Prof. Cora Agatucci

Literary Genres

Course Home
Course Plan

Course Pack:


Introduction to Historical Fiction:
William Rainbolt
Online Course Pack

“It’s not history.  It’s fiction.”
--William Rainbolt


Rainbolt, William (Dept. of English, Univ. of Albany-SUNY).  "He Disagreed with the History, But He Liked the Story."  Writing History / Writing Fiction: A Virtual Conference Session.  History and MultiMedia Center, University at Albany-SUNY 
URL: http://www.albany.edu/history/hist_fict/Rainbolt/Rainboltes.htm
[last accessed March 2002].
Abstract: Dr. Rainbolt, a creative writer, journalism teacher, and Ph.D. in history, considers various definitions of the genre and discusses his own approach to writing historical fiction. He "write[s] historical fiction with three principles in mind: The Runciman Desire, the Oates Gambit, and the Ellison Mandate."  He maintains that the imaginative experience is "not escaping, but confronting life through literature."
What is historical fiction?  Dr. Rainbolt presents his own and others' responses to this question:
bullet Sir Walter Scott's prescription: The "novel should be set at least two generations in the past" (R. Gordon Kelly, cited by Rainbolt).  Ernest Leisy "reduced Scott's criterion to only half a generation: 'A historical novel is a novel the action of which is laid in an earlier time'" (R. Gordon Kelly, qtd. by Rainbolt).
bullet More modern attempts (of Avrom Fleishman and George Lukács) define the genre as fiction that includes "persons who actually lived and took part in notable events:  'When life is seen in the context of history, we have a novel; when the novel’s characters live in the same world with historical persons, we have a historical novel'” (R. Gordon Kelly, qtd. by Rainbolt).
"In a provocative essay for the American Heritage October 1992 issue devoted to the subject, Harvard professor emeritus of English Daniel Aaron professed:  
bullet 'Good writers write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write.  Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such.  The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music, so to speak, changed into forms akin to opera or theatrical productions'” (qtd. by Rainbolt).
In an endnote to his historical novel Moses Rose, Rainbolt quotes "the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa: 
bullet 'When you write a novel you do not have the obligation to be true and exact; the only obligation you have is to be persuasive.  And to be persuasive as a novelist in most cases you are obliged to transform, to distort reality, to lie, to invent something that is not true -- that is the only way fiction can be persuasive.”  

And Rainbolt adds this admonition to his readers:  

bullet "'This novel does not intend to contribute to historical scholarship; one cannot judge a tree by the criteria for a bridge.'”
Dr. Rainbolt is also illuminating on several related issues as he discusses his own approaches to writing historical fiction.  
When "eminent British historian Sir Steven Runciman...was asked by a writer for The New Yorker if he had ever thought about writing a historical novel,"  Runciman replied, yes, "he wanted deeply to do so in order to 'say what I know to be true, but cannot prove'”  (qtd. by Rainbolt).  Herein is revealed "[a] significant difference between nonfiction history and fiction:  the need for proof; more precisely, the roles of two different kinds of proof."
bullet Nonfiction history requires the kind of "proof" that is "verifiable by other researchers who can look at the same materials, or interview the same people, or visit the same places, a reality capable of being grasped, defined; a reality demonstrable enough that it can be used by others to construct further realities" (Rainbolt).
bullet Fiction (historical or otherwise) requires another kind of "proof" "verifiable only in one’s heart and soul, 'persuasion,' Vargas Llosa called it, persuasion that, he added, could help create 'a wondrous dream, a fantasy incarnate,' where 'fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand'" (qtd. by Rainbolt).  Put another way, fiction's "proof" lies in its "power of revelation: 'Fiction,' said Jessamyn West, 'reveals truths that reality obscures'” (qtd. by Rainbolt). In "historical fiction, the first proof must yield completely to the second, and await to be used as the writer sees fit" (Rainbolt).  
"The Proof-and-Truth Dilemma," & The Value of Historical Fiction
Creators of historical fiction often feel compelled to justify the liberties they take with "true history."  "For films,
it might be called the [Steven] Spielberg Insight, or in documentaries, the [Ken] Burns Defense:  sell the drama, parse the history, and argue that the work’s value (in addition to returning a profit) is to inspire readers and viewers to find out for themselves what the real history is, at least as more serious researchers have determined to date" (Rainbolt). Or "The Oates Gambit," which Rainbolt names after "Stephen Oates’s latest work, the history-by-channeling experiment The Approaching Fury, Voices of the Storm, 1820-61," which, according to Jean Baker (American Historical Review), "is meant to be 'popular history grounded in scholarship . . . intended to reach large audiences beyond the academy . . . (a book that) may provide the necessary context for a reading public that, like Oates, dislikes monographs and textbook accounts'" (qtd. by Rainbolt).  

"A nation’s history does not belong only to its professional historians, the argument goes.  They have their renderings, but they are just that -- interpretations.  Popular entertainment that sends others into bookstores, libraries, and -- dare we hope? -- into classrooms holds great value.  And why not?  'History,' A. J. P. Taylor wrote, 'is not just a catalogue of events put in the right order like a railway timetable.  History is a version of events'" (qtd. by Rainbolt).

So, Dr. Rainbolt asks, "Why shouldn’t imaginative storytellers contribute, in their own ways?  What can we learn about twentieth-century African Americans (and their ancestors) from August Wilson’s extraordinary cycle of plays?  What will we learn about John Brown from Russell Banks’s new novel, Cloudsplitter?  About modern American from Don DeLillo’s Underworld?  Wilson, Banks, and DeLillo are among America’s most important modern writers, after all, and they are writing the stories of how we came to be ourselves."

"[T]he ultimate criterion for judging an historical novel" [is]  whether it succeeds as an artistic work, regardless of what it does to history," asserts Dr. Rainbolt;  "Whether it inspires the reader to do the nearly impossible, indulge in the vicarious experience to such an extent that it becomes life itself; whether it teaches that reader not only something about himself or herself, but about others, too."
Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, like other great novelists such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, "informs us deeply about America historically, and they can teach us something about what history is and how it can be considered . . ." (Rainbolt).
Yes, Dr. Rainbolt declares, " I believe that the writer has the freedom to manipulate that 'first-proof' history in  any way necessary to achieve the Ellison Mandate.Ralph Ellison stated that the American novel creates experience. Successful historical fiction must be "persuasive" in creating experience, "persuasive enough to convince readers (or viewers) that in this work of fiction, human beings really are trying to have their great experiences, be they joyful or despairing, heroic or cowardly, loving or hateful.  Escapism, too many literature professors would call it, with great disdain.  The opposite, I would call it:  not escaping, but confronting life through literature" (Rainbolt).



Learn more about William Rainbolt from:
[last access March 2002]

ENGL 339-E Course Home | Course Plan | Introduction   

You are here: Introduction to Historical Fiction ~ Rainbolt Online Course Pack
URL of this webpage: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/Rainbolt.htm
Last updated:  30 March 2003

Copyright © 1997-2003, Cora Agatucci, Professor of English
Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
Please address comments on web contents & links to: cagatucci@cocc.edu
For problems with this web, contact webmaster@cocc.edu