The Historical & the Utopian: Or, The Line Between Fact and Invention

Steve Wiegenstein

The list of historical novels grows ever longer, as does the list of utopian (nowadays, more likely dystopian) novels. Yet few novels occupy places on both; the historical and the utopian seem to be antithetical impulses. Although utopias fascinate historians and sociologists, they pose narrative challenges that may help explain why few historical novelists have entered this territory.

The classic utopian/dystopian novel is set either in the future or in a geographically indeterminate present. For this reason alone, historical novelists would find this genre inhospitable. A few novels give fictional treatment of actual communities; Terra Ziporyn’s Time’s Fool (Xlibris, 2001) portrays a child of the Oneida colony of New York who becomes a zealot for sexual hygiene, highlighting the oppressive potential of utopian idealism. My novels explore similar themes based on the 19th-century Icarians, French socialists who had colonies in the United States from 1848 to 1898.

Similarly, T. C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (Viking, 1993) finds the dark and ridiculous sides of another utopian project, John Harvey Kellogg’s late 19th- to early 20th-century sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the health-obsessed sought relief through Kellogg’s regimen of vegetarianism, abstinence, and “colonic irrigation.” The novel also sees the authoritarian shadow behind the utopian impulse, especially with a charismatic leader in charge.

I recently posed some questions to Boyle about his work. I began by asking whether the American sensibility lends itself to the obsessives, cranks, and con-men that seem to populate American history and literature.

Boyle says, “Because we are essentially an anti-authoritarian nation founded by and harboring utopian cultists, we are uniquely susceptible to the leader (con man?) who says, ‘Give yourselves over to me and my regime and I will purify and sanctify you.’” Examples in Boyle’s oeuvre include The Women (about Frank Lloyd Wright), The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey), and The Terranauts (John Allen and the Biosphere II project), and those, he observed, are only a partial list.

In The Road to Wellville, the characters’ preoccupation with diet seems to have contemporary resonance, and this might be connected to the utopian impulse. Boyle comments: “Even in the early 1990s when I was writing The Road to Wellville, I was inspired by the parallels between the early health-food advocates and the ones we see now, as well as their food and exercise fads. Kellogg had splendid ideas—vegetarian diet, no alcohol or tobacco, regular exercise—but what made him ludicrous (and suspicious) in my eyes was his messianic and puritanical bent. (Incidentally, I loved Alan Parker’s film version, with Anthony Hopkins in the ever-so-slightly menacing role of Dr. Kellogg.) Further, I do see our obsession with purity of food as part of the utopian impulse, as you put it, and, as The Road to Wellville suggests, what does this have to with but the very saving of our souls (and corporeal beings, too) through staving off death?”

On the balance between fact and invention, and the question of where to draw the line, Boyle explains, “Fiction has no compulsion to do anything but exist as art. That said, in all my historical novels, I have been motivated by the oddness of actual events and their correspondence with today (how did we get here?), and so have given the history to you as I have received it. All the facts of Kellogg’s life are accurate (so, too, with my portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women and Alfred C. Kinsey in The Inner Circle)—I suppose I’d be a historian if I weren’t a novelist. But the novelist can dig into the brains and point of view of historical figures in the way historians can’t, and that is a great joy for me. As for your final question regarding the line between invention and fact, my conscience is clear.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Steve Wiegenstein’s latest novel is The Language of Trees (Blank Slate Press, 2017).

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