Is There Any Value in Historical Novels?

Books and PenWhen I have the opportunity to read outside of my field of study (which is not often these days), I gravitate toward my favorite author, Kenneth Lewis Roberts (shameless plug: see my website devoted to his works here). Roberts’ heyday was between the early-1930s to early-1950s when he published several best-selling historical novels centered around the time of the American Revolution.

Roberts did not write historical novels to satisfy his craving to write. Rather, in his autobiography I Wanted to Write, Roberts recounts his literary journey. He began his writing career as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. However, he wanted to do more and eventually came to the realization that his passion was found the history of his people in Maine. Roberts states:

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts,167).

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts, 167)

That, it dawned on me, was what I must do.  Even though nobody read what I wrote, it ought to be done, because nobody had every done it before–and there ought to be at least one book that would give the good people of Maine an honest, detailed and easily understood account of how their forebears got along.  I hadn’t the slightest desire then to write what is known as an historical novel, not have I ever had any intention of doing so.  In fact, I have always had a profound aversion to most historical novels, because the people in them aren’t real people, and neither act nor talk like anyone I’ve ever known (Roberts, 168).

(see my post on Roberts and his historical novels here)

For Roberts, historical novels served as a medium through which history is brought to life. While there have been others who share Roberts’ view about historical novels, the genre is still widely misunderstood.  At the website for the Historical Novel Society, an adaption of a speech given by Sarah Johnson of Eastern Illinois University in 2002 titled Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? provides her assessment of where the genre of historical novels stands today. In short, there is little consensus over how to define the genre and over the value of such literature. Yet, as the genre of historical fiction grows, attention is required as to how one defines it; hence one of the reasons the Historical Novel Society exists.

In a web article titled “What is Historical Fiction” (2006), H. Scott Dalton attempts to provide a definition of historical fiction. While his definition is somewhat helpful, his foray into the value of historical fiction captures Kenneth Roberts’ vision for his historical novels and the potential for well-written and well-researched historical novels. Dalton contrasts the historian with the historical fiction writer. While the historian writes to lay out the events as they occurred, analyzes the facts, and provides for the reader how the puzzle pieces of the past fit together. In short, “A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle, the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage point between and above the lines of battle” (Dalton). The historical fiction writer, however,

puts us in the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi; we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around. We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the dirt not moving. We’re not just watching the fight; that’s our buddy, our girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not events.

So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think “So that’s what happened!” We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think “So that’s what it was like!”

Dalton does not seek to discount historical works (neither do I); rather, he highlights how historical fiction can enhance what we learn in the works of historians. The historical novel helps one to experience in some way the events of the past. Such an approach appeals to one’s various senses and one’s emotions, bringing in the whole person into the work.

Take for example Leon Uris’ Trinity, an historical novel about the struggle between the Irish and Britain in the late-1800s to the early 1900s. By placing historical events in the context of a narrative, history unfolds through the lives of the characters. The reader connects with the various characters of the novel, experiencing their trials and successes, their inner turmoils and interaction with the world at large. Such an approach takes the reader from their perch as an uninvolved observer and places them in the thick of the action. By experiencing history in this way, one can then better understand the why and how of history as told in more technical works. (One problem with historical novels is the use of real people of the past and fictional characters; this is another topic for another time. For now, I am assuming that the historical novel writer is attempting to portray historical events as they occurred though employing dialogue that is of the author’s invention but based on solid research).

The idea of experience building upon knowledge is not unfamiliar to us. Most colleges today require students to do some sort of internship work to go along with their classroom work. One can learn as much as they want from books and lectures; however, that knowledge is of little use until it is put into practice. The experience the student gains in their internship ties together all that they’ve learned and turns their “book learning” into something that is lived and is real.

Historical fiction, if done well, can enhance one’s learning and knowledge in a particular area of study. Further, historical fiction can reach a wider audience than that of more technical works. One only has to visit a book store to know that fiction is, by far, the best-selling genre. Frankly, fiction is more appealing to the majority of readers. As such, the potential is great for the use of historical fiction to present significant idea and to teach a wider audience vital lessons.  In particular to the circles I run in, there is great potential to use historical fiction in teaching solid biblical theology. Deep questions and ideas can be explored in such a way that the reader is drawn into life’s ultimate questions without feeling like they are trudging through a text book.

Much has been said already, but there are many unanswered questions I leave before you. What this post does not serve as is the “end all, be all” declaration on the value of historical fiction; rather, it serves as the fruits of my ruminations on my favorite genre and it’s potential in theology and philosophy. I hope to write more on this in the near future.

[It should be noted that historical fiction is not the only genre that can be used to teach theological and philosophical ideas in narrative format. See my recent post on Dan Dewitt‘s “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella.”  I will also be posting an old review I did on a sci-fi book that discusses the use of sci-fi in discussing theological and philosophical ideas.]

 

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