An interesting post on The American Scholar blog today by Paula Marantz Cohen, discussing the ways historical fiction can influence our understanding of the past. “If you read Shakespeare’s histories,” Cohen contends, “you will remember English history better than if you’d read an ostensibly objective account, but you’ll do so in a particular way.” Of course, writers of historical fiction are free to changes the facts of the past in order to serve the narrative. One of the challenges for the reader is the reality, as Cohen puts it, that “the vivid representation holds sway,” regardless of whether it is fully grounded in evidence.
In researching, writing and speaking about John Chapman, the man whose life formed the basis of the Johnny Appleseed myth, I regularly confronted the reality that a good story, well-told, had tremendous persuasive power, and could cause even a diligent historian to abandon a search for objective truth. The vast majority of books published on Johnny Appleseed are works of fiction, but more than a few of them were started by writers intending to write non-fiction histories. Part of this is the result of the draw of the good story, but another aspect is that most people leave incomplete traces in the historical record, and the temptation to “fill in” the blank spots can be hard to resist. Cohen notes that “The enticement of historical fiction is ultimately that it smooths out the inconsistencies in the past and fills in the unknown.” Cohen, a distinguished professor of English at Drexel, is the author of both scholarly works and historical fiction. In writing, What Alice Knew a work of historical fiction set in Jack the Ripper’s London, she confesses that in the process of writing, some facts that she was aware she had made up to serve her narrative, became so alluring that “[she] found [herself] drawn to believe [her] own fabrications.” The entire piece, titled “Based on a True Story,” can be found on the American Scholar blog, and is worth a read.
So what do you think? What are the hazards and opportunities historical fiction presents to the writer of non-fiction?