Charles Frazier's Civil War period novel, Cold Mountain, was widely acclaimed, a bestseller and winner of the National Book Award. Asked when in the writing process he began "making things up," the author replies, "I knew exactly at what point I began making things up. It was on page one." Frazier asks, "Where . . . should we place the balance point between history and fiction? Might we wish to limit historical fiction to a retelling - or repackaging - of so-called actual past events? To what extent are we writers free to introduce well-known historical figures into our work and have them carry on conversations and commit acts we cannot verify?"
Frazier and many other distinguished novelists debate these questions with prominent historians in Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), a fascinating exploration of the relationship between history and art. Barnard College historian Mark C. Carnes conceived and edited this stimulating volume as a follow-up to his well received earlier book, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1995). In addition to the discussions of works by such authors as Larry McMurtry, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley, there are excellent considerations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby.
Richard White, historian of the American West, thinks "a historian may very well be the worst possible reader . . . because, once in the fictional world, they become either terminally confused or begin editing information in ways that detract from the fiction." But he points out that in The Living, "in making the character preoccupied with death and uplift and progress, Annie Dillard displays a sometimes near perfect nineteenth-century pitch." Historian James McPherson expresses concern about "numerous minor errors" in Cloudsplitterbut respects novelist Russell Banks for making it clear that certain historical events have been "altered and rearranged."
Nearly all the novelists represented in this book felt the need to make some changes in the historical record. Novelists, after all, seek to convey universal truths and tend to believe that all people, regardless of when or where they live, are essentially the same.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.