When Historians Review Novelists

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

When Historians Review Novelists


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


After reading Larry McMurtry's novel "Lonesome Dove" from his historian's standpoint, Elliott West of the University of Arkansas allows that the tale of two former Texas Rangers taking a herd of cattle 1,200 miles from the Texas-Mexico border country to Montana in the late 1870s is for the most part historically accurate, aside from "a few anachronisms and startling omissions." Where, for example, are the railroads, the historian asks, reckoning the drovers would have had to cross three major lines, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Union Pacific, and the Northern Pacific.

Mr. McMurtry, in the course of his gracious response - for Mr. West's is a thoughtful and empathetic take on his novel - says, "I made a note to myself in the first draft to put in the Union Pacific Railroad - I wanted them to cross it in the big sandstorm - but then I forgot my own note. A long novel involves such sloppiness."

Reading the historian's and the novelist's brief pages here itself is a history lesson, reminding how short were the decades during which the plainsmen could drive their herds across anything like open counry, and also of the toll in purposeless restlessness and cultural atrophy exacted in the winning of the West - as opposed to the victories recounted in the national creation story. In his novel, Mr. McMurtry's feeling was one of ambivalence toward that national myth, and it made his surprise at the book's immense success all the greater.

Additionally, with "Lonesome Dove" one gets the novelist's meditation on his own family's Texas world that included a paternal grandmother so hardened by the life that when she died, during Mr. McMurtry's eighth year, he couldn't remember her ever speaking a single word to him. His experience vindicates the thought of Mark C. Carnes, editor of this collection, that "novelists search the past (as do historians) in order to learn who they are."

Writing that, Mr. Carnes, who is a historian at Barnard College, Columbia, and wrote the book "Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies," was thinking particularly of T.C. Boyle, whose novel "World's End" explores both the Dutch colonial history of the region around Peekskill, N.Y., in the lower Hudson valley and the novelist's growing up there in the 1950s and '60s. Mr. Boyle's response to the historian Michael Kammen's admiring review of his book is brief, saying that "it is neither the novelist's business nor right to explicate his own fiction." But, again graciously, Mr. Boyle agrees about Mr. Kammen's being "right on the money when he says that World's End is `really about the problem of pastlessness.'"

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the English novelist A.S. Byatt's essays and her making a case for more serious appreciation - and broader definition - of British European "historical" fiction since World War II. Now Mr. Carnes' book does something like that for American historical fiction.

"Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other)" brings together 20 historians to write about novels ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" (David S. Reynolds) to William Kennedy's 1988 "Quinn's Book" (Mr. Carnes), and from Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (Joan D. Hedrick) to Madison Smartt Bell's "All Souls Rising" (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the Haitian historian).

Not all the novelists, being dead, were able to respond to their historian reviewers. Even so, given the many voices, near 40 all told, and essay contributions of variable length, voice and temper, the reading inevitably is uneven going, at 350 pages rather a long and bumpy trip, that requires time and stamina. But the effort, as with an uphill hike, eventually is rewarded by the panoramic view revealed.

One historian turns the book's neatest trick by simply changing hats. Thomas Fleming first weighs up the novel "Time and Tide," concerned in large part with the early months of the Pacific War when United States naval forces, brought prematurely to battle, still were perilously vulnerable. …

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