Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by Kenneth Weene.
Fiction from History
It was, the school administration assured us students, a new idea: combining American history and English into one course, which would focus on The Civil War. At an old New England boarding school there was no War Between the States and certainly no War of Northern Succession. Yankee all the way.
By then, Junior year, I was an avid reader and a lover of history. This new eleventh year English course was designed in my personal heaven. And let there be no question, the results lived up to my expectations.
That high school English course changed my perspective on literature, and on the interplay of history and novels. I loved the way authors could interweave real events with their fictional characters. The more true to history the events were, the surer I was that this was great writing.
But, I had conflicted feelings because there was another body of literature that I also loved, what I call fiction from history, the contemporary fiction from times before I was alive. These wonderful books transported me to those times and made them real. Perhaps best typified by Dickens, who brought to life the pain and poverty of the English masses, by Steinbeck, who dragged my soul through the suffering of the great depression, by Fitzgerald who helped me live the wild abandon of the roaring twenties, and by Conrad, who carried me into the darkness of not just Africa but colonialism as well. These great writers didn’t focus on real events; rather they focused on creating the climate in which those events happened. Of course, these great writers were not setting their stories in history; they were writing about the world around them.
These were powerful novels from history captured the human condition. They rose above the immediacy of the world in which they were written to become timeless. The reader of today who reads this books is suspended beyond time. That suspension of the fourth dimension is perhaps best recognized by Vonnegut, whose masterpiece “Slaughterhouse-Five” begins grounded in an historical event only to end in a paean to post traumatic stress disorder and the inability of Billy Pilgrim to escape the loop of experience which has neither beginning nor end.
Thus there have been two clear models of the nexus between history and literature. The one is what we usually call historical fiction—the addition of fictional events to historical realities. The other is reliving history through the literature of the times, fiction from history. But are those two forms sufficient? I would say no and propose a third approach, what I call historicized fiction.
To understand this concept, one might want to start with neither history nor literature but with anthropology. During World War II, the U.S. government contracted with anthropologist Ruth Benedict to do a study of Japanese culture. That study, which was published as “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” was intended to help a victorious American authority to more effectively govern the conquered island nation. The book introduced an innovative way of looking at culture, one in which broad trends and ideas were used instead of the myriad of details that were the normal anthropological study. In effect, what Benedict asked was, “What does the normal Japanese person experience? How does the normal Japanese person think about his/her life and the world around?”
The goal of historicized fiction is to present a literary answer to those same experiential questions when they are asked about a time in the past. The goal is not to recreate actual events but rather to place the reader in the milieu as it might have been experienced by the real people of that time.
Probably the most accessible examples of historicized fiction are from theatre. Consider Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece “Mother Courage.” Does it portray specific events from The Hundred Years War? Of course not. There is no concern with this battle or that, with this truce or the other. Brecht focuses solely on the experience, the endless, drudging, and painful experience of the war. It is more than enough for us to understand what that war meant. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is another masterwork of historicized fiction. It captures the disconnection between the royal court and the world surrounding. It has always been my personal reading that Lear was intended to be about the times of Henry VIII, whose three children shared not his land but sequentially his throne. Certainly, Lear’s relationship with the fool reminds one of Henry’s connection with Will Sommers.
With any discussion of historicized fiction on the stage a special mention must be made of the powerful Pittsburgh Cycle of August Wilson, which captured ten decades of the African-American experience.
Historicized fiction differs from historical fiction in one most significant way. Historicized fiction doesn’t have to be factually correct. While there may be some factual elements on which to peg the creation, there is not the one-to-one congruence with known events that historical fiction demands.
My soon to be released “Times to Try the Soul of Man” is historical fiction. Primarily set in New York during the 1990s and through 2001, Times is based on verifiable events. Simultaneously a crime novel and a coming-of-age story, Times relies not only on 9/11 but even more on corruption that was taking place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the area known as Alphabet City. A community activist is murdered, and that too is historically accurate. Indeed, much of the book is based on real events even when the reader might well think them fictional.
Currently I am working on a work of historicized fiction, “Red and White,” a tale about Native Americans and their interaction with Euro-Americans. Set in the end of the Nineteenth Century, this could be written as historical fiction. There were certainly more than enough exciting and dramatic, actual events to cobble together into a great yarn. But, that has not been my approach.
Historicizing the period, I have deliberately included factual inaccuracies in order to better create the overarching sense of the times. For example, the story begins in Nebraska at the end of the 1870s. A Ho-Chunk family (more commonly called Winnebago) live next to a Euro-American family. Such a juxtaposition of the two groups did occur later under what was called the allotment system. But the allotment system wasn’t begun until after the Dawes Act of 1887. I wanted to capture some of the positive and negative of that side-by-side experience. At the same time, I needed the book to begin early enough so that the protagonist could be sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, another aspect of the Native American experience that was crucial to creating the overall sense of the times and people.
I am sure that historical purists will fault my indifference to proper sequencing, but I believe this historicized story will bring much more meaning to the book. So far, my Native American friends have not been offended. Perhaps they, like Vonnegut, are so impaled on the petard of traumatic stress that time is less important than reality.
Back in high school my first encounter with historicized fiction was Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” As a boy living in the aftermath of World War II, painfully aware of the Korean conflict and the Cold War, military service seemed unavoidable. How would I cope with battle? Henry Fleming’s inner-conflict seemed my inevitable fate. The characters trauma became mine, the reader’s.
If there is a justification for historicized fiction with its relative disregard for historical fact, it is that no better approach exists for recreating the traumas that can best characters and real people. It is, in my opinion, the literature of traumatic stress, and like those who suffer from PTSD, the author of an historicized book is dealing with the memory that cannot be escaped, with the heightened awareness that at once distorts and throws perceptions into the starkest of relief. That memory may be personal or cultural. Either way, like the sore tooth that the tongue must find over and over, the wound to the psyche demands exploration.
Sometimes Ken Weene writes to exorcise demons. Sometimes he writes because the characters in his head demand to be heard. Sometimes he writes because he thinks what he have to say might amuse or even on occasion inform. Mostly, however, he writes because it is a cheaper addiction than drugs, an easier exercise than going to the gym, and a more sociable outlet than sitting at McDonald’s drinking coffee with other old farts: in brief because it keeps him just a bit younger and more alive.
Ken’s stories and poetry have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Three of Ken’s novels, Widow’s Walk, Memoirs From the Asylum, and Tales From the Dew Drop Inne, are published by All Things That Matter Press. His new book, Broody New Englander is through Red Chameleon. This spring ATTMPress will be bringing out Times to Try the Soul of Man.
You can find out more about Ken and his writing from his website at http://www.kennethweene.com and his Amazon page at http://www.amazon.com/Kenneth-Weene/e/B002M3EMWU and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kenneth-Weene/e/B002M3EMWU.
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on the topic of history: Alison Bruce, Connie Knight, Lou Allin, Margaret Muir, Phoebe Matthews, and William S Shepard.
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