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History in Fiction

The term "historical novel" is inherently clumsy; it yields one definition or another according to the place or time it is used. And of late--that is, during the 1930's--it was familiarly used to describe a massive, carelessly written, escapist tome.

You can take a score of such novels and blueprint them. The writer used a broad canvas, which meant that his characters scurried around like soul-sick rabbits. The writer did extensive research, which meant two or three hundred additional pages of top-heavy description. The writer took care that his characters should not talk like human beings, which gave the book a much sought after archaic flavor. The writer indulged his characters in quests, in driving passions, which took them across continents and spanned generations. In other words, retreating from the writers who sought to portray human beings, the historical novelist found a dusty closet which, since it contained dolls and puppets beyond number, became the perfect workshop for mediocrity and reaction.

Actually, departing from the successful publishing definition, what is a historical novel? Is it a matter of degree, a matter of approach, or a matter of chronology? Where does a novel cease to be just a novel and become a historical novel? Most people would not consider a novel about the early 1900's historical, yet it can no more be the result of a young writer's direct experience than a novel of the American Revolution. Is the related experience of one's father less historical than that of one's grandfather? Is there a date or a decade where and when the novel ceases to be a novel?

Frankly, I don't know the answer to any of this--and for my part I am all for chucking the name and conception of the historical novel into the wastebasket. I can't say why I write historical novels, because to me, nothing I write comes under that heading. I can give a long string of reasons why I don't write the kind of books that are pigeon-holed under that heading.

A novelist works with the most flexible and variable form in all the arts: so broad a classification, indeed, that the novel, as a form, completely defies definition--and that is as it should be. Essentially the novelist works with human beings, and in some juxtaposition, he puts them between the covers of a book. Sooner or later, if he is to achieve any sort of competence, he discovers how to go about his trade.

I conceive of my own branch of the trade as story-telling. The stories I want to tell have a direct inter-relation--in that they all deal with the struggles of men for freedom. They are not historical studies and they are not political studies--they are stories about people. Some of the stories happened a long while ago, some a few generations past, some are happening today.

I make no effort to simulate the so-called "atmosphere" of an era; for in a subjective sense, "atmosphere" does not exist; people accept the world around them as part of their experience, and a writer who does not accept the world that surrounds his characters will almost immediately lose touch with reality. And people, regardless of their era, are essentially the same; the present in which they live has for them a matter-of-fact and not a "historical" importance.

Let me make a point of this through the analogy of translation. Books we read taken from the original French or Russian or German often come off as well in translation as in the original. They treat of a world as alien to many of us as certain eras of the past, yet the writer accepts that world, and thereby the reader accepts it. True, the reader is a stranger in the land; but through the writer's skill he becomes a sympathetic stranger; and if the writer is skillful enough, the reader subjectively partakes of that sameness and brotherhood which binds all men, whatever their time or race or condition.

There, in a sense, is a definition, if a rather vague one, of the books I write. They are outside my experience, but the people of America live in a tradition that remains constant. I am a part of my father, and he was a part of his. Speech changes slowly; and the forces that motivate men of good will change hardly at all. The people's wars we fought in the past were as hotly contested by traitors within as is the people's war of today. The charge of "Communist" was hurled at the Abolitionists during the 1850's and the 1860's, and the term "patriot," used seventy-five years earlier, was made, by the reactionaries, as inflammatory in its connotations.

As to why I write about the past--my books give answer. These great and splendid forgotten men did not live and die so that all they did might be traduced and falsified; they lived and fought and died so that we might inherit and use the things they built. And the same type of scoundrels as opposed them then oppose men of good will today. It all becomes one; and the great tradition we fight for today is the same tradition they sustained and handed down to us.

Howard Fast

One of three articles on the theme. The other two were by Henrietta Buckmaster, author of "Let My People Go," and William Blake, author of "The Copperheads."