Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other)

Written by Ed. Mark C. Carnes
Review by Juliet Waldron

Yes, “historical fiction” is one of those “jumbo shrimp” oxymorons, yet that’s exactly the multi-dimensional bull’s eye for which writers aim. When—or if—fact disappears or blurs—is this a legitimate path for writers of a genre who claim to illuminate and revivify the past? This fascinating compilation of essays is, first and foremost, a terrific read for anyone who loves (or labors in) our paradoxical genre. How could it not be with distinguished historians discussing and analyzing some of the most famous (and infamous) historical novels of all time? To top that, the author of each novel is allowed an essay in which to respond. Not surprisingly, almost every author still breathing has taken the opportunity, although generally to elaborate or elucidate. On occasion, the sparks fly, as between Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman and Gore Vidal in a cockpit discussion of his sparkling tour de force, Burr.

The editor of Novel History, Mark C. Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard (who also edited the celluloid history Past Imperfect), has grouped his essays by topic. For instance, the “Biography” section includes novels as various as Burr, Memories of the Ford Administration by Updike, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks and Libra by Don DeLillo. The “Slavery” section probably contains possibly the most controversial—All Souls’ Rising and The Confessions of Nat Turner—but the oldest novel under analysis—Uncle Tom’s Cabin.