Magazine article Newsweek

Recasting the Past

Magazine article Newsweek

Recasting the Past

Article excerpt

Novelist are clamoring to rewrite history

Charles Frazier may be historical fiction's latest poster boy, but he's had a lot of competition for the title. Last year Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Caleb Carr also produced best-selling historical fiction. And this spring that trickle became a torrent when Elmore Leonard, Jane Smiley, Gore Vidal, T. C. Boyle, Charles Johnson, Peter Carey and Russell Banks all published new novels set in the past.

The past tense is about all these varied efforts have in common. In "Cuba Libre," Leonard abandons the mean streets of modern crime for the Spanish-American War. Boyle examines the strange case of schizophrenic sexual maniac Stanley McCormick, the reaper heir, in "Riven Rock." And in the outlandish and hilarious fantasy "The Smithsonian Institution," Gore Vidal brings the presidents and their wives to life each night in the "nation's attic." In "Jack Maggs," Peter Carey spins a Dickensian tale of intrigue in the streets of 19th-century London. And both Jane Smiley and Russell Banks have written novels about abolitionists in Bloody Kansas.

Blame the phenomenon on the microchip, says novelist and literary critic Thomas Mallon. "Our interest in the past is connected directly to the cyber-revolution. Fiber optics is strangling us like piano wire," says the author of several historical novels, including "Dewey Defeats Truman" and "Henry and Clara." "Writers want to do what computers can't -- take people back to the past. …

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