Saturday, 05 September 2009

Historical novels, underrated or no, are only ever incidentally historical. In the comments to Eric Rauchway’s post about underrated historical novels, I pointed out that there is a problem with talking about the “historical novel” as a self-evident genre. I did not, however, go into much detail as to why, because I covered the topic on my qualifying exams and the less said about that experience the better. But since Eric asked so nicely, I will oblige and show you why this discussion’s so painfully tangled. Short version: Its knots all sport thorns. Long pedantic version: The most basic definition of the historical novel is situational: if the moment the novel represents occurs prior to the moment in which it is written, the novel is historical. The conceptual problem with this definition is its expansiveness: any novel not written about the perpetual present or the future will be historical so long as it is sufficiently realist. (More on the necessity of limiting this discussion to realist novels shortly.) However, as the identifying characteristics of a given period become visible through age—think smile-lines or wrinkled foreheads—even those works set in the perpetual present become dated. Bright Lights, Big City was a novel of the 1980s when it was published in 1984; now, it reads like an historical novel about the 1980s, for the simple reason that any novel that sufficiently captures a zeitgeist also documents it for it future generations. Such novels become a sort of historical artifact whose usefulness depends on the acuity and fidelity of their documentation: a perceptive author deeply indebted to the realist tradition will record an immense quantity of high-quality period detail. This being the case, these novelists of the perpetual present belong to a more anthropological than historical tradition. An obvious distinction, but one which must be made lest we claim that all realist novels are historical by dint of being old. So then, the historical novel is not historical because it belongs to history, but because its author makes a concerted effort to address historical material in a realist mode. It may seem odd to confine historical novels within the realist movement, but if we define the genre attitudinally—if the sole criterion for inclusion is a dogged historical disposition—our reckoning must include modernist novels that, though obsessed with history, nevertheless fail to conform to the fuzzy notion of the historical novel we’re refining here. Not that there aren’t some modernist works, like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, that warrant inclusion, but they do so on the basis of being “realist enough,” and in so doing confirm our belief that the historical novel is a subset of realism—or better yet, a mode of the realist genre that entails a particular distance from and attitude towards historical events. This means that historical romances like Rob Roy—written in 1817 about the England and Scotland in 1715—are excluded, but early realist novels like Huck Finn—written in 1884 about events in 1840 or thereabout—squeeze in. The problem, of course, is that most people would include Rob Roy and exclude...

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