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Introduction to Historical Fiction:
Joel Jones

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“There is no single 'right' method of handling literary problems, no single approach to works of literary art that will yield all the significant truths about them.”
--David Daiches [1] (qtd. in Jones).


Jones, Joel.  “Howell’s The Leatherwood God: The Model in Method for the American Historical Novel.”  Explicator 51.2 (Winter 1993): 96 (8pp).  EBSCOHost  Academic Search Elite 2000; Article No. 9307130070.  [Full text available.]  
Joel Jones applies "an Aristotelian perspective to a study of the historical novel as a literary genre," and treats "The Leatherwood God [1916], William Dean Howells's first serious attempt at historical fiction."  

[Aristotle on fiction vs. history]
First of all, in the Poetics, Aristotle remarks that if a poet 'should come to take a subject from actual history, he is none the less a poet for that.'[3] . . . . Of greater import, though, is the differentiation he makes between the historian and the poet:

From what we have said it will be seen that the poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary.  The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse--you might put the work of Herodotus into verse and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals. whereas those of history are singulars.[4] 
[Aristotle qtd. in Jones].

"Using these terms, then, one might propose the following as a definition of the historical novel: that literary form which projects both the thing that has been and the kind of thing that might have been and, in so doing, reveals universals of past, present, and future by depicting singulars of the past.  To sense what might have been, the historical novelist must seek not only to know what was, but also to grasp the why of that what; he or she must seek insight into the motivations and impulses that condition and are conditions by the historical fact and which constitute the ultimate sense of reality of the historical fact."

[Howells on Literary Realism vs. Historical Romance]
William Dean Howells championed literary realism in American letters: for the realist, meaning "rests in the world of everyday events and things" and "the moral element of existence."  "To Howells, beauty...is realized in the mind as a consequence of the comprehension of 'the true meaning of things;' [7] and since 'morality penetrates all things...is the soul of all things, the foremost and 'finest effect of the "beautiful" will be ethical and not aesthetic merely' [8]" (Howells qtd. in Jones).

"For Howells, the sunlight in which the realist examined his everyday world would be as revelatory of sham as it would of splendor;" and herein lies Howells's objection to "the historical romance (or any romance, for that matter)": it too often appealed to readers "'who cannot be brought face to face with...all the disagreeable details' of their existence. [10]" (Howells qtd. in Jones). Historical romance, all "the craze at the turn of the century" (Jones),  flatters the popular fancy "'with false dreams of splendor in the past, when life was mainly as simple and sad-colored as it is now.' [11]" (Howells qtd. in Jones).  Historical romances "use shadows to conceal the realities of the past and do so in order to cater to that American reading public 'which likes a good conscience so much that it prefers unconsciousness to a bad one.' [12]" (Howells qtd. in Jones). Howells "conjectured that the American populace at the zenith of the Gilded Age, 'having more reason that ever to be ashamed of itself for its lust of gold and blood,' was overly 'anxious to get away from itself'; therefore it welcomed 'the tarradiddles of the historical romancers as a relief from the odious present'" [13] (Howells qtd. in Jones).

Furthermore, Howells objected to historical romances because they are "'untrue to the complexion of the past' and 'to personality in any time,' basically due to the preoccupation of the authors with 'bloodshed' and 'butchery' and a corresponding inability and lack of desire either to portray accurately human nature or to capture historical climate."  In addition, their preoccupation with fictional and historical characters of "'titles and ranks,'...bore 'false witness...against the American life of individual worth.' [14]" (Howells qtd. in Jones).  

[Howells on Good Historical Fiction]
Good historical fiction, like Tolstoy's War and Peace, "succeed because 'a whole epoch lives again morally, politically and socially, with such entirety and large inclusion that the reader himself becomes of it'  It is by re-creating for us the 'motives and feelings' of people of the past--and, therefore, of time present--it is not by 'taking us out of ourselves, but by taking us into ourselves' that a work of art proves its worth, its validity.  Demonstrating the pragmatic belief in personal experience as the ultimate source of reality and truth, Howells stated that a historical novel 'convinces us by entering into our experiences and making its events part of that.' [15]" (qtd. in Jones).

Howells tried to "implement these principles" in The Leatherwood God, his historical novel set in the "climate of opinion or historical atmosphere of a small, rural Ohio community of the early 1900s caught up in religious frenzy."  "The novel deals with the actual appearance, in the village of Salesville, Ohio ('Leatherwood' in the novel), in the 1830s of Joseph C. Dylks, a self-proclaimed religious divinity"; Howells "drew the facts of the incident from the historical account of R. H. Tanneyhill," faithfully adheres "to the basic historical development of the event," and used "many events precisely as described by Tanneyhill."  "The accumulation of realistic details concerning the everyday realities of the people and the reproduction of their local dialect provide a vivid sense of historical place and time.  That place and time, moreover, become manifest in the thoughts and actions of the characters...." "The problem of the deceiver, the deceived, and the self-deceived (Howells knowledgeably shows that nearly all of us are finally a little of each), then, has been given a context that is at once historical and novel."  Howells enacted his belief that universal truth is revealed in regionalism's "local color and character," seeks to reclaim a "'usable past,'" and eschews "sentimentality and 'false dreams of splendor in the past" in writing his historical novel; The Leatherwood God provides "an encounter with the reality of that moment in Ohio history, as well as an understanding of the perplexing perversities in American character and culture of any present."

[From Jones's] NOTES 
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1956)391.
Aristotle, The Rhetoric and the Poetics. ed. Friedrich Solmsen, trans. Ingram Bywater (New York: Modem Library 1954) 235.
4. Aristotle 234-35.
W. D. Howells, Criticism and Fiction (New York, 1891) 83.
Howells, Criticism 116.
11. W. D. Howells, "The New Historical Romances," North American Review 171 (December 1900): 943.
12. Howells, "Romances" 936.
13. Sam Girgus, Desire and the Political Unconscious in American Literature (New York: St. Martin's, 1990) 107.
14. Howells, "Romances" 939-41.
15. Howells, "Romances" 946.
16. Ernest Leisy, The American Historical Novel (Norman, Ok.: U of Oklahoma P, 1950).


"Joel Jones, currently the President of Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, did his doctoral study and dissertation under George Arms at the University of New Mexico and later returned there to chair the American Studies Program...."

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