Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Peter Cosgrove | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Tropes of Transcendence

THE TERRITORIES OF HISTORY AND FICTION ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT THAT THEY do not overlap. Three of these disputed territories are particularly worthy of attention: the narrative model, the faculty of the imagination, and the role of the narrator. Historians as much as literary critics struggle with the implications of each for the practice of their disciplines. In the humanities as in international politics shared territory makes for uneasy bedfellows, but the anxieties of historians and creative writers are not the same. Imaginative writers have often tried to co-opt the veracity of history writing in order to buttress their own claims to be truthful even while they are inventing. Eighteenthcentury novelists in particular loved to call their work histories. Defoe and Richardson made some effort to imply that they were merely editors presenting memoirs, journals, and bundles of letters rather than cutting their fictions out of whole cloth. Historians, however, have always been more anxious than poets and novelists to separate their two disciplines. Lucian's "The Way to Write History" is the great classical authority for history as the honest science that "sacrifices to no God but Truth" in contrast to the "one law of poetry—the Poet's fancy."1 And it has always been the urgent task of history writing to ensure that no hint of fancy tarnishes the truth. Historians are concerned about how much the techniques of storytelling interfere with the facts. How scientific is the narrative model? Does the imagination recall the past or invent it? Does the presence of an implied narrator weaken the historian's authority? All of these questions are closely linked to each other: without the imagination there would be no narrative, and without the narrative there would be no narrator.

We certainly do not want to go too far in diminishing the distance between history and fiction: after all, readers who are looking for a novel will not head for the history section of Barnes and Noble and vice versa. Yet even in the eighteenth century the line between the two kinds of writing was thought to be quite faint. Lord Karnes, the Scottish thinker, came to the conclusion that history writing and

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Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 5
  • Contents 9
  • Acknowledgements 11
  • Introduction 13
  • Chapter 1 - Tropes of Transcendence 48
  • Chapter 2 - Pandemonium and Romance 100
  • Chapter 3 - The Genres of the Fact 160
  • Chapter 4 - Translating the Sources: Dialogue or Bricolage? 199
  • Conclusion 252
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 273
  • Index 282
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