Ross Coen: On Historical Memory

Last week in this space I discussed the connections between fiction and history, specifically how writers in both genres are bound by factual source material to different degrees. This week I’d like to continue on a related theme—fiction as a repository for historical memory.

In his 1989 book The Future of the Past, historian C. Vann Woodward notes the difference between historical fiction and fictional history. In the former, invented characters occupy a more or less authentic historical backdrop. Gone With the Wind is a good example. Fictional history, on the other hand, takes actual historical figures and events and revises them as though in a parallel and counterfactual universe. Novels where the Nazis win the Second World War or Kennedy survives the assassination attempt in Dallas fall into this category.

Whatever the distinction, both subgenres are capable of influencing, sometimes dramatically, how past events are conceptualized and remembered in the public consciousness. As Woodward put it:

Far surpassing works of history, as measured by the size of their public and the influence they exert, are the novel, works for the stage, the screen, and television. It is mainly from these sources that millions who never open a history book derive such conceptions, interpretations, convictions or fantasies as they have about the past. Whatever gives shape to popular conceptions of the past is of concern to historians, and this surely includes fiction. (p. 235)

This is plainly true of Hollywood movies. How many of us had ever heard of Schindler (let alone his list) before Spielberg made the movie? Now, how many of us have encountered Schindler in anything other than the movie? Thus everything the general public knows about Oskar Schindler comes from a portrayal that is both historical and fictional. Not to pick on Spielberg, but that he almost certainly took creative license with certain facts and got others completely wrong may therefore be of some consequence.

One might argue that as writers we have a similar obligation, at the very least to consider how our words create images that will endure in the reader’s mind. I would guess that historians spend a lot more time worrying about this than do novelists and Hollywood directors—our respective goals are quite different, after all.

The larger point I hope to raise is that all writing is historical in the sense that words on paper are like the mosquito trapped in amber, a set of facts unique to that particular place and time now permanently suspended and able to be viewed sui generis many years later.

Think of it this way: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a work of fiction. She made the whole thing up. And yet, the novel has profoundly shaped our view of race relations in the South in the mid-twentieth century, particularly for those of us who did not experience that time and place firsthand. Our historical memory resides in such works of fiction.

Here in Alaska we can look to the gold rush novels of Rex Beach and Jack London, both of whom wrote what Woodward would call historical fiction. It almost matters less whether those novels were “accurate” in a historical sense relative to the effect they continue to have on the image of the North in the public mind. None of us are so naïve as to think the story of Buck in The Call of the Wild is one hundred percent true, but reading the tale allows us to relive a collective past. The savvy reader can look past the subject matter itself and discern something of the mores and circumstances, whether cultural, social, political, economic, and so on, in which the book itself was written.

This view demonstrates that the line between fiction and non-fiction is so thin as to occasionally be invisible.

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political, and environmental history of Alaska and the Arctic. He is the author of The Long View: Dispatches On Alaska History from Ester Republic Press and Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage from University of Alaska Press. He lives in Fairbanks.

1 thought on “Ross Coen: On Historical Memory”

  1. As both a historian and a novelist, one of the things I love about reading fiction written by writers of a given era–maybe Jack London's David Grief stories–is that they present the South Pacific as it was in the early 1900s when London was writing them. With that in mind, such stories are not really historical fiction per se, in 1911 they would have been contemporary fiction, but they do in a sense serve as a sort of historical document. They bring alive that world in a way that I, as a 21st century novelist, never could. Jack London was there, he saw that world with his own eyes. I can only know it from black and white photos at best.

    Great topic, Ross. Can't wait to read your book!

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