POST 13: Novel Approaches: Postmodernism and historical fiction part 1
‘At the core of culture is a continuous dialogue between myth and history, “plain invention” and the “core of historical fact”’ (Slotkin, 229).
This quote from Richard Slotkin’s 2005 article ‘Fiction for the purpose of History’ explores the borderlines between academic history and historical fiction to show that if properly understood, historical fiction can be equally as ‘true’ as its academic counterpart. Slotkin argues that the act of historical fiction can provide the landscape to explore alternative theoretical approaches to a period or historical person. From that basis Slotkin suggests that myth-making, for that is what historical fiction is at heart, is the process by which societies maintain their cultural cohesion through time:
‘History is what it is, but it is also what we make of it. What we call “history” is not a thing, an object of study, but a story we choose to tell about things. Events undoubtedly occur: the Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776, yesterday it rained, Napoleon was short, I had a nice lunch. But to be construed as “history” such facts must be selected and arranged on some sort of plan, made to resolve some sort of question which can only be asked subjectively and from a position of hindsight. Thus all history writing requires a fictive or imaginary representation of the past. There is no reason why, in principle, a novel may not have a research basis as good or better than that of a scholarly history; and no reason why, in principle, a novelist’s portrayal of a past may not be truer and more accurate than that produced by a scholarly historian.’ (Slotkin, p. 222).
The development of postmodernism, structuralism and their related theories in philosophy subjects from the 1960s and 1970s has politicised even further the debate and rivalry between academic history and historical fiction. Jerome de Groot has argued that this view of history sees the discipline as simply the ‘interpretation of a tissue of quotations and texts’ (de Groot, p. 112). Hayden White meanwhile has suggested that if all historians ‘play with rhetoric and metaphor in constructing their narratives, then all historical fiction is predicated upon fictionalised ‘versions’ of the past. The ideas of postmodernism have had an influence on both forms of looking at the past and, as Slotkin demonstrates, can be a useful scholarly tool to produce both types of history.
Slotkin goes on to state that his own historical research begins with the finding of a story within the evidence that embodies what he is trying to find out but cannot be used by the historian for lack of evidence or certainty. Slotkin then writes that novel – bringing in other historical/physiological knowledge on how people dressed, how they spoke, what their surroundings were like, what were their daily habits – before embarking on the academic history. The novel helps Slotkin to imagine his subject in a different way – it is a mental exercise – the academic history then removes those fictional expressions whilst also taking account of the sense of his subject matter.
Richard Slotkin, ‘Fiction for the purposes of History’, Rethinking History, 9:2 (2005), pp. 221-236.
Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Routledge: Oxon, 2010).
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