Is it possible to write a good historical novel?

All about fiction.
Sept. 13 2005 6:47 AM

Marching Orders

E. L. Doctorow and the problem of historical novels.

Click here to read more from Slate's "Book Blitz."

Book cover

Alessandro Manzoni's blockbuster debut novel, The Betrothed (1827), was the first Italian historical novel in the vein of Sir Walter Scott. Manzoni's absorbing tale still spawns TV miniseries across Europe. But unlike Scott, who churned out historical novels, Manzoni stewed: After The Betrothed's publication he never wrote another work of fiction. Instead, between 1827 and 1850, he worked intermittently on a theory of the genre, titled On the Historical Novel. Reading the treatise today, it's easy to see what stymied Manzoni: the more he thought about the task of writing historical fiction, the more impossible it seemed. If you didn't embellish your material, the result was just history; but if you made things up and didn't tell the reader, you were perpetrating a fraud.

The only solution would be to fracture the narrative—"and I do not mean every now and then, but every moment, many times in one page, often within a single sentence—to say: this is real fact, taken from reliable sources; this is my own invention, but patterned on reality … and so on." This solution didn't strike him as a solution at all: "Would you call a work like that a 'novel'? Would you find it worth any name at all?"

It would take a serious novelist indeed to try to live out Manzoni's impossible project, and E.L. Doctorow has been trying for 35 years now. From The Book of Daniel to The March, his new novel about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas, Doctorow has been writing fiction that manages to be completely fractured and retrospectively whole at the same time. If the great formal problem of the historical novel is knowing when to stop and nudge the reader and when not to, Doctorow solves it by finding myriad ways of doing both simultaneously. His plots, his characters, even his sentences are great allegories of the underlying tension between stopping and moving on, between blockage and flow. And each of his novels contains a central emblem that links our experience of interruption to our experience of history itself.

Book cover

In The Book of Daniel (1970), Doctorow's nudges were exaggerated, apocalyptic pokes in the reader's eye. Daniel's parents, who are fictional stand-ins for the Rosenbergs, are arrested for spying. When he visits them in jail, they see him only one at a time. Between his mother's exit and his father's entrance, he interrupts to chastise himself for letting her go and to alert us to the narrative economy of the scene: "What is most monstrous is sequence. ... Is there nothing good enough to transfix us? … If the flower is beautiful why does my baby son not look at it forever? … The monstrous reader who goes on from one word to the next. The monstrous writer who places one word after another." The sense of history this implies is tied to the emerging structuralism of the late '60s. If everything from society to the unconscious were structured like language, history would be no exception. The model for the passage of time would be microcosmic—each individual word would convey—but the moral would be macrocosmic and abstract: The great monstrosity is, somehow, sequence.

Ragtime (1975), the historical novel that really made Doctorow's reputation, brings "monstrous sequence" back down from Daniel's abstract heights to something not only livable but admirable. Midway through this book about the social upheavals in the decade before World War I, the Jewish artist Tateh begins making flip books to cheer his daughter. He is putting sequence to moral use. What's more, these "movie books" will eventually lead him into producing actual movies with a social use—the "Our Gang" comedies, it turns out. Movies have the form of constant interruption but we experience them as a continuous flow. Reading Ragtime, we, too, experience the cinematic form, mostly in the dramatic social collisions depicted in the book. Historical personages—Harry Houdini, Emma Goldmann—bump into anonymous role players (with names like Mother, Father, Younger Brother) and literary artifacts such as Coalhouse Walker Jr., an Americanized version of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Any person—any kind of person—can come into focus at any moment, upsetting whatever soothing flow has taken hold of the reader.

Book cover

This deft combination of social and literary fantasy put Doctorow firmly in the postmodern canon. Fredric Jameson singled him out as "the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past." What mattered here, according to Jameson, was the disappearance. Writing about Ragtime, he declared that the "historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past."What remained for Doctorow was to drive home the point that we are "condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history." For Jameson, this makes Doctorow's fiction a perfect guide to the postmodern freedom from history; Ragtime captures our time, not the 1910s.

Novelist Thomas Mallon, though, is not interested in capturing the present via the past. "I think the idea of historical fiction as the prototype of current reality is a bit like a planned Marxist economy—something that looks better on paper than it does while waiting in line," he wrote, in an essay in the American Scholar. Instead, Mallon values historical fiction for making the past "so irrelevant, so appealingly strange." We want to know about the past because it has no bearing on our lives beyond giving us pleasure.

However differently they come to it, both Mallon and Jameson ultimately think the past, at least as it's represented in literature, is or should be cut off from the present. But The March is a perfect counterexample. Here we are back in the 19th century, tromping around the South. Sherman's march might seem "appealingly strange," or to have nothing to do with our lives today—or, worse, some facile writer might take it as the "prototype of current reality." But Doctorow finds in Sherman's march an ideal emblem for history in a vast form of life that is essentially in motion, yet regularly punctuated as the march comes upon one metropolis after another. He need not dig down into the specifics of grammar or film for his image of sequence here. He has 60,000 people jumping on and off "a floating world," sweeping through a landscape too briefly seen before pausing at Savannah, or Columbia, or Raleigh.

In fact, the book may come in for some sniping because it doesn't cater to the maddeningly specific battlefield Baedeker approach. You won't learn how to clean a rifle or make hardtack. But you will learn how people might grapple with the evanescence of "the new way of living." There are characters who live for the march (Sherman) and those who live for the pauses, but most live in between, falling in with the march when they must (or when it suits them); falling out again when it suits them (or when Sherman orders them off). Emily Thompson, a southern judge's daughter, takes up with Union surgeon Wrede Sartorius for a period, until the march stops in Charleston and she is shocked to find herself not among the women of her class, toughing it out in their occupied cities, but doing the occupiers' work. Bobby Brasil, a poor New Yorker, discovers the makings a professional soldier in himself only as the war comes to an end.

Two characters, though, stand out in this frieze. They embody ways of thinking about time: one as a continuous flow of presence, the other as a ceaseless need to remember countless pasts. Albion Simms is wounded when a spike lodges in his skull, wiping out his memories and making him unable to make new ones. For a while he travels with the march as a medical curiosity for Dr. Sartorius.

I say a word and I can't remember it. What did I say I can't remember?

A word.

Yes. That's why my head hurts. It's always now. That's what hurts. … There is no remembering. It's always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it's always now.

In contrast, there is Calvin Harper, a photographer's assistant who takes over the mobile enterprise when his boss dies. He must constantly interrupt his progress to stop and make pictures of the threatened past. "Once he moved on, history would know of the city's disaster only what he had photographed." "It is fixing time in its moments and making memory for the future. … Nobody in history before now has ever been able to do that." The last sentence, with its curlicuing redundancies, is a characteristic Doctorow nudge, the kind of thing Manzoni thought would kill the novel, but that seems calibrated to keep our hovering attention precisely where it belongs.

Late in the novel, Harper is dramatically blinded by a muzzle flash. By the end, his sight is slowly returning, "like a photograph beginning to come out in the developing tray." The whole world, if it returns, will be a photograph for Harper, a simulacrum; but the flash isn't what matters. The critical term here is "developing," and it holds the novel together, linking representation and warfare, art and conflict. The cavalry is frequently off "developing" the Rebs, picking fights with them to learn their strength and tactics. Doctorow, we might say, develops history the same way. One novel after another.

J.D. Connor is assistant professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. He is working on a book about neoclassical Hollywood.