Pop Goes the Novel: Historical Fiction Seizes Power



This article began as a speech at a conference at the New School about Georg Lukacs, and turned into a long review in the Voice Literary Supplement.


            The American historical novel is like a child of the manor born on the wrong side of the blanket: a regular Tom Jones, popular among the villagers but scorned by the respectable and cultured. Indeed, so fallen are its fortunes that when gifted novelists like Edgar Doctorow, Umberto Eco, Mary Lee Settle, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez write historical fiction, their works are usually removed from the genre and called something else.
            And no wonder. The historical novel is a popular form; it is therefore, by definition, low, like comic strips and rock music. To be loved by the many, it must forfeit its claim to the regard of the few. Most historical novels are written for autodidacts; they mix entertainment with enough historical fact to satisfy an ill-educated reader's desire for self-improvement. They are what our fore fathers used to call "improving literature." People read such novels to learn how things got the way they are, or what life is like in other countries. Being "improving," however, is almost as out-of-fashion in literature as it is in Washington.
            Among intellectuals, popular fiction is seen as "easy," like a high school tramp: boys headed for college, beware. This split between art fiction and popular fiction has as little to do with literature as virginity does with morality. It is the equivalent of what Freud called "the most prevalent degradation in adult erotic life"—men who worship the good girls they marry can only make it with the bad girls they don't. Popular novels are assumed "bad" in literary terms; in reality, they vary as much as popular people do. (The obverse is also true: one should not assume a book is good simply because no one reads it.)
            Though unfashionable among literati—at least in the West—the genre is beloved by socialists, with their special interest in the fortunate working-out of history. Not surprisingly, the first systematic critique of the genre was done by a Marxist, Georg Lukacs. According to Lukacs, the genre was born of the French revolution and the European wars that followed. From these wars came the sense of national culture, history, and destiny manifested in the work of writers like Sir Walter Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy. The army that defended the French revolution (and the American, though Lukacs does not mention it) was a popular, mass army, not a professional one. The French republic had to educate this army to fight for the Rights of Man, and so it created the first systematic propaganda of national history. French peasants campaigned in Egypt, Italy, Russia; their horizons broadened enormously and they got interested in the ways their country was different from others: "Hence the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their daily lives and immediately concerns them."
            The Second World War provided the United States with a similar conjunction of circumstances: mobilization changed everyone, including women left on the home front. Vast armies, engaged in a war of propaganda as well as arms, took Americans who otherwise would have stayed put in isolated rural towns not only to Europe but to the farthest reaches of Africa and Asia. What they learned was embodied in the novels they wrote, in the great flowering of historical fiction during and after the war: Citizen Tom Paine in 1943; Freedom Road in 1944; Hiroshima in 1946; Tales of the South Pacific and Lydia Bailey in 1947; The Young Lions and The Naked and the Dead in 1948; From Here to Eternity in 1951; and The Invisible Man in 1952.
            Though many of these novels were set in the recent past, they all took world history, the struggles of nations and peoples, as their subject; their characters moved inside historical events and exemplified reactions to them. James Michener informed readers about Asia and the Pacific; Kenneth Roberts and Howard Fast provided updated versions of our national myth that dealt with social injustice and the rights of dissidents. Problems of class, race, and ethnicity were central in all these novels, reflecting the wartime melting-pot experience. The ideal fictional platoon had one of everything: Wasp, Jew, Italian, Greek, black, intellectual, bully, mamma's boy.
            It's no accident that the historical novel fell from fashion during the cold war. So did history, after all, except as ivory-tower mythology or crude propaganda. "Moral rearmament" and catching up with Sputnik were the order of the day. Historical fiction was tainted by association—particularly with Howard Fast, who went to jail in 1950 on Smith Act charges. Those who have read only Fast's recent family sagas don't really know him, for he's writing with one hand tied behind his back. He leaves out the politics which were once the lifeblood of his work. His early books sang with delight: they took you through the learning experience of failed or partial revolutions, seen through the eyes of one hero. "I'm writing a small book to make things clear," says his Tom Paine.
            That openness came with the 40s and went with them. During World War II, historical novelists could imagine the birth of a more just America, one that would fulfill its melting-pot promise. They could believe in real progress. The cold war blew all that away. Citizen Tom Paine was soon banned from public libraries, along with incendiary publications like The Nation and Consumer's Research. Patriots probably felt that a tone of insufficient celebration had crept into the work of Kenneth Roberts, who wrote two popular novels humanizing Benedict Arnold, and another, Lydia Bailey, that attacked the post-revolutionary Alien and Sedition Acts while showing the heroism of the slave rebellion in Haiti. As an apolitical kid in the Midwest, I read and reread these books; they encouraged me to ask questions at a time when questioning was frowned upon. Such books are subversive in the best sense: during an era that punished radical speech, they undermined thought control and discriminated between patriotisms.
            By that time, those in charge of literary standards had decided that the novel should turn its back on politics. In the 60s, when I went to college, the canon of modernism included Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Celine, but omitted modernists of more radical or pop sensibilities, particulally those who combined progressive opinions with literary accessibility. No one even talked about the historical novel. When a genre loses its good name, writers who want recognition keep away. The historical novel became a mere popular genre, a mass-produced cultural artifact like the Western, the soap opera, the romance—the lumpenproletariat of literature. Writers like Fast and· Michener watched their reputations decline as their fortunes increased; they were regarded as mere carpenters of fact, crude moneymakers, merchants of entertainment whose books were reviewed as publishing phenomena rather than works of fiction. If they lost their sense of artistic purpose, who can blame them? Popular novelists badly need serious criticism as a counterweight to the pressures of the moneymen, and they seldom get it.
            Partly because of literary fashion, partly because of politics, the American historical novel is in decline. Most of its productions are mere costume drama, with 20th century types cavorting in fancy dress. Cecilia Holland does very well in this line; her novels are colorful, neatly plotted, and set in fascinating locations on the margins of European history (the Mongolian steppes, Byzantium, the Dutch coast); her characters are credible and moving, and you keep reading breathlessly to the end. But after the end, you are left with nothing more than you get from the best Kirk Douglas movies. Holland's books show none of that passion against injustice, that desire to find the forward motion of history, that preoccupied the earlier generation.
            Costume drama comes in many guises. Jean Plaidy works laboriously through the lives of the queens of England; other writers churn out fictionalized biographies of famous whores or mistresses, the daughters of Forever Amber. Regency romances, like those of Joan Aiken, are romantic comedies in fancy dress. Barbara Cartland is a category unto herself, specializing in breathlessly innocent heroines and last-page honeymoon scenes with lots of dot dot dots. The "bodice-ripper," briefly fashionable a few years back, specialized in sex and violence in locations such as the high seas. The family saga tends to have more facts and research than the others and is really a cross between the novel of social realism and the historical novel. It celebrates the American way by following an immigrant family up the social scale. Then there is the prehistorical novel, much in demand these days, though perhaps this is really a brand of science fiction. Writers in these subgenres may portray famous incidents in the class struggle, like the overthrow of patriarchy or the Triangle Fire, but giving joy to leftists is the furthest thing from their minds. Their books challenge the liberal-consensus version of American history about as much as a pickpocket challenges capitalism.
            Despite its low morale, the historical novel has not entirely disappeared as a vehicle for serious writing. The genre is too useful to abandon. By focusing on the lives of ordinary people, it can portray the whole spectrum of society at moments of crisis without becoming abstract or impersonal. Its characters can be both individuals and personifications of historical types. It can show the hidden force and heroic potential that's latent in ordinary people but comes out at extraordinary moments in history. The historical novel has so much elasticity: it can juxtapose vast sweeps across the globe with the detail of everyday family affairs, and place epic social conflicts next to the most private internal ones.
            Mary Lee Settle is one of the few U.S. writers who has this kind of ambition: the theme of her Beulah Quintet is social change from the middle of the 17th century to the present. Settle shows the way politics becomes a ruling passion in certain times and places and how that passion changes history. But she doesn't write textbooks. Her novels have scenes that remain in one's mind years later—like the opening of O Beulah Land, when Hannah, an escaped indentured servant, is lost for weeks in the wilderness.
            Where there is a cut, there will be a freshet; beyond the freshet, a spring branch; beyond thebranch, a creek; beyond the creek, a river, flowing and interflowing like the capillaries, the arteries, the veins of a man. Where the water flows down, sooner or later there will be men. But where it flows from, only the underbrush, the high trees, the silence…a choking mass of tangled and insidious laurel hugging at her dress; rhododendron run wild over and under, making astrong mat which rose almost to tree height, mile upon mile of thick snaking roots, like the unkempt head of some insane giant. For two days she had stumbled, fought, thrust her body against the unyielding mass, without food, without water, in a maze of God....
            What writing! Among other virtues, Settle's style has the strength once considered impossible for women, in the bad old days when we were told that Jane Austen was a second-rate novelist because, not having fought in the Napoleonic Wars, she couldn't do battle scenes. Mary Lee Settle writes one tough battle scene. Prisons, the first novel in her quintet, is narrated by Johnny Church, one of Cromwell's soldiers. His school is the Army of the Saints, where he learns from other soldiers, among them his martyred friend, Robbie Lokyar:
            But Robbie Lokyar is my other name for tears . ... He was twenty then, as I am now who God help me must somehow fill his place . ... "You," he said, "think yourselves too high and mighty poets and preachers to weave your way through politics. I tell you this"—he always began so—"We may speak the language of religion, but politics informs it ... political religion is the weapon of our enemies, religious politics our strength."... The voice of religion can grow loud and wild on waves of feeling, but the voice of politics is low and has direction. He had such a voice.
            Taking up arms out of Protestant radicalism, as well as rebellion against his father—against all patriarchal authority—Johnny Church goes so far left he begins to question property and class relations, and ends up being executed by Cromwell. More than anything else I've read, Prisons shows what a white heat can be generated when politics and religion are fused. It reminded me forcibly of the passions of the '60s, even though Settle is a real historical novelist, not a writer of costume drama: her people are true to the possibilities of their time, her Cromwell is not Lyndon Johnson in tights
            She sets her books in periods of struggle: a frontier settlement shortly before the American revolution; the Civil War; a mining town in 1912, during a strike led by Mother Jones. Then she measures the space her characters have to move in, paces it out, step by deadly step, in a style that's concise, muscular, and enormously varied. She doesn't make many concessions to accessibility; if you want to read Prisons, you have to go with 17th century prose. Nor does she
point a moral or give the good guys easy victories: Johnny Church changes and learns, but he and others pay dearly for their naiveté.
            Settle is passionate about politics. So is James Michener, but he's more concerned with teaching positive lessons; he is one of the great popularizers. Settle clearly starts from character and dramatic images, like Faulkner, who built The Sound and the Fury from the image of a little girl in a white dress up in a tree. It is equally clear Michener starts with an outline that covers every point. The danger of this method is that his books deteriorate into long term papers unless his passions are engaged.
            In Texas, a committee is called together by the governor to write a high school history text that will truly represent the state. The device enables Michener to bring on various experts to lecture about subjects ranging from the Catholic Church to high school sports. He has made the committee itself a mini-melting pot: one Mexican-American, one Wasp historian, one oilman, one rancher, and one little lady with a backbone of steel. Unfortunately, these committee meetings are deadly. Michener obviously feels a mission to educate Americans about everything from outer space to city hall. But his educational concerns have run amok in Texas; it reads like an encyclopedia. Is he trying to show his critics what a book “written by committee” would be like?
            Of course, he undertook this book at the request of the governor of Texas. Maybe his work is suffering from hanging out with politicians and their backers. The acknowledgements (which run to six pages and are far more interesting than the committee meetings) reveal both his thoroughness and his connections:
            Arrangements for my thirty-month research work in Texas were made by then-Governor William Clements, who fulfilled every promise he made and to whom I am grateful…R.P. Marshall of the King ranch spent to fine days with me lecturing on the ha bits of quail.…Bill Blakemore showed me his large spread near Alpine; in the same vicinity D.J. Sibley and his wife, Jane, shared their fairy tale castle atop a mountain, with the six battlement towers, one for each of the Texas flags….Martin Allday of Midland arranged three extensive seminars on Western oilfields, most of which I visited in detail…In Livingston, Ben Ogletree arranged a unique experience. At three o’clock one morning I stood with him at a drilling site when a well came in. In appreciation of the good luck which he thought I had brought him, he named this substantial field after me…
            Michener’s heart does not lie in these high places. He’s no fat cat; he was born a foundling and spent years in the poorhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; he went to Swarthmore on a scholarship and became a Quaker there. He wants history to include the wrongs done Indians and Chicanos; he wants things to be made fair; he wants everybody to have a seat at the table. On the evidence of his books, he hates injustice and hopes to teach his country to hate it too.
            Texas comes to life only when Michener touches the themes that have always moved him: democracy, the rights of the individual, the horrors of prejudice, war. The liveliest passages concern Scotch Presbyterians and tough, civic-minded German immigrants who came to Texas to get away from the idiocies of feudalism. Ludwig Allerkamp, a bookbinder with four children and no money, asks permission for his oldest son to marry and his daughter to get an education. The prince refuses: the boy has no house, no job, no prospects, and it is wrong to educate women. When Ludwig asks to emigrate, the prince threatens him with jail: war is imminent and hell need the Allerkamp boys. Michener interjects:
            There are many things in this world worse than an orderly revolution, that turns tables upside-down for a while, for in such violent periods men still eat and marry and think great thoughts and rearrange their prejudices and launch new ventures; and one of the worst alternatives is a deadly hand of repression which inhibits all forward motion and stifles all adventures. Ludwig Allerkamp and his son were about to experience the soured and withered fruit that crew upon the tree cultivated by Metternich.
            That is what I think of as Michener's real voice, a decent democratic humanist voice. But in Texas, his voice is garbled. He has the first person narrator of his committee sessions argue in favor of the U.S. invasion of Grenada: "I believe the invasion of Grenada was justified. I think it forestalled Cuban action....You excise a cancer when it's small, or you lose a life." Is this the same author who condemned Metternich? In a writer more playful with narrative voice and persona, we might suspect irony, but this seems a symptom of conflict and confusion.
            Michener is the closest thing we have to a poet laureate; he identifies with the state and fate of his country. But he has always been a liberal and he has undoubtedly noticed that U.S. policy is moving to the right. It must depress him to see his government's inability to learn the lessons he has tried to teach. And it must be a burden for him to feel he has to represent his country, all of it, in 1985. Maybe it's inevitable that he should cease to represent himself. Because there's so little self or subjectivity in Texas, the book seems flat and dead. If it doesn't work as a novel, it doesn't work politically, however multi-ethnic its cast. Who needs a rainbow coalition full of zombies?
            These days, many of the best historical novels come from the third world, where social conditions in some ways approximate those of the bourgeois revolutions Lukacs wrote about. In 1937, it was easier for him to see the decline of old forces in Europe, and conclude that the historical novel was dying, than to predict the emergence of new forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. History has since demonstrated that as new classes and nations seize the stage of culture, they revitalize forms the West considers degraded past saving. Revolutionaries classically entrench themselves in poor neighborhoods and build their armies out of the lowest of the low. They also find new promise in despised cultural forms—which, like the prostitute with heart of gold, can be transformed in the process of a liberation struggle. This has happened to the historical novel in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ousmane Sembene.
            Some would say these writers are not historical novelists because their style is compressed, modernist, and heavily symbolic. But this is preposterous: history is the meat and meaning of their work. Whatever his personal tastes may have been, Lukac's definition of the historical novel does not lay down stylistic criteria that would rule out elements of surrealism, nonchronological narration, or other modernist techniques used by writers who want to show the irrational, trivial, and personal sides of history. There is no reason to assume that the stylistic conventions of the bourgeois revolution will seem most, appropriate to novelists of other kinds of revolution. As Lukacs says:
            The novel's aim is to represent a particular social reality at a particular time, with all the color and specific atmosphere of that time….Since the novel portrays the "totality of objects," it must penetrate into the small details of everyday life, into the concrete time of the action, it must bring out what is specific to this time through the complex interaction of all these details.
            If one wished to write a historical novel about a stagnant colonial society with outmoded feudal trappings, where nothing ever seems to happen and yet revolutions are being slowly born out of the same old everyday nothing, what better stylistic device could there be than showing numerous generations of a family in which all the people stay the same and have the same name and yet through time they and their world are transformed? Giving everybody the same name, in a village with a limited number of available family and saints' names, is also realistic, as anthropologists can tell you. Though the effect of this device in One Hundred Years of Solitude may be to disorient the reader, surrealism is not necessarily opposed to historical veracity.
            But not every third world writer is a Garcia Marquez, and modernist techniques are as fetishized today as realistic ones were a hundred years ago. The Water House, by Brazilian writer Antonio Olinto, uses a somnambulistic stream-of-consciousness style similar in form to magic realism. Yet there is no magical and little symbolic content to this book, which is basically an immigration success story in an exotic setting. There is potential fascination in the history of ex-slaves who leave Brazil and return to Africa with their families, but the characters and plot of The Water House are not fundamentally different from those of Evergreen. Mariana comes to Nigeria as 'a girl from a dirt-poor family of ex-slaves. After she gets the idea of borrowing money to dig a well and then sell water, she becomes the local equivalent of a millionaire. By page 200, her children are at college in London and Paris. By the end of the book, one of her son has become president of a newly liberated African country.
            The Water House could have been a rich mix of ethnic and class conflicts, sexual coming-of-age, and moneymaking. But Mariana's motivations and actions are seen through a haze; stream-of-consciousness enables Olinto to fudge rather than deepen the interesting questions: what is Mariana really like? What does she want? As a result, the story doesn't make sense in human terms; for the same reason, it doesn't teach us much about history. At the end of the book, Mariana's son, the president, is assassinated, but we never find out why. The assassination is just one of the events that flow through her consciousness, with no rhyme or reason.
            Everything is there for a reason in the novels of Ousmene Sembene, the Senegalese writer, filmmaker, and sometime political prisoner. His style, simple realism on the surface, has remarkable symbolic depth. In his best-known book, God's Bits of Wood, about the 1947 railway strike on the Dakar-Niger line, modem history, tribal customs, ordinary lives, great scenes of mass battle, and several love stories are thrown together in a marvelous stew that simmers and boils with life. God's Bits of Wood has one of the best-drawn revolutionary heroes in fiction, the strike leader Bakayoko. Here is his speech at the great public meeting in Dakar, called by the French governor and trade union leaders to prevent, a general strike after the railroad management has refused to negotiate with the union:
            "It seems that this strike is the work of a little group of black sheep, ledby foreigners. If this is so, there must be alot of black sheep in this country; and you, who know us all, look at me and tell me who are the foreigners….It seems also that we are incapable of creating anything by ourselves, but we must be of some use because, since we stopped working, the trains have stopped running…
            Monsieur le gouverneur, Monsieur le deupté, the old lady you see there before you is Grandmother Fatou Wade. She lost her husband in the first war and her older son in the second. They gave her these medals, which have no value to her, and now they have put her younger son in prison because he was on strike. She has nothing left. Monsieur le gouverneur, Monsieur le deputé, take back these medals and give her her son and her daily rice in exhange!”
             Naturally a general strike is declared after a speech like this. One of the main demands of the strikers is pay equal to that of the trainmen in France. They want family allowances as well. The French refuse to consider this: Senegal is Moslem, and many of the trainworkers are polygamous. Why should the French have to pay for more than one wife, much less all those children: "to give in on the question of family allowances was much more than a matter of
agreeing to a compromise with striking workers; it would amount to recognition of a racial aberrance, a ratification of the customs of inferior beings. It would be giving in not to workers but to Negroes," and that they would not do. The family allowance is one of the chief demands of the women because they ere starving. .
            One morning a woman rose and wrapped her cloth firmly around her waist and said, "Today, I will bring back something toeat.” And the men began to understand that if the times were bringing forth a new breed of men, they were also bringing forth a new breed of woman.
            At the beginning of the novel, these women are still living traditionally, despite the changes wrought by the white men and their machines. Then comes the six-month strike: famine, danger, their water supply cut off by the French. One day old Ramatoulaye kills and butchers an enormous ram belonging to her rich brother, El Hadji Mabigué; the animal has rampaged around the courtyard and eaten the children's few grains of rice. Within hours the police have surrounded her courtyard.
             The women were on the verge of panic. They scarcely recognized the woman beside them asthe Ramatoulaye they had always known ,and they asked themselvewhere she had found this new strength. She had always been quiet and unassuming and gentle with the children….Where then had this violence been born? The answer was as simple as the woman herself. It had been born beside a cold fireplace, in an empty kitchen.
            She took a step toward the white officer. “Go away now,” she said in French. “This is a house for us, not a house for white men…”
            On all sides of her the other women began brandishing battles filled with sand, flatirons, and clubs of all shapes and sizes. In a few minutes the group of policemen was completely encircled..
            By participating in the strike, these wives, like the women in The Salt of the Earth, come to a place they have not been before. Society can never again be as it was. Though crowds of women have been a force in historical novels since A Tale of Two Cities, it is only in our own time that such a crowd could become not just background or local color, but part of that collective hero, the people. If the historical novel finds new life in the United States, you can be sure that women, workers and third world peoples will be more than extras in these dramas. For that is a central meaning of the history of our times , and of the promise we hold for the future.