly responsive to it. In the resulting literature, however, we find as yet the same defects that appear in much, one is tempted to say all, of our contemporary fiction. That is, an entire disregard of the big elements of American life and an over-accentuation of the untypical. In a general survey of our fiction, one is struck with its almost universal silence on all that has given us distinct nationality. Who in reading American fiction has ever brought away a sense of real glory in his own country ? We are told that our people are hopelessly occupied in moneymaking, and that our politics are shamefully corrupt. Yet the joint product of these forces has won, or is winning, equality of man, religious liberty, the right of asylum, freedom of the ocean, arbitration of international disputes, and universal education ; and this, too, while these people were fighting a threefold struggle with man, beast, and nature across a vast continent.
Disregarding all this, the novelist has turned to the petty in American life. With the most homogeneous people in both thought and language in the world, American literature is overburdened with dialect stories ; with no true class distinctions, and with an essential resemblance in American life from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the novel of locality has been accepted as typical and not exceptional ; with, a people less absorbed in and less influenced by so-called society than any other great nation, we are almost submerged with what may be styled the Afternoon Tea Novel. It may be good fictional material, for human nature should be after all the first consideration of the novelist, but whales are not caught in pails, nor are the great purposes and passions of mankind usually to be found in the neighborhood of “ the cups that cheer but not inebriate.” And so our novelists may be likened to the early miners of gold, who, overlooking the vast mountain lodes of precious metal, industriously sifted the river-bed for the little shining particles that had been washed down from the former. American history and American life have their rich lodes of gold-bearing quartz ; and when our people produce as good literary workers as mechanical engineers, when the best of our imagination turns from the practical to the ideal, there will be no lack of an American fiction.
Paul Leicester Ford.