NOVEL HISTORY by Mark C. Carnes


Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other)
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A sometimes amusing if generally inconsequential set of essays on fiction-writers’ use (and occasional misuse) of history.

Following the model he established with Past Imperfect (1995), Carnes (History/Barnard Coll.) elicits from his scholarly peers comments on representative historical fictions that have been published, mainly, in the last 40 years. In response to their comments come sometimes defensive, sometimes befuddled, and sometimes gracious and grateful remarks by the novelists in question. Historian Elliott West, for instance, notes historical inaccuracies in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel that offers “a virtually full roster of the Western’s most familiar characters” and is thus as mythical as any other horse opera. Blinking at the command to draw, McMurtry answers that “A long novel often involves such sloppiness.” By contrast, when his attention is drawn to inaccuracies in Burr, the famously prickly Gore Vidal goes snide, while William Styron bobs and weaves around Eugene Genovese’s furious jabs at The Confessions of Nat Turner. Annie Dillard, after noted historian Richard White demonstrates her novel The Living to be a mass of misunderstandings and useless inventions, doesn’t bother to respond at all. Neither does Barbara Kingsolver, though her 1998 The Poisonwood Bible stands up pretty well under Dianne Kunz’s fact-testing examination. For the most part, the historians here are gentle—often, in fact, too gentle—with their storytelling subjects, while the novelists respond for the most part with some variant of “Well, I wasn’t writing a dissertation.”

Fans of historical fiction will have fun with Carnes’s study, and would-be novelists might benefit from having a look at it, too—and then double-checking their facts. After all, as historian John Lukacs observes here, “Every novel is a historical novel.”

Pub Date: March 9th, 2001
ISBN: 0-684-85765-0
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2001