This article will not quite be about what its title says it's about: historical fiction and fictitious history.
The fact is, I recently finished writing a novel called LETTERS that happens to involve the Chesapeake Bay area and to some extent its history, particularly the late 1960s and the period of the 1812 War; 20 years ago I published another, The Sot-Weed Factor, set in colonial Maryland. Both are more or less "historical" fiction, and for both I did a respectable amount of homework on the periods involved. But it was a novelist's homework, not a historian's, and novelists are the opposite of icebergs: 90 percent of what I once knew about this region's history, and have since forgotten, is in plain view on the surface of those two novels, where it serves its fictive purposes without making the author any sort of authority. Since The Sot-Weed Factor isn't finally "about" colonial Maryland at all, any more than LETTERS is really "about" the burning of Washington in 1814 or the burning of Cambridge in 1967, I'm already uncertain which of their historical details are real and which I dreamed up.
For example, I recall a fine anecdote about the first murder ever committed by white folks in colonial Maryland. It happened not long after the original settlers disembarked from the Ark and the Dove in 1632: fellow killed his wife, or vice-versa. No problem apprehending the murderer, who obligingly confessed at once. The trouble was, there were no courts to try him in, no statutes to try him under, and no jails to sentence him to. So the Governor's Council, by a rap of the gavel, turned itself into a board of inquest, took depositions, and found a true bill; turned itself into a court, heard the case, and found the defendant guilty of murder; turned itself into a legislative body and ruled that murder is against the law; turned itself back into a court and sentenced the guilty party to hang; then commuted the sentence lest there be, in all this improvising, a miscarriage of justice. That solved their problem; my problem, an occupational hazard of storytellers, is that I can't remember how much of this story is history and how much is fiction.
Fictitious history is something that my LETTERS novel is more or less about: false documents, falsified documents, forged and doctored letters, mislaid and misdirected letters and the like, in the history of History. But I'd rather you read the novel when Putnam's brings it out in the fall.
The next thing that these remarks will emphatically not be about is Mr. James A. Michener's recent best-selling novel about the Chesapeake Bay/Choptank River area, my native turf. Mr. Michener and I are respectful acquaintances, but I can't comment about his novel about the Chesapeake for the excellent reason that I haven't read it; and I haven't read it, as I've explained to the author, because I've been too busy for the past seven years writing my own.
But my books, as aforedeclared, are not finally about tidewater Maryland and its history. There are obvious differences in the way history and fiction are about what they're about; there are differences just as important, but maybe less obvious, in the way different kinds of fiction are about what they're about. These different kind of "aboutness" are my topic here: I want to speak about aboutness.
Now, storytellers and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs have something in common: they usually approach what they're after sideways. I shall say what I have to say about aboutness by way of five different Chesapeake Bay blue crabs - rather, five pictures or other representations of crabs. Never mind that you can't see them all: I'll describe them to our purpose. Anyhow, the first of the five crab representations I don't have before me, and the fifth doesn't exist. We shall use our imaginations, as both fictionists and historians do, in their different ways.
The first rendition of a blue crab that I want you to imagine is one of those large preserved ones mounted on a wall plaque on the wall of some local seafood restaurant. Doesn't matter which restaurant, or which crab. Let's notice certain things about it.
First and obviously, it isn't "fiction": it's made from the mortal remains of an actual, "historical" animal, preserved by a taxidermist. The degree of realism in the representation is therefore considerable, though it's relative and so to speak "historical": we have the skeleton only; the living, breathing breast is gone, and with it the feel, taste, smell, etc. of the real thing. It's sensory aspects have been reduced to just one, really: the visual aspect. It looks a lot like a crab, even though the colors are a sort of mortician's approximation of life; there can be no question about its general external accuracy. If we consider what the purposes of such a representation are - which is another way of asking what this crab is "about" - I think we'll agree that it has at least five: 1) to help decorate the restaurant; 2) in doing so, to evoke the tidewater atmosphere by means of a bit of natural-historical realism and thereby 3) to whet our appetites for what we've come there for; in other words, and on the bottom line, 4) to sell seafood dinners at a profit to the owners of the crab and of the restaurant, while incidentally 5) standing as a historical record of an actual crab caught somewhere in the surrounding waters. We'll return to these purposes presently.
Our second and third blue crabs were both rendered by staff artists of the National Geographic Magazine as illustrations for accompanying text. Number two is a color foldout entitled "Marsh Fauna": it has a lot of other things in it besides the blue crab; he or she is tucked down in the lower right-hand corner, about to grab an anchovy lunch. Number three is a pen-and-ink drawing entitled "Blue crab: main cog in an "immense protein factor."" In both of these representations, as in the first one, there's considerable realism in the way of anatomical or biological accuracy. The colors aren't quite right, of course, even in the foldout, and the drawing is in black and white, as no actual blue crab ever was. Both of them translate the three dimensions of historical blue crabs into two dimensions. And both, unlike the first one, represent no individual, "historical" crab, but rather a generalized, typical, "fictitious" crab. The foldout painting adds an improbable amount of other simultaneous ecological action - all sorts of Marsh Fauna engaged in eating one another up; more such action than anybody ever saw at once, even in Indian times - and it presumes further to show us what's going on under the water and inside the mudflats. But we don't object to this exaggeration of the "historical" facts, because we understand the instructional-scientific purpose of the foldout; namely, to illustate the actual ecology of a Chesapeake marsh by distorting the time-frame, by cutting away certain factual barriers to normal human vision, and by moving the whole scene from the inconvenient reality of three physical dimensions (plus scale, motion, smell, feel, taste, and sound) to the convenience of two visual dimensions, scaled down, frozen in action, and approximated in color. We don't mistake it for reality, though it's inspired by reality. We don't mistake it for science, though it grows out of science. We don't mistake it for fine art, either, though the artist is properly called a staff artist and is good at his/her trade. We would not likely frame and hang the original on our walls as art, much less expect to see it in the National Gallery or the Louvre or the Metropolitan - though I confess that my particular copy has been carried around with me for some seven years, from Buffalo to Boston to Baltimore, to remind me of all the life and death besides historical human life and death that goes on constantly in the place I was writing about.
The pen drawing, crab number three - "Blue crab: main cog" etc. - is even more striking, and our reaction to it more interesting to think about. It's a meticulously realistic drawing; we're likely to admire it even more than the color foldout, not only because the detail is finer, but because, paradoxically, it is at the same time more realistic and farther removed from reality than those other crab images. Not only are feel, taste, sound, smell, scale, depth, motion, and environment removed (not to mention literal life), but also any attempt to approximate the actual color of the subject. The very black-and-whiteness of the drawing, and the absence of any background, make us sharply aware that this is an ink-drawing, not the real thing; and that awareness enhances rather than diminishes our pleasure in it. In fact, this drawing might be said to be not only "about" the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, but about pen and ink as well, and shading and foreshortening and such - in other words, it's partly about the art of drawing - and we admire it, if we do, precisely because the artist is able to evoke the reality of blue crabs with material so far removed from that reality as a pen and black ink and white paper. Number three here we might actually hang with pleasure on the wall of our office, or our kitchen, if we had the original well matted and framed, even though its bottom-line purpose, like that of the mounted crab earlier, is to sell us something: in this case, not restaurant meals for profit, but subscriptions to the organ of a non-profit scientific and educational society. And even though we realize, consciously or intuitively, that number three is "about" line and shape and shading as well as "about" the blue crab and, by extension, about the life and culture of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine system, we don't expect to see this drawing in a museum of fine art, for the simple but important reason that it's more about the crab than about the medium of drawing, and while it's professionally admirable draftsmanship, something tells us that there's a difference between competent, accurate draftsmanship and fine art.
Our fourth crab image is crawling up my necktie as I write: a gold-plated tie-tac in the semblance of a crab, purchased as a gift and worn as a souvenir. It is not Callinectes sapidus, the Chesapeake blue crab. Its carapace more resembles something in the Dungeness or purple marsh crab family - but it isn't purple, and there's no detail to speak of beyond the correct number and location of the legs. It's a stylized version of a crab, designed for inexpensive manufacture and retail sale at a high profit margin to people like myself who may like to be reminded, when they put their neckties on, or remind others whom they then see, that the world contains objects somewhat like this called crabs, fun to catch and good to eat, and maybe, by extension, that the world contains the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore thereof: interesting and even beautiful places to work and play and live in, with more or less colorful human inhabitants as well as blue crabs, and a more or less interesting cultural, political, and geological history; and, by further extension yet, that the wearer of the tie-tac, while he knows the difference not only between it and a real crab but also between it and a realistic representation of a crab, nevertheless enjoys being reminded, even crudely, of the real thing and its associations, and reminding others likewise. He might even be reminding you that he's part of the real thing, or once was, or wishes he were: a member of the tidewater culture, or a familiar of it.
In this case, the purpose of the designer (we don't even use the term staff artist) is to make some money by trading inexpensively (to him- or herself) on these innocent wishes and pleasures of ours. My tie-tac is not about crabs in any remarkable, thoughtful, interesting, or even careful way. Nor is it about the art of costume jewelry in any remarkable, thoughtful, interesting, or careful way - as a gold brooch by Benvenuto Cellini cast by the lost-wax method from an actual fly or beetle might be, for example. What it's about, from the designer's point of view, is low-budget commercialized nostalgia; from the wearer's point of view, it's about the gratification or advertisement of that nostalgia. The wearer's motives, we might notice in passing, are relatively innocent; the manufacturer's are relatively mercenary. I shall return to this point.
There is a curious phenomenon involved here that can make an artist tear his hair, though it's perfectly understandable and, up to a point, forgivable. Anyone who happens to have traveled through the Netherlands will have found that Dutch gift shops are as full of toy wooden shoes and cheap china windmills as tidewater Maryland gift shops are of junk-art mallard duck prints and fake goose decoys and so much stuff with cattails and shipjacks and tongboats on it, often so clumsily or cheaply rendered, that one feels like setting out at once for Honolulu or Montreal or even Ohio, where they've scarcely heard of such things; or else for the Dorchester County marshes, where there's nothing between oneself and the real McCoy. But the curious thing is that the main purchasers of this sentimental-picturesque junk, after the tourists, are the natives. The Dutch happen to love very much their dikes and canals and windmills and wooden shoes and tulips; so much so that even when the outside of a Dutch farmhouse is surrounded by the genuine article, the inside is likely to be decorated with plastic tulips stuck in simulated Klompen made out of imitation Delftware imported from Hong Kong. The same goes for Eastern Shore folk, I've noticed, and I daresay it goes for any other people who happen to love their culture and/or its history.
What's likely to drive an artist bananas is certainly not this innocent enjoyment of their culture by its natives, even when that culture is trivialized, vulgarized, and commercially explointed by outsiders or by insiders (often the worst offenders). When the artist tears his/her hair, or at least rolls his/her eyes, is when people mistake the junk for quality stuff: when they lose sight of the difference between a true and honest backfin crabcake, for example, and some third-rate restaurant's version of the same thing, whether that restaurant is a fast-food joint or a pretentious, high-overhead rip-off. Third rate is third rate, no matter how impressive the packaging and promotion. I don't suppose that any native Chesapeaker would be taken in by a third-rate crabcake masquerading as gourmet food - and gourmet food is what a first- rate crabcake is. I wish I could be as confident of native judgment in the other matter, to which we now return.
The fifth and last rendition of a blue crab in this series, like the first, I don't have before me, but for a different reason: I don't believe it exists yet. It's the one which, if it did exist, might very well hang in the Louvre, or the National Gallery, or the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, even though the people who came to see it might never have seen a blue crab, live or steamed, or know where Maryland is, unless they looked it up or came around the world to visit because they loved the drawing so. I wish there were a Rembrandt drawing of a crab, blue or otherwise, to illustrate my point; but they don't have Callinectes sapidus in the North Sea, and Rembrandt didn't go in much for still lifes anyhow, though he was very big on windmills and canal boats. The best I could find in my library is a reproduction of a Rembrandt pen-and-wash drawing of a different animal: two birds of paradise, done in whites and gray-yellows about 1637, five years after Lord Baltimore's first colonists stepped ashore in Maryland and committed the first recorded murder in the Old Line State. The original does in fact hang in the Louvre. I invite you to notice two things about it.
First, there's much less information about birds of paradise in Rembrandt's drawing than there is about the Common Egret or the Long-Billed Marsh Wren in the "Marsh Fauna" foldout. The Rembrandt would not be of much use to a birdwatcher for field identification, whereas the foldout even shows us what the birds eat and where they find it. The second thing to notice is the caption commentary by the critic who put my library-volume together, a professor of fine arts at Harvard's Fogg Museum: "The way these exotic birds fill the page," Professor Slive remarks, "is as admirable as Rembrandt's depiction of the different weights and textures of the feathers on their heads, necks, bodies, and great tails."
This is an extension of what we noted about the blue-crab drawing in pen and ink: a lot of the reality of birds of paradise is in Rembrandt's drawing, no doubt; maybe even more than of crab-reality in the National Geographic staff artist's. But it isn't there by meticulous copying of detail (not to mention color, size, depth, feel, sound, smell, motion, and lice under the wings). The Rembrandt is certainly "about" birds of paradise, but as Professor Slive's commentary makes clear, it's at least as much about the composition of forms on the page, the arrangements of darks and lights, the suggestion of weights and textures by quick and masterful strokes of the pen and the brush: in other words, it's about as much about the art of drawing as it is about what it's a drawing of, and since it's about both of these things in a masterful way, it hangs in the Louvre instead of in a Route 50 emporium for the Ocean City trade.
We could go further and imagine a version by some 20th-century Rembrandt in which that former kind of "aboutness," the bird of paradise itself, might fly the coop altogether. If the second kind of aboutness were still powerful and fine enough, the work mightn't be in the Louvre, but it might well be in the Museum of Modern Art or the National Gallery's new East Wing, with the other abstractionists: painting that is entirely, or almost entirely, about itself and its materials; in which the "subject," if any, is just a point of departure, like the melody-line among good jazz musicians.
The aim of my remarks is plain: the analogy between these several categories of crab-art and some different ways in which a piece of writing can be "about" a place, such as the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, and/or about a historical moment, such as the guerrilla warfare of Joseph Whaland's Loyalist Picaroons in the Dorchester marshes during the Revolutionary War, or the Cambridge race riots of the 1960s.
The mounted prize crabs on the restaurant wall, let's say, are like the documents of history: those early- 19th-century wills in the Dorchester County Courthouse, for example, where black human beings and bedroom furniture are given away in the same sentence. From such documentary shucks and sheds, the historiographer tries to infer what happened in a human place and time: he reconstructs the political, social-economic, and cultural past; how things hung together and were done, their causes and effects. If he's knowledgeable and scrupulous, he keeps speculation and conscious bias to a minimum and tries to beware the unconscious biases and cultural assumptions that he can doubtless never entirely avoid. The result will be the verbal equivalent of that National Geographic foldout: a good deal of information efficiently, attractively, and authoritatively presented, which we might even read for pleasure as well as for reference. It isn't literature, in the capital-L sense of the term (unless the author happens to be a Herodotus or a Carlyle), but it's honest and useful work, usually low-paying and done mainly for the love of knowledge, like pure science.
The historical novelist, too, might make use of those documentary crabshells and dramatize not only what happened, but what it might have felt like to be a live human being experiencing that history in that place.
There's a much greater likelihood here that the author will project his/her contemporary sensibility back onto our ancestors - one large reason why most historical fiction is a pretty fishy rendition of a crab - but we're talking about fiction now, and since our bottom line in reading fiction is to illuminate our own experience of life, a case can be made for that kind of distortion. Anyhow, if the novelist happens to be a fine literary artist like Charles Dickens (I'm thinking now of his novel "about" the French Revolution), what he turns out won't be a proper historical novel at all, but a work of literature. A Tale of Two Cities is obviously not about the French Revolution in the way that Carlyle's History of the French Revolution is, not to mention the actual documents of the Reign of Terror: it's about love, loyalty, and self-sacrifice among human beings pungently rendered, not among puppets sent down from Central Casting. The same goes for Tolstoy's War and Peace or Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma: they're about the Napoleonic wars, for sure - but so is Pucini's opera Tosca - and that fact is the least interesting thing about those works of art, even though their authors happen to have done their homework.
But now I'm ahead of my hardcrabs. It should be added, before we leave the crabshells and the foldouts, that the forged and doctored and suppressed documents of history - from the 9th-century Donation of Constantine which "justified" the Holy Roman Empire, to the 20th-century falsified reports that led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - share the same bottom line with faked restaurant atmosphere: to sell us a bill of goods. Even the honest historian, to be sure, wants to sell us his point of view, though not particularly for gain, and not by distorting the evidence systematically to fit a thesis. And good historical novelists such as Robert Graves or Mary Renault are like good restaurateurs: they're not in business for their health, but they apparently enjoy what they're doing and do it well, at a small or large profit, and they don't stuff their crab imperial full of breadcrumbs and cheap mayonnaise, or sell claw meat at backfin prices.
Their books might be compared to that pen-and-ink drawing in the National Geographic advertisement. So might that lovely non-fiction work of William Warner's, Beautiful Swimmers: full of honest information about Calinectes sapidus and its environment, skillfully presented, rich in detail, ably written, and attractively illustrated. Great literature it may not be, in the Louvre/National Gallery sense, but it surely ranks with the best writing about the Chesapeake area.
Now: about the literary equivalent of my tie-tac, the less said the better: its perpetrators are over-publicized already. These are your flat-out, big-time, big-money book-of-the-monthers, the James Rouses of literature, who move in on a culture or a subject and developer with high-rise megabucks under a low profile. It's tempting to say "under a low-brow profile," but your tie-tac writers are often smart cookies indeed, even civilized and likeable, though the size of their egos is breathtaking. Their belief that what they manufacture is Literature is as remarkable as if James Rouse were to mistake Columbia, Maryland, for Athens, Greece; rather, it would be remarkable, if not that so many innocent readers (but almost no critics or other writers) make the same mistake. I daresay Mr. Rouse doesn't confuse himself with Pericles of Athens; but to hear Mr. Leon Uris talk about his novel Exodus, for example, is to wonder whether he's not confusing his version with Moses". It ought to be astonishing that the same people who can't be fooled when it comes to overcooked rockfish or over-ripe cantaloupes, and who stopped Rouse & Co. from "developing" Wye Island - that these same sturdy and expert native citizens can read a trite commercial novel and believe that they've taken in a genuine work of art about their place and its history, even about themselves, when in fact they've been taken in by a superficial - though not necessarily cynical - piece of Route 50 merchandise.
I say it ought to be astonishing. Of course it isn't, for the innocent reason I mentioned before. If we love our territory, we're apt to enjoy being reminded of it. We ought to be indignant at a stock rendition of it into novels or films or TV mini-series - but alas, most of us know more about our local seafood, and about whatever our regular daily business is, than we do about the human heart, the human spirit, the human passions of our fellow women and men, and the human language that such things can be expressed in. So instead of making something honest out of a tie-tac novel - like a doorstop - we're apt to think, "Now by golly he's got that part right: your skipjack has one mast and your bugeye has two," and feel sort of proud to see it said in best-selling print, God forgive and assist us.
I mentioned the human passions and human language: we have now arrived at the Louvre and those Rembrandt birds. But instead of describing the literary equivalent of our imaginary Rembrandt blue crab, I'll close with what seem to me to be three reasonable rules of thumb for culling beautiful literary swimmers from the other kind. I hope three rules of thumb won't make us all thumbs; the culling is important to our literary ecology.
Rule No. 1: Fiction about history almost never becomes part of the history of fiction. Or, to put it another way: novels that are directly and mainly about a particular culture and its heritage seldom become part of that culture's cultural heritage. There may be exceptions - we think of Faulkner's fiction about the American South, or Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction about Polish-Jewish life before the Holocaust - but I believe that such apparent exceptions prove the rule: namely, that the more a novel's main interest is in the time and place it's "about," the less likely it is to be a significant work of literature in its own right, though it might certainly be good light entertainment of the costume-drama sort. Aristotle, the first writer in history to describe the difference between historians and poets, says in the Poetics that the historian tells us how things were, while the poet tells us how they might have been, or ought ideally to have been. The trouble with much official history, but this famous and useful distinction, is that it's poetry: it tells us how its sponsor wishes things had been. "History is the propaganda of the winners." And the trouble with most historical fiction is that it's so concerned with getting the "facts" straight - as given in the documents of history - that the artistic truth gets lost. The data might be correct, but the hearts and minds and souls of the characters come from Hollywood, not from human history. On the other hand, high-school students reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar like to point out the anachronism of the clock's striking in Act II: there were no clocks in Caesar's Rome. But of course Shakespeare's play isn't about Caesar's Rome: it's about Caesar and Brutus, and the poet has them right. Even if he didn't, historically, it wouldn't matter, since the real subjects are pride and conflicting loyalties, not Caesar and Brutus; and the play is one of the treasures of English literature, not of Roman history. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is so English to the bone that it can pretend to be about Italy and never mention England at all.
Rule No. 2 is Rule No. 1 turned inside out: The literature that finally matters in any culture is almost never principally about that culture. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon remarks that in the Koran, the bible of Islam, there is no mention of camels. The contemporary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges quoted this remark of Gibbon's when he himself was being criticized for not being Argentinian enough, because he never wrote about tangos and gauchos riding over the pampas. Borges went on to say that if the Koran had been written by Arab nationalists, there would no doubt be caravans of camels on every page; but the actual authors of the Koran were so unselfconsciously Arabian that they took camels for granted, and didn't feel pressed to turn the holy book of Islam into a regional zoo. The same might go for blue crabs and Canada geese in the Great Eastern Shore Novel, if one ever gets written, and the reason for this Aristotle also tells us plainly: that the true subject of literature is not the events of history or the features of a particular place, but "the experience of human life, its happiness and its misery." That's what Faulkner's and Singer's stories are truly about: not Southern life or Jewish life, but human life, which they get at by making use of their initimate knowledge of Southerners and of Jews, respectively, and then by writing fiction that rises above its Southerness or its Jewishness.
This is what another Nobel Prize-winner, Thomas Mann, meant when he wrote in 1903: "What an artist talks about is never the main point; it is the raw material, in and for itself indifferent, out of which, with bland and serene mastery, he creates his work of art." The French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet goes even further: "...the genuine writer," he declares, "has nothing to say.... He has only a way of speaking." And Homer, the daddy of us all, is equally radical on the subject of poetry and history: he makes the famous remark in the Odyssey that "wars are fought so that poets will have something to sing about" - with the clear implication that the songs are finally more important than the wars which are their ostensible subject. Most fiction about a place and time never rises above that place and time. When a real artist such as Faulkner or Singer or Mark Twain or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Homer happens to find inspiration in a particular region or period, it's likely to be because he finds in that region or period a symbol of his real concerns, which will be the passions of the human breast and the possibilities of human language.
That fetches us to Rule No. 3, illustrated both by Crab No. 3 (that National Geographic graphic) and by the Rembrandt drawing: Whatever else it is about, great literature is almost always also about itself. On rare occasions it may even be mainly about itself; though it's almost never exclusively about itself, even when it seems to be. And the same may go for such remarks as these, even when they claim to be about "aboutness." CAPTION: Illustration 1, No Caption, Painting by Ned M. Seidler, Copyright (c) 1972 National Geographic Society; Illustration 2, By Paul M. Breeden, Copyright (c) 1979, National Geographic Society