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.