ENGLISH 339-E
Prof. Cora Agatucci

Literary Genres

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Introduction to Historical Fiction:
Two by Thomas Mallon
Online Course Pack

[T]wo occasions...best call for the historical novelist: when the facts have been lost to time, and when a time has been lost to the facts.

Mallon, Thomas (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore).  "History, Fiction, and the Burden of Truth."  Writing History / Writing Fiction: A Virtual Conference Session.  History and MultiMedia Center, University at Albany-SUNY 
URL: http://www.albany.edu/history/hist_fict/Mallon/Mallons.htm
[last accessed March 2002].
"At a time when important filmmakers and serious novelists are turning to historical subjects with unusual frequency, their audiences find themselves left to ponder and preserve the distinctions between facts and fabrications."  Mallon, himself an historical novelist, does not believe that "the genre, even when done well, rises to a higher truth than perceptively written history. The literal truth, of things judicial as well as historical, is preferable to any subjective one. However differently experienced by its participants, and prejudicially interpreted by their heirs, historical events happened one way and one way only. It's only their meaning that's open to interpretation."  Yet "two occasions...best call for the historical novelist: when the facts have been lost to time, and when a time has been lost to the facts."
Mallon, Thomas.  Writing Historical Fiction.  American Scholar 61.4 (Fall 1992): 604 (6pp). EBSCOHost Academic Search Elite, 2001:  AN [Item number] 9302010352.  [NOTE: COCC Library subscribes to EBSCOHost] 

From "Writing Historical Fiction"
By Thomas Mallon

"John Updike has written, in an article published in Picked-up Pieces (1975), that in fiction "reality is--chemically, atomically, biologically--a fabric of microscopic accuracies." Only through these tiny, literal accuracies can the historical novelist achieve the larger truth to which he aspires--namely, an overall feeling of authenticity. It is just like Marianne Moore's famous prescription for the ideal poet: He must stock his imaginary garden with real toads.

"Is there, though, a point at which the letter begins to kill the spirit?  Mary McCarthy once spoke of how, while writing her novel Birds of America, she was told by someone that the Sistine Chapel, in which she'd set a chapter taking place around New Year's Day in 1965, might have been closed at that time for a Vatican Council. She was aghast. After making inquiries, she was relieved to learn that the chapel had indeed been open when she had her characters in it; but she insisted that had it turned out otherwise she would have thrown away a whole chapter. Who, one might argue, besides some terribly pedantic reader bent on ruining the novelists's day with a postcard, would ever have known or cared? . . . . why bother with such a detail when, at a certain point, since you are writing a novel and not history, reality must give way to lies? . . . ."

"Every historical novelist will decide these things differently, will calibrate his fidelity to the real past along a different scale."

Mallon's own historical research has yielded much that he might not have been able to imagine on his own.  "The point is that I didn't need to. It was there, real. I am not saying that truth is always stranger than fiction, but I would assert that the historical novelist quickly finds that the history in which he must work is not so much a straitjacket as a chariot.

"He also finds out, or newly realizes, how quickly the present turns into the past. It is not so much the large official chronicles of history that will tell him this, but the more humble documentation of everyday life."

"To a certain degree I am romancing the past, but that is one's privilege with it. One does not have to fear the past . . . ."

"Why, finally, does one read historical fiction?"  Mallon believes that "we no longer go to historical fiction for explanation so much as for exoticism. Georg Lukacs, the pre-eminent Marxist critic of the genre, lamented in The Historical Novel how, a century after Sir Walter Scott, whose historical fiction was prized for its relevance, historical novels were being read because they were so irrelevant, so appealingly strange.

"Is this really so terrible? I think the idea of historical fiction as the prototype of current reality is a bit like a planned Marxist economy--something that looks better on paper than it does while waiting in line. Moreover, I think that readers always liked historical fiction, not because they wanted to drag history into the present and make it useful, but because they wanted to put themselves back into history, into the past, to wander around it as if in a dream, to ponder themselves as having been born too late--a much more common feeling than the feeling that one has been born too soon. Avrom Fleishman, author of The English Historical Novel, says that historical fiction performs the improving function of making us see ourselves as historical creatures--that is, persons shaped by large forces and currents. I think that historical fiction more commonly encourages us to see ourselves as historical accidents, to experience what it might have felt like if, my God, it had been us, not Peanut John, who had innocently agreed to hold John Wilkes Booth's horse around 9:30 P.M. on that Good Friday evening. The historical novelist will always have to listen to a mass of dismissive wisdom advising him to abandon his subject. He will be told, by literary theoreticians: 'That was then; this is now.'  But he should just hold firm, and wait ten seconds before replying, by which time the 'now' being discussed will already have become his territory, namely, the past."

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