History Lessons

“Since Americans have recently found it more comfortable to see where they have been than to think of where they are going, their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial. Historical novels, fictionalized biographies, collections of pictures and cartoons, books on American regions and rivers, have poured forth to satisfy a ravenous appetite for Americana. This quest for the American past is carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis. An awareness of history is always a part of any culturally alert national life; but I believe that what underlies this overpowering nostalgia of the past fifteen years is a keen feeling of insecurity. . . . American history, presenting itself as a rich and rewarding spectacle, a succession of well-fulfilled promises, induces a desire to observe and enjoy, not to analyze and act. The most common vision of national life, in its fondness for the panoramic backward gaze, has been that of the observation-car platform.” – Richard Hofstadter

The introduction to Hofstadter’s classic 1948 text The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It helps remind us of the reason for reading history in the first place. While every generation probably considers itself living through an age of insecurity, when I came across this description of America’s “observation-car platform” attitude toward its past it seemed more relevant now than ever. Wasn’t the current occupant of the White House said to be reading John Adams by David McCullough – a rather sentimentally inclined historian whose only flirtations with controversy have been the result of his gilding the historical lily? And what was this news out of Texas, that has policy groups lobbying the state Board of Education over which history textbooks are to be used? According to a story in the New York Times, standard school texts regularly give history a “facelift”: “Today’s books, and standardized tests issued by the same publishers, not only portray each minority as heroic, but every group (and each sex) is airbrushed to eliminate the possibility of stereotyping.” While suggesting that there is “nothing new about this” (Hofstadter would have agreed), the story concludes by asking, “Are books now more bland and mythical than before?”

Well I don’t know about school history texts, but as far as historical fiction goes I think the answer to that question has to be Yes. Hofstadter begins his line-up of “passive and spectatorial” media representations of history with “historical novels,” and they may well be the guiltiest in this regard. After all, while it’s nice to read historical fiction that observes critical standards, that’s really not the novelist’s job. Their aim is to give the public what it wants.

And that’s not always a good thing. At the announcement of last year’s Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, prize chairman Andrew Marr made the provocative remark that “non-fiction writing was currently eclipsing anything being done in the novel in this country.” Given the state of the British novel, I didn’t think this was saying much; but it did spark a brief debate and a handful of letters to the editor. Was today’s fiction really in decline? And what about the historical novel, that fiction/non-fiction hybrid? Was it just riding coattails?

Of course there’s no strict comparison possible between fiction and non-fiction, but in the case of history vs. the historical novel there is some common ground. Reviewing both, I have to admit to feeling in agreement with Marr. Take the recent example of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a novel that takes place against the backdrop of the genocide of the aboriginal population of Tasmania. I really did like this book, but it didn’t impress me as being quite as important as many people seemed to think it was. Nevertheless, it went on to make the Booker Prize shortlist and wound up winning the prestigious Whitbread Prize for the best British novel of the year.

It wasn’t until I reviewed Peter Carey’s critically acclaimed True History of the Kelly Gang that I realized what it was about Kneale’s book that had left me cold. While reviewing Carey I found myself complaining about the sentimentality of today’s historical novelists, and the trend toward presenting history as simplified moral fable. In Carey’s novel the outlaw Ned Kelly is a heroic figure battling inhuman British oppressors. Human complexity, its mixture of good and evil and the examination of untidy contradictions that have always been the novel’s strength, had been erased, leaving us with those airbrushed stereotypes of political correctness rumored to be coming out of Texas.

That some of today’s historical novelists are talented is obvious, but equally obvious is the fact that they don’t want to aggressively interrogate the historical record in any new ways, or challenge their readers’ assumptions about how we imagine the past. Take the subject of colonialism. The villain in a lot of recent moral-historical fiction (including True History of the Kelly Gang and English Passengers) is British colonialism. Now to say that colonialism was, in general, a bad thing is something most of us would agree with. But it is precisely this consensus, one that places the fiction-reading public in a secure moral majority in relation to the past, that is the problem. Why bother mining the past for lessons on what we already know?

Here is what Kneale has said about English Passengers:

The English think they’re gentler and would never do things other people did around the world. . . . But I wanted to show that people were given a grant of land here and went over to Tasmania and behaved extremely badly.

What a remarkable thing to say! Does Kneale honestly believe that the English consider themselves a people incapable of evil? Most readers of English Passengers are, I assume, intelligent and well educated. They may be expected to know something about how, as Conrad’s Marlow put it over a century ago, England has also “been one of the dark places of the earth.” The point Kneale is making, however just, is positively banal.

You might think at first that Canada would be a country unlikely to jump on the anti-colonial bandwagon. If anything, Canadians (or at least English-speaking Canadians) are typically imagined as proud of their British heritage. Canadians, it has often been remarked, are Americans who didn’t rebel. Canada was a colony that opted to remain a colony, and is considered by some to be a colony (an American colony) to this day. Furthermore, Canada’s experience as a “post-colonial” nation is pretty slim. Oppression of some kind is a historical constant, a given, but can (white) Canadians really claim to have been oppressed? If stories about colonial oppression weary V. S. Naipaul (at a recent literary gathering he complained with some violence about the “banality” of “this thing about colonialism”), how much more must they weary a Canadian audience?

Apparently not at all. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s latest, The Last Crossing, has for its villain a despicable, sadistic Englishman. In his previous novel the bad guy was an American. That covers the bases as far as Canada’s post-colonial anxiety over foreign domination goes. (Meanwhile, the authentic Canadian hero of The Last Crossing has solid multi-culti credentials: a half-breed “made strong and strange by mixed blood and mixed influences.”) And think of the bad press the fur companies – foreigners and capitalist exploiters! – have been getting recently in novels like Audrey Thomas’s Isobel Gunn and Fred Stenson’s The Trade. Or consider Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, as conventional an anti-colonial oppression diatribe as those written by Kneale or Carey. That the “Colony” is Newfoundland, struggling under arrogant British rule well into the twentieth century, says something about the remarkable adaptability of the post-colonial theme. Add to this the peculiarly Canadian anxiety over the exploitation and/or rape of Canadian womanhood by the foreign beast (see most of the above novels) and you have quite a national-psychological profile. Who would have suspected such feelings still bubbled under the surface of the placid Canadian scene?

The extent of this current rash for historical fiction has not gone without notice. Writing in the Toronto Star Philip Marchand notes that in the shortlist for the 2001 Giller Prize, four out of the six nominees were historical novels. In the shortlist for the Governor General’s award for fiction in English the same year, four out of the five nominees were works of historical fiction. And this fall we’re getting more of the same, with the three best-known English Canadian writers with new novels setting them in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

An earlier column by Malcolm Knox appearing in the Melbourne Age (“Stories in the wrong tense”) addressed a similar situation in Australia. Of 51 books shortlisted for Australia’s top literary prize (the Miles Franklin) in the last nine years, Knox counted only seven that were set in “the Australia most of us know.”

Does this have something to do with literary awards? Marchand remarks that the Giller Prize winner is “frequently a historical novel” while Knox notes how literary awards tend to “gravitate towards the far-off, the period, the unfamiliar, the allegoric.” Is this the lure of history for so many serious writers? Or is it that the novel-as-research-project appeals to a generation of writers nurtured by creative writing programs and comfortable spending long hours in libraries? Is the re-creation of a world where the novel mattered (note how many historical novels are set in the nineteenth century) the revenge of the book – a technology currently being written out of history?

This is speculation. To get down to brass tacks: Why is it that today’s historical fiction so often fails? Carey, Kneale, Vanderhaeghe, Johnston: these are all above average writers, skilful with narrative and capable of impressive stylistic effects. They have “done their research.” What, then, has gone wrong?

I would begin by observing that the message of these books – the shallow yet academically fashionable idea that all history is a record of oppression – has a way of predetermining character. What this leads to, inevitably, is stereotype. Several years ago Philip Marchand made out a list of the “Top Ten People I Never Want to Meet in Print Again” that included “The Politically Incorrect Gentleman in Tights and Jerkin”:

This character is found in historical novels, and his function – it’s almost always a he, by the way – is to represent the stupidity of the past in opposition to what we now know is true wisdom. He might be an aristocrat, a military man, or a cleric, and he says things such as, “Sirrah, the woman is an arrant witch, in league with Satan, and not, as you fondly conceive, a woman who has medical lore unknown to our physicians!”

“The stupidity of the past”: Even as a caricature this still sounds painfully familiar. But the point isn’t so much that the stereotypes we get in historical fiction are wrong (though they are almost always simplistic); it’s that they’re boring. Non-fiction doesn’t have to work very hard to eclipse such tripe. Given the number of interesting non-fiction works that have appeared about Hitler recently – including Ian Kershaw’s massive two-volume biography and Ron Rosenbaum’s fascinating investigation Explaining Hitler – why would any reader want to waste their time with a cartoon Hitler like that found in Ron Hansen’s Hitler’s Niece? A ham who spouts lines like “You have the temerity to challenge me? Adolf Hitler!” belongs in melodrama. I seem to remember The Tin Drum being slightly more nuanced in its handling of fascism.

With a cast of stereotypes, who cares how thorough the author’s research has been? Does it make a difference that everything in the narrative “could have happened” if the characters are just clichés? The historical novel in English began with Walter Scott’s Waverley, whose eponymous hero was more conflicted between ambiguous historical rights and wrongs than any comparable figure in today’s historical fiction. An English officer, he lends his support to the romantic cause of the Jacobites and the Highland clans. Though clearly a proto-post-colonial novel, the political tensions it explores are never fully resolved. To take a more recent example, one of the authors Matthew Kneale has named as an influence is J. G. Farrell, author of a terrific trilogy dealing with outposts of English colonialism under siege (Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip). But the thing about Farrell’s characters is that their curious ideas are never morally clear or consistently held. In addition, the members of the besieged community are usually on the wrong side politically. In Kneale’s book, however, the main characters aren’t even English, but Manxmen: i.e., yet another oppressed minority. We know immediately who the bad guys are, and can be sure the “stupidity of the past” won’t escape unpunished.

I want to stress that most of the examples I have taken are from what I consider to be good books. Good, but not great. The function of all great art is to challenge its audience. Art that only reflects the morality and prejudices of the dominant culture is popular in the worst sense of the word. That the dominant culture is now intent upon mythologizing the past, turning it into a series of simplistic and politically correct moral lessons while becoming “increasingly passive and spectatorial,” indicates a major failure in today’s fiction. Things have come to a sad pass when some of our most respected authors now seem merely intent on using history to inform us that violence is wrong, that tolerance is a virtue, that women and minorities are human beings, and, above all else, that the Nazis were bad people!

All of this takes place against a literary background whose main features are the death of realism and a turning away from contemporary life. Marchand is confused: “You’d think that fiction writers, in particular, would be exploring the effect of profound technological changes on our psyches, charting the dizzying changes of our society and our mores. This is not happening. Instead, we’re getting glimpses of the past, particularly in Canadian works.” As we have seen, however, what is happening is not particular to Canada, or surprising in the slightest. The most popular fiction being published today is escapist pulp catering to immature tastes: Fantasy and romance emphasizing exotic settings over the here and now, alongside children’s books adopted by adults like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. We should expect the “history” in our historical fiction to follow suit, resulting in pulp romance dreck like The English Patient and Cold Mountain, or tales of Australian bushrangers forming their own Fellowship of the Ring. (I don’t mean to sound too harsh, but let’s face it: Carey’s colonial outback is no more ambiguous a moral environment than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and far less complex than Scott’s Highlands.) Furthermore, as Knox points out, historical fiction is undeniably lucrative since history and the exotic travel well. Thus “our leading novelists are producing for export.” Thus Peter Carey lives in New York and is applauded for writing Australian “Westerns” while the New York Times ridicules Canadian fiction not about big historical themes for being “provincial.” Apparently we should write more books about the Holocaust if we want to be taken seriously.

All of this has the effect of producing some very generic “history,” usually accompanied by ludicrous statements about how the “official” (always pejorative) historical record is finally being set straight. The usual stereotypes are called in to act as mouthpieces for contemporary attitudes on political and moral battles that can now be taken as comfortably settled. They caricature the evil and stupidity of the past from the platform of the observation car. Meanwhile, the voices really being silenced are those that are so necessary to great fiction, not to mention a “culturally alert national life”: those of the conflicted, the ambiguous, the misguided and the confused. In the midst of such insecurity today over our own role in history, dare we step into their shoes?

Essay first published online as a guest column at MobyLives.com, October 14, 2002.


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