Taking the Historical Novel Seriously

by Samuel Hux (September 2018)


Interior with a Book, Richard Diebenkorn, 1959



Was Charlie Schuyler really Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son? No . . . I mean was “the obscure novelist Charles Burdett”?—since Gore Vidal tells us in his afterword to Burr: A Novel (1973) that his narrator Schuyler was “based roughly on Burdett.” Or, rather, were there rumors that Burdett was Burr’s offspring? I don’t think this inquiry is as consequential as “Was there really a Kunta Kinte?” from Alex Haley’s Roots, published near the same time, 1976. No useful, or misleading, public myth hangs upon it; so I beg a certain indulgence in asking this apparently pointless question. I do philosophy rather than formal history, and I’m not going to “look it up.”  (So little the formal historian am I that it was not historical curiosity that drove me to return to Vidal’s novel now several decades later, but rather that I had always enjoyed Vidal’s wit while rejecting his politics and recently came upon his dismissal of a novelist whose books I’ve never been able to finish: “The dreariest three words in the English language are ‘Joyce Carol Oates.’” So, back I came to Gore Vidal’s best novel.) I assume, of course, that the connection is pure fiction; but I reread the book recently and I cannot swear to what I’ll assume a few years from now, about the same time that Kunta Kinte will have lodged in my memory as an historical predecessor of Nat Turner who might have made it into open insurrection but for an amputation.


Inane as the question may seem, maybe, it’s the sort that insinuates itself into a reader’s mind—although it’s seldom asked aloud because the reader “knows better”: fact is one thing, fiction something else. And it’s the kind of question, so obviously naïve, that the historical novelist tries to avoid, assuring the reader that although he’s tried to remain faithful to the spirit of the depicted times, he has sometimes made unhistorical connections for the sake of narrative consistency and interest, often confiding in obligatory preface, as William Styron did before The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), that he’s produced “a work that is less an ‘historical novel’ in conventional terms than a meditation on history.” The historical novel has long been something of an embarrassment to the conventionally educated intellect, the kind of book which, if it’s good, must really be something else: disguised commentary on the present, speculative essay-in-fiction-form on the nature of history, and so on. Otherwise . . . not quite fit subject for serious critical attention. An odd prejudice when you think of it, given the fact of, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace!


Nor quite an acceptable diversion, as the mystery novel, for instance, is for many intellectuals. There may be those who swear by Georges Bernanos or whoever as casual moralist or whatever, but most know and accept that they are relaxing with a kind of mental stylishness. I am one who never became addicted to mysteries and who shook for a time the habit of the historical novel. The first reading I can remember, school work aside, was juvenile history: Lincoln splitting rails and Patrick Henry declaiming. Then, because an aunt was member of a book club and adored “old-timey” things, I graduated to historical novels—drums and Mohawks, nubile slaves on Caribbean islands, fortresses to be scaled, housing ladies lusting for the innocent adventurer, and yummy etceteras. But, I learned when I entered college that in the historical novel which did not transcend its poor nature Important Things were being messed about with—and that was bad for you since the person who does not understand the past as it was is doomed to repeat it. And, if you were not so impressionable as to allow your sense of where we came from to be distorted, reading such popularizations was a waste of time anyway: there were no redeeming intellectual values as in the whodunit, which was, after all, good mental exercise, like mathematics. If, in the whodunit, unlikely methods of detection were employed, what was lost?—who the hell cared about the police force anyway, or the self-employed Pinkertons? History was quite another thing altogether: one might be crippled for life if he thought an American mistress of a French planter was behind, to some small degree, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution in Haiti.


I think the attitude of consciously-educated people toward HISTORY is entirely too reverential. Historical investigation is a kind of science of human events, we assume: discover what events occurred and we know what happened. (I ascribe that reverence to a generation now of, approaching, or past middle age; a younger generation has—no credit to itself—no such attitude toward history, rarely having allowed itself to hear of it.) But, we are more priestly than the priests. For historians of some mental accomplishment and philosophical sophistication know there is a frailty at the heart of the historical enterprise. “Frailty”—the word was used by the great English historian R.W. Southern, author of The Making of the Middle Ages, more than half a century ago.


[W]e seek simply to extend the vividness and variety of the areas of intelligibility in the past . . . We seek congruity between the various bits of experience; we seek congruity also with our own experience of the possible. It must not be beyond our powers to conceive that we might ourselves have thought or behaved thus under the pressures which our observations of the past have brought to light. There is no further certainty in history than this combination of coherence and intelligibility. And it must be confessed that in the end there is a frailty at the basis of history, a lack of logical robustness and systematic doctrine.


Coherence and intelligibility: a very modest prescription, and a difficult one, for the past one is to make coherent and intelligible is, by nature, problematic, in a sense existing only by virtue of the mind seeking coherence and intelligibility.


One knows he had a childhood, that his childhood once was; he knows that his childhood (itself, not its lasting effects) exists now only by virtue of his recollection, that that’s the only way his childhood now is.  Similarly, with events one didn’t actually experience or witness. Something happened long ago, sure. But, that something happened and the past are not quite the same. I don’t think there is a “past” which is separable from our thinking about “it” now. I don’t know how one can think about something which doesn’t really exist without one’s thinking about it and making a distinction, with certainty, between the something-in-itself and thoughts about it.


There’s nothing very original or striking about this generalization; it’s only put in a quirky way. We know, or ought to, that the past is part present creation (coherence and intelligibility), although we sometimes kid ourselves that we can tell which parts are which. The distinction is normally between events (the “facts”) and motives (the “suppositions”); but often enough to make that distinction juvenile we know more about why someone did something than we know about what precisely he did—just as one can often recall why one behaved in a general way several years ago without being able to recall the particulars of behavior in which easily recalled moods and feelings manifested themselves.


Unless one takes a superficial view of the past—that things just happened and that’s all there is to it!—it is obviously difficult to write history. I doubt that’s subject to quarrel. But—a problem: While we realize the difficulty in one part of the mind, we dispense with in another: we insist that we know what is “real” in written history and what is “supposition” or “necessary surmise” or “useful possibility” a minute after we have agreed that—epistemologically speaking, harrumph—such distinctions are often too facile for adult consideration. Once we have dispensed with that difficulty we were considering the moment before, we embrace an attitude whereby “suppositions” are to be held in check in “real” history, they being the soft side of the discipline when compared to the real stuff, the hard facts . . . while extremes of “supposition” are tolerated, so long as not taken too seriously, in the historical novel—an attitude revealing as much ignorance of the nature of historical fiction as of history.


We suppose that, when it does anything worth doing, the historical novel gives us some impressionistic insight beyond documented fact, so that we’re able to imagine possible-to-probable particularities within the scope of large events, within the impersonal patterns of salient historical change; we’re reminded thereby that there were people then who behaved like people instead of like “figures.” “So-and-So evinces a remarkable feeling for the style and intricacies of manner of the period,” we say; “his Such-and-Such is, in fact, a conceivable Such-and-Such, and his control of small events is a worthy reminder to the professional scholar of the virtues of the narrative art.” But more often: “So-and-So’s theme, ultimately, is not so much Such-and-Such as it is unchanging human nature. His book transcends the genre of the historical novel; it’s not really about back then but about today.” But, actually, both compliments are left-handed; they excuse the historical novel for not being, after all, “real” history, or excuse it for appearing to be a historical novel by suggesting it’s really something else, meditation on history, disguised commentary on the present, whatever.


Excluded from even so much critical seriousness as this is the “period-” or “costume-romance,” the story which is simply set in the past without that fact contributing much beyond antique speech, colorful dress, quaint manners, and such; we know the story could be set in exotic contemporary surroundings with some sartorial alterations. I don’t suggest we take such romances seriously, critically, but perhaps we should reconsider then our praise of a respectable historical fiction on the grounds that it’s not really about Then but about Today. It’s easier to take seriously some historical fiction of obvious, transcendent, literary merit—Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma; but that’s too easy, the serious consideration proving nothing beyond one’s good taste. A better measure: James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, and Sir Walter Scott’s.


Natty Bumppo or Ivanhoe occupy a space-between, conceived temporally, geographically, culturally, or all—a placed moment somewhat like one of those Gaps Between Past and Future that Hannah Arendt wrote about (great book!), when a past has run its course and a future is powerless yet to be born; between Paleface behind and Redskin ahead, between Saxon past and Norman ascendency. The space-between shifts, it contracts; for neither Paleface nor Norman is content to rest where he is and with what he has, and neither Redskin nor Saxon will willingly yield and relent. But, in any case, Time moves, across the calendar or past yesterday’s frontiers, and the fictional protagonist (Man!) must choose Who he is and Where he belongs. Such (pause) is History! But . . . one senses, I think, that the above is slightly ingenious. One wonders if the books will support, or need, such a critique, and suspects that the authors would have been surprised at the whole enterprise, never suspecting the critical urgency of it. Just the point. What’s being taken seriously is the critical exercise (schemes arranged, connections proudly made), not the historical novel itself.


To take the historical novel seriously one has to be, paradoxically, a good deal more naïve and somewhat more patient with the sort of question I characterized earlier as “inane.”


What’s at stake is “belief.” One is meant to believe history; even the historian who recognizes the “frailty” of the enterprise wants us to say of his reconstruction, “Yes, that’s the way it must have been.” But the historical novel?—things get more complicated. Is one meant, for instance, to believe that Nat Turner was compelled to insurrection by unresolved sexual complexities? Were we talking about a work of professional history the answer would be a qualified “yes,” providing it made his actions coherent and intelligible. What about Styron’s historical novel? We are meant to believe it, for the same reasons. But, in either case, we deal with a supposition about motive, not with the assertion that a particular physical event did or did not occur.


So—are we meant to believe that on a certain day in a certain tavern at a certain table Aaron Burr met with a young journalist and discussed an editorial proposition with a tone of voice and a quality of interest in the young man not absolutely consonant with a normal business deal? Well, no; we’re not meant to believe it, or probably not, or possibly not. But, in truth, the author’s intention at this point ceases to matter. Whether it’s history or historical fiction, there’s a reader as well as a writer, and I think the reader does believe. Or will in good time. And a recognition of this fact is the only way truly to take historical fiction seriously. I confess that I will seldom think of that minor figure of American social history, Evelyn Nesbit the pin-up queen, without thinking of Red Emma Goldman, and I’ll not think of the anarchist without recalling her as a practical nurse and a vigorous masseuse.


I refer here to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (two years after Vidal’s novel) to take note, by way of specific and demanding example, of some facts of reading. The very evident preposterousness of its propositions, when viewed coolly, serves as a test of the premises I’m trying to set forth.


Strolling in and out of Ragtime with greater or lesser involvement but on equal terms with the three fictional families—Anglo-Saxon middle-class, Jewish immigrant, African-American—are the historical figures: Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Harry K. Thaw (jealous murderer of architect Stanford White), Evelyn Nesbit (Thaw’s wife, White’s mistress and the most beautiful woman in the world), Admiral Peary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo fame, Booker T. Washington, John J. McGraw of the New York Giants, and Hitler’s vice-chancellor-to-be the young Franz von Papen—among others. As the historical figures enter the narrative, Doctorow takes outrageous liberties with historical fact and probability, surrounding the fictional realm with images of a world growing insane, silly, banal, and vicious. The Archduke congratulating Houdini on the invention of the airplane; Freud having to relieve himself and no public convenience available, he, Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, A.A. Brill, and Ernest Jones entering a dairy restaurant on Manhattan’s lower east side to “order sour cream and vegetables so that Freud can go the bathroom;” Thaw, in prison, shaking his dingus at Houdini, who’s escaping from a cell across the corridor (Thaw later makes a “miraculous” escape—as in fact he did); J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford discussing reincarnation, dividing the world between themselves, and founding “the most secret and exclusive club in America, The Pyramid, of which they were the only members. It endowed certain researches which persist to this day;” and so on—plausible improbabilities multiplying.


Ragtime is, with a comic vengeance, an historical novel. In the formulaic historical novel—whether Walter Scott or Kenneth Roberts—the major protagonists are pure fictions—Quentin Durward or Lydia Bailey—who move through a time and atmosphere we sense as an authentic reconstruction, observe or participate in historical events of significant moment, and sometimes meet, talk to, figures both we and the novelist know from history books; but the story is of the fictional characters, not of the history-book figures. Imagine a hypothetical novel in which a young fictional colonial adventurer serves with British troops in the Seven Years War. Distinguishing himself in battle through Yankee ingenuity he becomes a favorite of the commander, the historical Marquis of Granby, who keeps him at his side as improvisational tactical advisor the remainder of the campaign. On the eve of the battle of Minden, our hero hears Granby confide to a mysterious emissary, “Consider, sir. If we can succeed to effect this flanking movement tomorrow, it is not impossible that Frederick the Great should appreciate his allies doubly; his co-operation in the Canadian venture would not then be beyond conceivable expectation. Mark this well.” You know the sort of thing. We feel that something like this might have been said; and—I’m guessing royally here—we might find in some text that “previous to the victory at Minden, John Manners, Marquis of Granby, was interred for hours with an ambassador from William Pitt the Elder; historians can only guess at the particulars but assume their gravity.”


But . . . even if it’s “observed” by one of the fictional protagonists (Younger brother of the middle-class family) it’s a different order of things to have Emma Goldman disrobe Evelyn Nesbit and massage her flesh until Nesbit’s “pelvis rose free from the bed as if seeking something in the air” and until she “began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea,” inspiring Younger Brother to fall into the room from his closet hiding place, “his face twisted in a paroxysm of saintly mortification . . . clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about on the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” Wow! Different to have Morgan spending the night alone in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid waiting to see “small red birds with human heads” as a sign of his apostolic lineage from the Pharaohs; or previous to this journey to have Morgan closeted in his library with Ford, the older and younger capitalist chieftains sharing their assurances of immortality, Ford’s homespun vulgarity of mind grating against Morgan’s elegant philosophizing and Rosicrucian nonsense until Morgan concludes, “Mr. Ford . . . if my ideas can survive their attachment to you, they will have met their ultimate test.”


Until I know better I’ll assume, in public, we’re privy to confrontations, conversations, that never took place—liberties even broader than the several chronological rearrangements in the novel. So, what is the point? It is not enough to say, although true, that any true work of art enters one’s consciousness and subtly alters one’s view of human reality. For it’s not merely the case, as Doctorow clearly intends, that I’ll think from now on of Morgan and Ford as, metaphorically, would-be Pharaohs awaiting the main chance. Although Doctorow probably does not intend this, a part of me—defying my educated and sophisticated parts—will continue to “believe” that Morgan and Ford did huddle together on 36th and Madison over a Montrachet (Ford abstaining) with a mummified Seti the First resembling Ford in the next room. And, in time, when the sources of “information” become a little vague in my memory, the quotation marks will evaporate from about that word believe


There it is, but I do not think this foolish. I think there is something essentially and inescapably naïve about the human mind, and much of professional (or professorial) history is in consequence a futility. The educated intellect may not be so much embarrassed by historical fiction itself as it is by its own child-like vulnerability.


There are two major notions implicit in all this, and they’d best be sorted out; the first a matter of what the writer (“novelist” or “historian”) does, the second a matter of what the reader is able to do.


With a cool and privileged view of a previous time, the historian deals with an atmosphere assumed sufficiently documented, events assumed sufficiently documented, and suppositions. With the same privileged view, the historical novelist deals with an atmosphere assumed sufficiently documented, some events assumed sufficiently documented and some not, and suppositions. The difference is in degree.


The historian makes suppositions primarily about motive and possible connections between events we’re reasonably sure occurred, which often necessitates the positing of other events and motives which plausibly might have occurred in order to make the connections. Let’s pretend a moment: The King of Vitalia and the Duke of Wisteria attacked the county of Azania within four days of each other. A month before they both had passed through Ristofia on the way to their favorite spas. It’s a reasonable supposition, perhaps, that they met in Ristofia and conceived there the pincers movement on Azania, famous for its spas which the Count of Azania had reserved for himself alone.


The novelist, on the other hand, makes suppositions about motive and events which, with imagination stretched, could have occurred and might provide some atmospheric consistency surrounding events we “know” did. Let’s continue pretending:  Assume that while the Vitalian king and the Wisterian duke were in Ristofia that hot and fateful August they were approached by a dispossessed Azanian baron who had it in for the Azanian count, who had told the baron he’d have to bathe elsewhere than in Azania; the baron’s tragic story moves the king and the duke and might give us the atmosphere of the County of Azania which we have suspected was a place of terreur against those who wanted to take the god-given waters which the hysterically clean count tried to keep for himself alone.


By what standard of judgment one process is truer than the other I do not know, but I suggest it’s a standard which fails by assuming, as I suggested earlier, that factual event is by the nature of recollection and reconstruction easier to know and thereby more real than motive. And, are plausible events which make connections between “knowns” somehow more intellectually respectable than imaginative conceivables which particularize an atmosphere? I doubt that social history, as opposed to conventional history of political events, would rule so.


What this means, I think, is that one has to take the enterprise of historical “fiction” seriously if one is going to take “history” seriously—and the other way around. They are differently weighted modes of extending “the vividness and variety of areas of intelligibility in the past.” And I don’t think one should say, “Yes, of course, but, still, one is more . . . you know . . . than the other.”  I don’t suggest that Kenneth Roberts, say, did service equal in quality and effective significance to that of, say, C. Vann Woodward; but equal to the work of those assistant professors competing for tenure and distinction in academic journals . . . yes, and more. To which I suspect the profs on-the-make would object. And, on a higher level, the Vidals are as indispensable as the Woodwards, their tasks as consequential and “true”—with which I’m sure the Woodwards would agree.


I doubt that this principle would be seriously disputed, allowing for changes of names to suit one’s estimate of excellent achievement and less. In a sense it’s too easy. There’s a certain sophistication one enjoys in agreeing that, yes, fiction has its ways of establishing fact and history its ways of being imaginative art. But even this implies some basic difference between historian and historical novelist which is not exact, not when the reader, again, is considered. Some constants of human “naïveté”—call it—intervene, and equalize matters:


Did Pericles really make the famous oration attributed to him? If not, he should have. Or rather: If not, he still did. That’s kind of tricky, but closer to the way we perceive the past. Try to read Thucydides and Herodotus with their elaborate re-constructed dialogues, in-character conversations and confrontations, as only “fictions” true to the spirit of things instead of as “history.” Try it—and failing (I mean while you’re reading them)—try it again, and again. Still: Solon said to Croesus . . . not conceivably could have said . . .


This is only partially a matter of the persuasive narrative power of the ancient historians and chroniclers. Something can persuade only if there’s a native receptivity to persuasion. My modest reading of historians on historiography tells me that they tend to ignore the latter, or perhaps talk about the popular susceptibility of the un- or mis-educated; they certainly do not downgrade the art of narrative, neither those who have the art nor those who don’t. The various “new” historians of every generation (however new is defined at the time) tend to pay as much rhetorical obeisance to the noble art of telling a story as the old-fashioned practitioner like the great Trevelyan or Macaulay did in act. Go the other extreme: the “cliometricians.” Their minute computer analyses lead one to think their conclusions must be right, have to be. Yet, the flustered response that “This may be economics, O.K., but not really history” is not mere poopishness. It must be right . . . but it doesn’t seize one so that one responds with full mind, so that one believes. To which notion I now return.


I think it pedestrian to assume a ready connection between belief and “facts.” Facts are not things to which we extend belief—except in a broad and shoddy sense of the word, mere what-the-hell-why-not resignation to what appears to be. Facts we “accept,” and acceptance has precious little to do with conviction—whether we’re accepting a political arrangement of things as we find them, or accepting the documentation that in 1888, 88.81 percent of whatever was whichever. When we say to a friend who explains and apologizes for behavior taken to be unfriendly, “Look, I accept what you say,” we mean something quite different from “Look, I believe you.”  Acceptance is passive. Belief is by nature and necessity an active faculty—and active because there’s a degree of uncertainty about its object. An amateur anthropological guess: I’d imagine people stopped worshipping the sun when it became apparent that the bloody thing would arrive each dawn, when its regularity became fact, and accepted; belief was necessary when there was some uncertainty about the inevitability of its arrival, when it was felt that man’s active concern about the event half-way insured its success.


There’s something primitive about this, I agree, even as a mere analogy, and ostensibly antithetical to a serious human science such as historical investigation. Nonetheless, if history is the attempt to make the outlines of what we know about the past “coherent and intelligible” and congruent “with our own experience of the possible,” then: history may be rigorous, sound, sophisticated, but—outrageous truth—to the extent that it doesn’t seem sufficiently, actively “made up,” essentially uncertain and “frail,” to the extent that it deals only with “facts,” it will be acceptable rather than convincing.


Call it susceptibility, call it innocence, but the truth is, I think, that we demand of the historian that he or she think, more or less, as we do—which is a great deal less sophisticatedly about some things than we “know,” with our sophistication, that we “should.” That’s put at its worst and most populistically dictatorial. Putting it more positively: we know that getting a grasp on human events means telling them as a story, the labored reconstruction of occurrences, something with development, motive, necessity; and telling a story means going ahead and, what the hell, making a few things up. Yes, yes, I know . . . craft means selection, emphasis, and thereby possibly a certain distortion. But that’s not what I mean. Not selection alone—implying alternatives between several factual givens—but, rather, invention.


Thomas Babington Macaulay weighed all this in an amusing way around two hundred years ago without, however, buying it. With all due and predictable respect paid to Herodotus, he found the Greek’s method less that of the educated man than that of the child or servant (excuse Macaulay’s high-Whiggish tone). But, where he said “educated man” he might have said “professional;” where he said “children and servants” he should have said—for good or ill but true in either case—“most people.”


If an educated man were giving an account of the late change of administration, he would say—“Lord Goderich resigned; and the King, in consequence, sent for the Duke of Wellington.” A Porter tells the story as if he had been hid behind the royal bed at Windsor: “So Lord Goderich says, ‘I cannot manage this business; I must go out.’ So the king says—says he, ‘Well, then, I must send for the Duke of Wellington—that’s all.’” This is the very manner of the father of history.


It is also our manner. And history written in a manner greatly less naïve, a touch of invention absent, we will admire for its scholarship, accept, and file away not quite believed.


If I have said something of some small consequence in all this above, then perhaps I will be excused for descending to answer the minor question with which I began. Yes, Charlie Schuyler (or Charles Burdett, rather) now is, or is on his way to being, Aaron Burr’s son.



Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.

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