Lew's AUTHOR BLOG

* James McPherson and Russell Banks on the role of history in a historical novel

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 6, 2014

novel history & cloudsplitter

 

NOVEL HISTORY is a book about writing concerned with the proper place of historical truth in a historical novel. Historians critique a series of novels regarding their historical accuracy, and the novelists get to answer.

I just read the pages dealing with Russell Bank’s CLOUDSPLITTER, comprising first a short essay by the esteemed historian James McPherson and then Banks’ rejoinder.

McPherson, who probably knows every single place where Banks has strayed from the consensus of history, quotes Banks’ Author Notes where he explicitly states that he has altered and rearranged historical events and characters to suit the purposes of his storytelling.

McPherson does not argue with what Banks has done, accepting that the work is a fiction, not an interpretation of history, although he suggests that some of his historian colleagues might not be so forgiving. McPherson says he is quite willing to learn from the “novelist’s license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal fact.”.

Banks responds indirectly by first establishing that the “voice” of the story defines the history that will be heard. “If there is history in a historical novel … it can only exist in the voice that we hear when we read the story.” Then he asserts that the questions the author has in his mind, the questions arising from the history that drove him to write the story, dictate his choice of the “voice” he will use to tell it.

The combination of the author’s questions and the “voice” who answers them will be the “voice of history in the fiction,” in McPherson’s wonderfully generous formulation, the “reality deeper than literal fact.”

What a privilege to read and learn from this dialogue.

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