Wednesday, February 28, 2007

History and Fiction

Is there room for fiction in communicating history with the public? Undoubtedly yes: it’s popular and powerful, so even if, as public historians, we believe there isn’t room, it wouldn’t matter, because the public disagrees. So I think a more important and more difficult question is how to communicate history with the public through literature the most effectively. The readings on history and fiction left us with important suggestions to consider in improving our writing as public historians. First, John Demos raises two significant points: historians can benefit from the same “how to store parsnips” attention to detail that novelists do to give stories from the past texture, and, historians need to aspire to a similar range of emotions – love, forgiveness, charity, suffering etc. – that novelists do [1].

Two books of historical non-fiction which borrow a style of narrative from fiction and also pay attention to detail and human nature are Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (about the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) and Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. They’re popular books, easy to read but also informative, and I feel that they serve as a good model for historians trying to reach to wider audiences in their writing. More importantly, they illustrate to us as public historians that writing non-fiction can compel audiences, convey emotion, and tell detailed and interesting stories as well as fiction.
In Margaret Atwood’s 1996 Bronfman Lecture In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction one thought that has stuck with me, that I also took away from the reading with a commitment to as a public historian, was her talk about paper: “The past is made of paper … Sometimes, there’s a building or a picture or a grave, but mostly it’s paper. Paper must be taken care of [2].” For background or for inspiration of both fiction and non-fiction we have a duty to take care of paper records- stories from the past- for writers of the future, as there are just as many interesting stories to write from history as can be conceived of by fiction authors.
[1] John Demos, “In Search of Reasons for Historians to Read Novels….” American Historical Review 103 no.5 (Dec. 1998), pp.1526-9.
[2]Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction,” American Historical Review 103 no.5 (Dec. 1998), pp.1503-16.


Rugero Ricordi said...

Stands to reason. However, there are side effects, and to this day I'm not quite certain whether some of them are good or bad. Case in point. Alexandre Dumas, Pere, the absolute champion of historical fiction, wrote over 400 historical novels in which he highly romanticized the history of France and some other countries as well. His panache was, still is, so appealing, that some folks (including historians) tend to view the history of France (and some other countries) through the eyes of Dumas. I know I do.

Rugero Ricordi
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