Putting Story in History
The response to this question relies upon how one defines both “fiction” and “history classroom.” By “fiction,” I would argue that, given the context of the question, the logical definition is “historical fiction,” a narrative set in the past in which the historical setting is integral to the characters’ development rather than just a peripheral backdrop. Historical novelist Katherine Patterson has satirized such texts as “bathrobe fiction” because the otherwise contemporary characters are dressed in what she labels “pseudo-ancient dress” (1).
The once dominant paradigm for history was shaped by Thomas Carlyle, who believed that it was limited to the tales of great men and their experiences; not only did this conviction influence many history texts that mostly recount the names, places, and dates of historically significant events, but also early historical fiction in which “great men” played the major roles. However, by the early 20th century, as realism became the dominant mode of fiction in general, historical fiction began to focus more on ordinary people interacting with extraordinary events. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, whose protagonist is a young soldier facing his first battle experience, makes no attempt, contrary to many of its predecessors, to glorify war or an ideological view.
In the aftermath of Red Badge, the emphasis shifted even more to the experiences of commonplace individuals, to what historians call “social history.” William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels are strong examples that account for the mindset of the pre- and post-Civil War South; the characters, ranging from powerful to oppressed, are fictional but with powerful historical significance—albeit with little reference to famous battles or generals. Thus, historical fiction can supplement history courses, offering characters whose emotional responses to actual events give readers a more immediate, human sense of what is being studied. As Marc Aronson has said, “History is a mirror, fiction a portrait" (2).
However, the role of historical fiction in U.S. history courses is limited by the scope of the history courses themselves. Regretfully, there is little time or space for historical fiction in broadly-based survey courses, e.g. “U.S. History, 17761865” or “U.S. Foreign Policy, WWI to WWII.” In more focused courses, usually college-level, historical fiction serves well as a complement to what is being studied. For example, one can argue that a history course examining the run-up to and aftermath of the war in Viet Nam might well be enriched by including one or more of Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things They Carried, pieces that convey the ambivalence and suffering surrounding that time in history.
Those who reject the notion that fiction has a place in a history classroom may find the term “historical fiction” an oxymoron, arguing that in examining history, there is no room for “fiction.” True, the historian’s methodology is necessarily broader and examines more historic complexities in tracing causes and effects of past events. But as Jill Paton Walsh, a British writer of both history and historical fiction, has insisted, history is as much fict (Latin for “something made”) as fact (“something done”). She has added that, although evidence of history exists, it is itself a construct of the mind, i.e. an interpretation of actual events (3). The commonplace observation that “history is written by the winners” reinforces the historian’s subjectivity in the presenting of historical accounts.
Also, the novelist’s account of any given historical event or period may be richer and more compelling than the historian’s version, for the former may claim a freedom not granted to the latter. As Naomi Jacobs has said in The Character of Truth: Historical Characters in Contemporary Fiction, the novelist is interested not only “in what can be more or less proved to have happened but also in what might [italics mine] have happened" (4). In this same vein, Margaret Atwood describes her guidelines in writing historical fiction: “if there was a solid fact, I could not alter it;…[but] in the parts left unexplained—the gaps left unfilled—I was free to invent" (5). It is exactly in filling in the gaps that the historical novelist can convey a human emotional truth denied to the historian.
1 Katherine Paterson, “Where Is Terabithia?” in Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature, ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, (NY: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard), 263.
2 Marc Aronson, Beyond the Pale (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003), 62.
3 Jill Paton Walsh, “History Is Fiction,” The Horn Book (February 1972), 1723.
4 Naomi Jacobs, The Character of Truth: Historical Characters in Contemporary Fiction (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1990), 72.
5 Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction,” The American Historical Review V, 103(5) (December 1998): 1512.