Experiencing history versus studying it
We often conceptualize history as a linear sequence of ordered events which have finite beginnings and endings. These events are enacted by famous personages whose destiny it is to catalyze key moments or revolutionary ideas. I take a different view. I perceive history as powerful emotions connected by individual experience. For me, this understanding resonates most strongly through photographs, personal narratives, objects and being at places with historical significance.
When I was in Wales I happened to visit Caernarvon Castle while re-enactors were honoring the Battle of Mametz Woods. While in the castle I happened upon an older gentleman who had his grandfather’s sergeant’s uniform from the British Expeditionary Force, worn in WWI yet still in pristine condition. The uniform was replete with the entire standard-issue infantryman’s kit carried by its wearer, including an entrenching tool and Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. The most evocative of these artifacts was the actual whistle used by his grandfather to send men “over the top” of the trenches, for frontal assaults through No Man’s Land to their near-certain deaths.
The gentleman offered me the singular opportunity to try the uniform on, and while he tightened a strap here or helped me match the right button to the right hole there, he told me about his grandfather’s service. When I was completely suited up, he handed me the whistle. It was just a small, ordinary-looking, brass whistle. But when I put it to my lips I thought of the thousands that this small piece of metal sent to their doom, and the feelings of terror and anticipation its sound conjured in the hearts of those who heard its shrill piping. Suddenly I felt the air leave my lungs as though I’d been punched in the stomach and I had no desire to bring to life this harbinger of death. I placed it back in the man’s hand without blowing through it and he silently nodded.
To understand history one must do more than more than read placards on museum displays or even stick your head in a good book (though I often do both of those things). It’s deploying the visceral imagination as a sense organ in an attempt to feel what the people who came before felt. I did not need to blow the whistle because I could already imagine it in my mind’s eye. I could smell the damp mud and the scent of the wet wool of the uniform after a light rain. I could hear the whoosh and thuds of artillery shells, the thunderous report of bombs, the crackle of machine gun fire, the screaming men rallying each other to walk on, into the teeth of oblivion. For a few moments I felt it all happen as though I was there.
I write historical fiction by compiling these emotions and then bringing my imagination to bear on them. I create collages, assembling a patchwork of historical ideas, places, events, people. I add events and characters of my own invention. Then I stitch them together and reassemble them with my own in order to weave a story. Photographs and other artifacts assist me in this process, and have inspired me to create and sell my own artifacts accompanying the books I write: telegrams typewritten on a 60 year old typewriter using vintage paper, fictitious letters penned by fictionalized characters, official-looking documents and other ephemera. The purpose of these efforts is not to make sales, but to help readers feel the totality of worlds I’ve created. History is not meant to be understood; it is meant to be felt and experienced. Writing and reading historical fiction is the best way I know how to do more than simply observe the past from a safe distance, but instead to delve into its murky waters, hold my breath and remain below its surface until my spirit is completed submerged.
The shortest path to understanding history, is not through the study of a sequence of events; it is through understanding the culture and psychology of people who came before us. That understanding is best achieved by attempting to recreate their emotional experience. However, recreating some else’s emotional experience is not possible, nor does it go far enough. One must have one’s own experience, using whatever materials are at hand.
The portal opened by the imagination is a time machine.
This process not only entails reconstruction of the past, but the creation of a new reality as well. As such, accuracy is not its aim, in the social scientific sense. There is no contradiction between truth and fiction, but rather a question of what sort of truths are revealed by fiction. Nor do fictional truths and so-called “objective” truths stand in opposition to each other or negate each other. People sometimes fail to realize that “objective” reality is not monolithic and unchanging, but often hotly contested. Therein lies the paradox of subjective and objective realities. One cannot exist without the other (except perhaps in mathematics). The “correct” meaning or interpretation to be derived from any particular experience can be supported or refuted, but rarely proved or disproved.
Are we allowed to combine creativity with historical knowledge? I find it interesting that many historical novels (by “serious” authors, e.g. Margaret Atwood) are prefaced by extensive disclaimers that although their book is a work of fiction, it could have happened exactly the way the author intended, but for a few liberties taken here and there to fill in the gaps. When I see these statements, I am disappointed. It’s as though the author is saying, “I know I have written a work of fiction, but my book is better and more authentic for the fact that it contains a minimum of creativity and barely a passing resemblance to fiction.” It’s as though fiction itself is viewed as an embarrassingly inadequate substitute for the gold-standard: nonfiction, “real” truth, objectivity.
For these writers, imagination and literary devices are merely second-rate glue to weld the seams of their otherwise factual narrative, deployed only where a dearth of facts makes creativity absolutely necessary. I have little patience for writers who do not respect the art of writing, or are ashamed of the genre they write in. However beautiful their prose, their aim is not to tell the best story possible, but to slavishly adhere to the quest for authenticity. Most writers understand that — at least in the present era — it is nonfiction that receives the most praise, attention, interest and validation.
Let’s be honest: no one now or one hundred years from now is going to praise a book about WWI that includes bigfeet and flying unicorns, or consider it as anything other than absurd, experimental nonsense — at best. But applying a standard of requiring or expecting literal truth from a work of fiction is not only misguided, it conflates the the purposes and value of fiction and nonfiction.
Therefore, fiction writers who make claims that their work is as close to the literal truth as possible ironically damage their own reputations in the long run, by drawing attention to the contradictions they have highlighted which might have otherwise gone unnoticed. They also hurt writers whose aim is to write real historical fiction, as opposed to fiction masquerading as nonfiction, because they implant the notion in readers’ minds that fiction should be as accurate as possible, and that it should adhere to the same norms as nonfiction.
The value of historical fiction lies in its creativity, in its ability to transcend prior understandings — not merely restate them in story form. The personality, vision and voice of the author are as much a part of the fabric of the narrative as the historical themes, events, and characters. The aesthetic value of historical fiction is not found in its ability to unveil literal truths or accurately recall events. Its value resides in its power to build worlds, and transport the reader to them, to make the reader feel as though they could really go to the places contrived by the author’s imagination. To a creative writer of historical fiction, history is not merely a puzzle to reconstruct, but the background upon which to superimpose one’s own ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
The characters crafted by the writer of historical fiction become proxies for oneself. Their eyes, thoughts, hopes and fears become our own. We may be able to understand the events of history by studying them from afar, but it is only by knowing the hearts and minds of the people who came before us, that we can approach a humane reckoning of who they were, and how they made sense of their world. In so doing, we make of historical fiction not a tool for reliving past events, but as a sensory apparatus through which we can explore human nature intuitively, emotionally, and experientially.
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Care to read a hilarious account of Theodore Roosevelt hunting Bigfoot? Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Squabble-Titans-Recollections-Roosevelt-Rainforest/dp/B097X4R4LN