The historical novel: Can fiction be just as valuable as non-fiction?

Mkay, here we go. The pictures are by request by family, but I must say I do look smart in those preppy clothes (smart as in both intelligent as well as well dressed:).

What does any written work try to do? It tries to communicate some point to the mind of another, correct? In doing so, a transient idea takes shape in an individual mind, reconstructed from the tools found in that individual’s “garage” so to speak. With this metaphor, it makes sense then that my hammers and screwdrivers may be of a different size and shape then yours, and also the image in your mind most likely is completely different from the image in mine. This is the nature of the generality of words. Some word is really a symbol that stands for some idea, and that word then is defined by the thoughts in an individual’s mind. When I write the word “television”, do you think of a plasma screen? A black and white turn-knob? Do you think of a large projection screen? The word television which seems to denote a specific thought in reality communicates a separate idea to each individual’s mind.

Now place that thought on the stove and let it simmer, and let us now prepare the salad of this philosophical entree.

What does a man (or woman) truly know? Honestly, what do you truly know? I would contest that we really only know what we experience first hand. What I have experienced, that I know. Yet because of the nature of memory, even what I have experienced firsthand can shift from what actually happened, to what we perceive happened. This can be due to our own creative reconstruction, anxiety, pride, guilt, or motivation. Thus, a memory becomes altered. Many studies have been done on the topic of false memories, or things we believe to be true that actually were not. I have experienced this myself, as I believe we all have to some extent, even if we don’t know it.

You might say, “No, that’s not true, we can know what we read about and what we see on television.” Yet this is where the idea of history becomes less rigid. What we read, like we talked about earlier, creates an image in our mind. That is what we envision. It is real to us in our own mind, and that is all. Beyond this, there is no delineation between what is real and what is not. What you imagine in your mind from a non-fiction work is a reconstruction using your own tools and your own thoughts, but in all likelihood is very far removed from the actual events that took place, even if those events were documented specifically and accurately. What we see on TV may portray specific people and images to us, but we cannot say that it is not a re-enactment of the actual events, nor can we say that the context certain spliced images on the news are given to us in the correct context. We didn’t experience it. In this case, a narrative is constructed by a network and given to us as fact, much like a non-fiction work. Yet because we did not experience it first hand, we cannot say it is truly accurate, and even if we did experience it, we cannot really say that our own memory of it is accurate except for the very moment we experience it.

Thus, is there a way to distinguish between a factual history of truth, and one of imagination and fabrication?

Here comes in the law of probability, as well as the notion of creativity. It would be well to argue that most good historians use primary documents to reconstruct history. This is based on the idea that a primary document purports a certain event in a correct way, and that its author is a credible witness to the events. Yes. We accept that because we have a cultural tradition of honesty, and most of the time what is written in the form of letters, documents, memos, etc. can be accepted as being factual. But can we TRULY KNOW this? No, we cannot. As well, there are a body of primary documents and witnesses that a historian takes and studies, but how does one make sense of it all? The historian in some way must construct either some type of narrative, giving an end point to a chain of events, or he (she) merely re-records the data with no type of organization. As a historian, I would say that the latter is never done, since this would basically be copying the primary documents in question. Instead, the “facts”, or documents and facts they portray, are somehow organized for a purpose. As we said before, every writer has some purpose. This organization requires creativity.

Creativity, then, in many ways is labeled the antithesis of a true historian, since by being creative, one must at some point be imaginative, and if one is imaginative, then one is straying from the documented “facts” of which a true historian would stick to and allow those “facts” to speak for themselves. While many historians contend that this is what they do, they are in fact using creativity to do just that. Facts have no meaning in and of themselves. Causality cannot be found in facts. The cause of WWII is not found in facts. It is derived from a certain chronology of events, meaning is assigned, and a narrative is constructed, however elaborate, complex, and heterogenous it may be.

What difference then exists between a “factual” historian, and a historian who embellishes, even fabricates details that are plausible within the “factual” framework? If my argument is even somewhat cogent, then we can contend there is almost no difference between the traditional historian and the literary historian. Let me give some examples as well as certain persuasive reasons why they could be at least considered relevant to history, and then I will coalesce the examples with my main argument.

Thomas Fleming, a novelist as well as academic historian, wrote a book entitled Time and Tide about a fictional group of characters based on the USS Thomas Jefferson (also fictional) during World War II. He contends amid criticism of his fabrication of details that his work is highly factual, and though he does use fiction to fill in the blanks, as well as enliven the story, many important historical questions and answers are raised by his work that would have not been brought to the surface otherwise. Real topics such as religious faith in the Navy during World War II, the authoritative nature of the government and navy, as well as absence of ideology of the average seaman are addressed, which are real and important.

Howard Fast, the writer of numerous revolutionary war novels, may not be considered by historians at all as credible, yet his work reached more people than many historians combined. Again, he brings important themes, mainly the reality of injustice among citizens of America, to the forefront. His work was largely based not on factual research but on hunches and imagination. Without the context of my argument which I will argue trenchantly in a moment, this may seem a blatant example of how this fiction cannot be considered credible history. Again I ask you to postpone judgement.

Most classic historians are considered to be quite factual. This is relatively true. However, several examples can show us how even classic and traditional historians base many of their findings on creative and imaginative grounds. Heroditus for example, the “father of history”, begins his history citing myth and oral tradition, which was definitely not factual. Polybius, who considered himself the opposite of Embellishers like Heroditus, still constructed his history to tell a monographic tale of how Rome became the triumphant achievement of human civilization. Eusubius did the same, retelling early christian history to reinforce the catholic dogmas agreed upon at the Council of Nicea.

Even one of the most revered historical accounts in all of humanity, the holy bible, gives way to historical and scientific scrutiny. The Hebrew scriptures, or first books of the Old Testament are “immensely heterogeneous, comprising various genres of ancient literature: creation myth, national epic, wisdom literature, genealogies, and king lists, songs and prayers, laws and detailed ritual prescriptions, prophecy, and protracted warnings of divine wrath, often clothed in symbolism, though without the oracular sites prominent in the hellenistic world.” (Burrows, A History of Histories). Most may not consider the bible as fully accurate, but do we consider much of the bible as not only symbolic, but also mythical? The point is to question what we truly consider as “Fact”. The point is, to question what we “know”. (Though I do tend to wander religious realms with my blogs, there is no implied argument against or for religion here. The bible is just a great example of the overlying point I’m trying to communicate).

Now, lets tie all of this together. Hopefully the examples overtly demonstrate that “fact” is transient. No matter what is written or portrayed to us, it cannot be known by us. Each work, whether academic or creative, involves some form of creativity in the first place. Then, it is communicated to each individual’s mind with generic symbols (words and phrases), to create a transient portrayal in each person’s mind. This image that exists in the mind can in know way be relied upon as any depiction of what really happened. It may have happened that way, it may not have. Who is to say what a creative writer portrays may or may not have happened? Just because a traditional historian reconstructs history according to primary sources does not 1. give those sources credibility in and of themselves, and 2. whatever point is made by that historian involved his own creative faculties, and though the law of probability does give him (or her) credence, it does not make it reality.

Finally, even what one experiences cannot be truly “known” because of the nature of memory. Therefore, only the present thoughts and ideas are really known, since they exist in the mind currently. Thus, if something from a nonfiction work is communicated to the mind, it exists in the mind as real or “fact” for that moment. In the same way, if a fictional work creates just as vivid an image in the mind as a nonfiction work, then it can be said to be real or “fact” for that moment as well, since beyond the present moment, nothing can truly be known. Does this make sense? Or am I just off my rocker?

I am very interested to hear your takes on this idea, so please feel free to comment. Or, if you skipped to the end of this after looking at the pictures, I encourage you to read this and form your own opinion. Cheers!

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4 thoughts on “The historical novel: Can fiction be just as valuable as non-fiction?

  1. Vanilla Mistral says:

    Good to hear from you. Hope things are well. I love this blog!

  2. Cylee Pressley says:

    Ben I love your pictures. You make me smile. Mike said he would be happy to talk to you anytime about guns. We don’t want any family member not prepared for whatever may come down.

  3. John says:

    Well done Ben. Thanks for the pics. We are going to have to get together sometime. Hope you are doing well. Love, John & Shana

  4. Matt says:

    This is a great piece. I am also a historian (getting my master’s at the moment) and find your argument well-constructed and your writing imaginative.Imaginative, creative…you are right when you say these are words that normally are not meant to apply to “academic” historians. However, I would argue that all great historians, be they of the the ivory tower or a simple laymen, must be creative. Sure, a historian requires research skills and the ability to scrutinize, but they have to be imaginative to evoke information from the sources they study. A simple reiterating of the facts, as you say, is impossible since that data cannot be taken for granted as true and the historian is also looking at her sources through a lens colored by time.Ah, the old Objectivity question…a conundrum for all historians and for those in other fields as well. To answer your title question, I would come down on the side of the academic historian, even though one must approach even the most heavily-researched work with trepidation. There can be no certainty that what is written happened exactly according to the historian, and since the field is constantly changing and evolving their interpretation could be obsolete in a generation’s time. But historical fiction, even that grounded in dutiful research, is just fabrication with little to no resemblance at actual events. Your argument about how the public perceives what they “know” is very real, though. Personally, I know that Killer Angels by Michael Shaara has forever altered how I will view the battle of Gettysburg. I’m going on much too long so I will end it there 🙂 I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter.

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