The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
What can possibly induce a writer to spend years researching the details of the sights, the sounds, the smells of the past and try to make it real as life again?
Most sources I’ve consulted for an answer give noble, dignified reasons for writing about history: to reconstruct the past to see how it affects us now; or to answer perennial questions of why people act like they do; or to seek a final and definitive Truth about events of the past.
The answers I’ve come up with are not quite so refined. (Although just as effective, I think.)
The most representative of historical periods that writers are absolutely obsessed with is the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Sometimes even against our will we’re drawn into the minutiae of a historical era, but Civil War buffs don’t even try to resist giving in to their fixation.
I have no overriding interest in the Civil War. But the topic seems to have come to visit me for a while. Out of the blue, my daughter sent a nonfiction book, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz. Even the author admits it’s a peculiar topic for a modern Jew to spend several years documenting, and until the very end when the book starts to drag, the details of Confederate war re-enactors and their obsession (no other word will do) with historical accuracy is a fascinating study of a modern South stubbornly clinging to illusions of uniqueness and a faded idea of separateness. The war is so real to these weekend Rebels that they starve themselves to look like the soldiers in old photographs, and wear uniforms so authentically ragged and filthy they reek.
2) Curiosity about another time, or the challenge of telling a story within the tight framework of history.
AMC has been airing Hell on Wheels, a new drama about the anything-goes tent city that followed the building of the Union Pacific railroad. This series – billed as a “Western” which I suppose it is in a way since the actors wear guns and there is an Indian storyline that looks well-researched to this amateur historian – has me and anyone I’ve mentioned it to absolutely hooked. Perhaps the most stark image that wordlessly tells the story of the race to lay track is the shot of the rails so hastily laid grass still grows between the ties. I find myself studying the muddy, bawdy backgrounds, checking the way the stovepipes poke out of the tents, the advertising signs hung on the canvas businesses, the paint on the Indians’ faces and their historically accurate paint ponies. I even make excuses for what looks to be historically inaccurate: surely the glint of a horseshoe on a racing Indian pony reveals that the animal was traded for or stolen, and not that somebody filming the scene made a mistake.
3) Because the whole story hasn’t been told, or hasn’t been told right!
At a recent Friends of the Library used book sale I picked up Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by the late Michael Shaara. Dealing with one of the war’s major turning points, the three days of Gettysburg, the book won a Pulitzer. (Seems an odd choice of voluntary reading material for a woman, but there you go.) Not nearly so comprehensive a study as Battle Cry of Freedom, the nonfiction book which exhaustively details every battle on every date led by every general for the entire war and which I spent a semester memorizing (involuntarily, for a U.S. history class), Killer Angels does an excellent job of giving the reader a fictionalized peek inside the heads of the leaders of the Union and Confederate armies and attempts to explain what they were thinking in the days leading up to and then during the battle.
4) To tell our own story, or our family’s story. Or sometimes, as detailed in an NPR program on the oral histories of hospice patients, to make a final attempt to correct our own personal histories and make sure our story is recorded the way we want it told – even if no one else remembers it the same way.
I saw mention of and then bought a copy of James Lee Burke’s Civil War novel, White Doves at Morning. I checked Burke's website to see if his story is a re-telling of the events of one of his ancestors’ lives, as I suspected. I was right, and I was wrong: it’s the story of two of his ancestors, Willie Burke and Robert Perry. A prolific writer of hardboiled detective novels, the author does a good job with his male characters – but also writes believable black and white heroines. I do have to say, though, I was a bit jarred by the recurring mention of testosterone to explain excessive male behavior in the book. I looked it up: testosterone wasn’t identified and named until 1935. But having once been questioned myself about the historical accuracy of post-Civil War era characters playing baseball, my research concurs with Burke’s about the game of rounders being played circa 1865.
5) Self satisfaction. This last reason brings to mind such negative connotations as selfishness, self-centeredness, and self interest. But there it is in all its naked glory, the real and true reason for writing the historical novel.
I found, on my writing adventures, that some historical details could not be substantiated during the actual writing. It was a happy circumstance whenever I could later find documentation for some detail I thought I had fabricated entirely. In my not-so-humble opinion, I think such correct guessing proves a writer has a good feel for the period, and I’m always glad to be so pleasantly surprised by such ingenuity.
(And I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this little essay with me, you realize I’m writing with tongue stuck in cheek. It was a bit intimidating to read all the lofty reasons people had for writing about history and then to think I was going to write a blog entry about it myself. Especially when I had no high-minded reasons for writing Willow Vale. I had no higher purpose with the novel than to build a good story around some of the experiences of WWI Tyrolean immigrants. I hope I succeeded.)