Vulgar Fiction, Impure History: The Neglect of Historical Fiction

By Rehberger, Dean | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Vulgar Fiction, Impure History: The Neglect of Historical Fiction


Rehberger, Dean, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Historical novels have always been a problem for literary critics because they have long been unable to decide their status. For the most part, scholars have simply ignored them. As Harry Henderson observed, "the historical novel has not been a concern of the student of literature because it is considered to have two salient features: impurity and vulgarity" (I). On the one hand, the charge of impurity stems from the attempt of historical fiction to bridge the gap between the aesthetic and the historical experience. Borrowing its form from the aesthetic conventions of the novel and its content from the pages of history books, historical fiction appears as both history and literature, information and entertainment; however, neither the discipline of History nor English accepts this impure and mixed form as a legitimate expression of its discipline's demands. On the other hand, the historical novel is considered to be vulgar because it is an immensely popular form. Both James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott dominated the best-seller lists in America for most of the nineteenth century (see Mott 305-06). Historical fiction dominated bestseller lists until 1920 and, Russell Nye points out, remains one of the top three most popular types of American fiction. Nye writes, "about ten percent of all books published in paperback are historical romances or variants thereof" (33, 46). Each year since 1920, several historical novels have been among the top ten best sellers, making the genre one of the most popular in America.

While we might expect literary critics to ignore historical fiction because of its immense popularity, it is surprising that few critics of popular culture have addressed the genre. Many of the classic works in the field ignore the genre. In Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, the editors, Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, failed to include anything on historical fiction-all that can be found on the subject is one paragraph excerpted from Frank Luther Mott's Golden Multitudes on the best-seller formula. In The Unembarrassed Muse, Russel Nye sites detailed statistics about the great popularity of historical novels, yet while including chapters on the detective fiction, science fiction, and the western, he writes virtually nothing about historical novels. In Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, John Cawelti does not discuss historical novels except for a few slight remarks about how historical melodramas intersect with social melodramas. Unlike other popular genres, the Journal of Popular Culture has not dedicated an issue to historical novels, and only rarely has the Popular Culture Association National Convention dedicated sessions to historical fiction.

The claim of neglect is a familiar lament for those who study historical novels. Bemoaning a "lack of both scholarly and critical interest in popular historical fiction," R. Gordon Kelly points out that libraries have not established research collections of historical novels and not much interest is shown by private collectors as with such forms as comic books, detective novels, and children's literature (182). Kelly goes on to explain that the last seventy-five years have been a "period of unremitting critical contempt for the genre" and thus many historical novelists have felt obliged to defend the genre (190). One obvious reason for the neglect is the sheer physical size and weight of most historical novels. With novels reaching several thousand pages in length, it is difficult to do large scale genre analyses that are common in popular culture studies. Yet another reason is less obvious but much more important. What I want to argue is that the scholarly neglect of the historical fiction by historians, literary critics, and popular culture critics stems primarily from institutional pressures and biases, pressures and biases that are complexly woven into the historical fabric of how we define history, literature, and the popular.

Popular fiction critics have tended to be compilers of historical novels, relying on standard definitions to assemble their lists. …

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