Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

History, Biography, and Narrative in Don DeLillo's "Libra."(novel about Lee Harvey Oswald)

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

History, Biography, and Narrative in Don DeLillo's "Libra."(novel about Lee Harvey Oswald)

Article excerpt

In the morning I headed west along Main Street in downtown Dallas. I turned right at Houston Street, turned left onto Elm and pressed my hand upon the horn. I kept it there as I drove past the School Book Depository, through Dealey Plaza and beneath the triple underpass. I kept blowing the horn along Stemmons Freeway and out past Parklands Hospital.

- DeLillo, Americana 377

Don DeLillo's first novel concludes with the narrator retracing the route of the 1963 Presidential motorcade through the streets of Dallas and on to the hospital where John F. Kennedy was declared dead. DeLillo again retraces this route in his 1988 novel Libra, a text that offers a threefold narrative structure: a "biography" of Lee Harvey Oswald; a plot to make an attempt on the life of President Kennedy, which is designed to be a "spectacular miss" (Libra 51); and the efforts of the retired secret service agent Nicholas Branch, who is trying to write a secret history of the assassination for the CIA. The novel thus melds historical fact (the events in Dallas in 1963) and fiction (the details of the plot to scare the President into attacking Cuba). Further complicating this structure is the wealth of other texts that surround the assassination itself, all of which strive for the status of being accepted as a factual account of "what really happened." To date, no one account of the Kennedy assassination has achieved definitive status: Gerald Posner estimates that by 1992 over 2,000 books had been written about the assassination (ix). Libra is therefore one more text in this continually proliferating chain of texts surrounding an event characterized by indeterminacy and dispute.

Barbie Zelitzer argues that the assassination narrative is characterized by an "absence of closure" (105). Since the publication of the Warren Commission Report in 1964, the official account of Kennedy's death has been regarded with suspicion. Within months of the publication of the 26-volume report, articles critical of its findings began appearing in mainstream media outlets such as Esquire and the New Republic: "[By] the end of the decade, the critics had aired conspiracy theories involving pro-Castro and anti-Castro proponents; the Dallas police; the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service; organized crime; Texas rightwingers; and oil magnates" (Zelitzer 107). It may be argued then that a number of oppositional histories quickly arose in response to the official version. Subsequent events in American political history, most notably the Watergate scandal, prompted an increased distrust of official explanations. By the end of the 1970s, public doubt over the findings of the Warren Commission persuaded Congress to reopen the assassination in the form of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (Zelitzer 117). The major finding of this committee was that President Kennedy's death was the result of a conspiracy, although no names or organizations were offered as the culprits. The revaluations of the assassination continued throughout the 1980s and culminated (to date, at least) in the 1991 release of Oliver Stone's JFK. Stone claimed to be "acting as historian in retelling the story of Kennedy's death" (Zelitzer 202), a statement that complicates the boundaries between conventional demarcations of fact and fiction. In Stone's film, as in Libra, the distinction between the two categories is disrupted, so that the historical record becomes another form of fiction (which resulted, in part, in both DeLillo and Stone being accused of distortion, bias, and plain lies in their respective representations of the Kennedy assassination).

Libra asserts that Oswald did not act alone and that there was a conspiracy.(2) The novel may be read in the light of textualist theories of history, in that Libra refuses to see the historical record as a fixed or stable entity but instead as the product of interpretation. Hayden White argues that history is always and nothing more than a narrative construction: "Confronted with a chaos of 'facts' the historian must 'choose, sever and carve them up' for narrative purposes" (Tropics 55). …

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