Telling History vs. Making Art: Fictions and Histories

Final part of a series

“[H]istory and historical fiction,” says historian Paul Ashdown, “are alternate ways of telling stories about the past.”[1] In that context, Ulysses S. Grant spoke more truth than he realized when he said “Wars produce many stories of fiction.” Aside from yarn-spun anecdotes about apple-tree surrenders and lemon-sucking generals, war also produces “stories of fiction” in a literal way as a source of inspiration: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” The Red Badge of Courage, Gone with the Wind, Shiloh, The Killer Angels. Both kinds of stories present themselves as true, and both may even be based on facts. “Fact and fiction comingle, reminding us that history, like news, is only a part of the story.”[2] Art, too, offers another part of the story.

Ashdown points specifically at Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, which is based very loosely on the real story of William Pinkney Inman, an ancestor of Frazier’s. Facts on Inman were scarce. All Frazier knew for certain about him “could be written on the back of a postcard.”[3] “‘Facts’ could not begin to tell the real story,” Frazier wrote in the book, “and you could tell such things on and on and yet no more get to the full truth of the war than you could get to the full truth of an old sow bear’s life by following her sign through the woods.”[4]

Starting with those few scant facts, though, and then tapping into other resources, Frazier began inventing a story. “By making use of folklore, yarn, legend, myth, and what we can know of history, Frazier shows that although we can never know all that happened, or why it happened, we can at least obliquely participate in a continuing story,” Ashdown says.

Frazier’s story grew beyond the facts, which he was willing to sacrifice in service to the larger truth. For instance, he chose to drop Inman’s first and middle names. “The use of the last name throughout the book suggests…a mythic universalism,” says Ashdown. “The point is not so much to detach Inman from the past as it is to detach him from William P. Inman and historicity.”[5]

Coal Black Horse, about a 14-year-old boy’s journey to manhood as he travels from western Virginia to get his father from the battlefield at Gettysburg, does something similar. Because author Robert Olmstead avoids almost all mention of specific places, his protagonist, Robey, travels across a mythic landscape, which suits the novel well because of the slightly surreal quality of the characters. Facts would ground the world too much. Olmstead doesn’t even mention Gettysburg by name until page 145—two-thirds of the way through the book’s 218 pages—well after Robey has arrived on site and well after the battle.

Conversely, a writer can deluge a reader with facts, as Paulette Jiles does in Enemy Women, a novel about the Civil War’s guerilla conflict in Missouri. Jiles quotes extensively from Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri, 1861-1865 by Michael J. Fellman, which she includes as epigrams before each chapter as a way to provide background information and context. While those facts allow her to avoid exposition of her own, they still disrupt the flow of her narrative and interfere with her authorial voice. Facts, at least as Jiles uses them, can become too much.

As a historical story gets further from the facts, the harder it is to take the work seriously as history, but the easier it is to accept purely in terms of entertainment value. Nowhere is this more evident in the burgeoning science fiction subgenre of “alternative history.” Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, for instance, which pays meticulous attention to accuracy with its discussion of firearms and aspects of daily life, is clearly “alternative history” because of time travelers who bring A-K 47s to Robert E. Lee’s army from Apartheid-era South Africa. I know historians who think the premise is ludicrous, but they never accuse the book of trying to dress itself up as history, either.

Other alternative histories of the war typically hinge on “what ifs” less outlandish: in Turtledove’s How Few Remain, the Federal army never finds the “Lost Order” that outlines Lee’s plans for invasion into Pennsylvania; in Newt Gingrich and William Forestchen’s Gettysburg, Lee takes Longstreet’s advice and swings southward to better ground after the first day of fighting in Gettysburg; Peter Tsouras’s Gettysburg gives the battle a full reimagining while Douglas Gibboney’s Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg puts the legendary General in the thick of it; Kevin Wilmott’s biting satiric film C.S.A. explores modern America if the entire country, not just the South, had legalized slavery. An author with no less prestige than MacKinlay Kantor, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War prison novel Andersonville, imagined If the South Had Won the Civil War, basing his plot twist on a horseback riding accident that kills Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Gingrich calls alternative history “a way of breathing life back into the adventure, to reopen the book on page one,” but he insists that in order for them to be of any value beyond mere escapism, “internal logic, consistency, and a rigid adherence to reality must still be maintained. Otherwise, we fall off the track and it becomes an exercise in fantasy.” For instance, he says an aggressive George McClellan would’ve probably won Antietam, but McClellan was “driven far more by his fear of failure than by the dream of success.” To write his character any other way “is a denial of everything we know about him and becomes an exercise in fantasy.” Likewise, the “magic bullet” scenario—Grant dying in a horseback riding accident, Jackson surviving Chancellorsville, Lincoln’s mother not dying of the milk sickness—is little more than an exercise in fantasy.

I mention these alternate histories only as a way of probing the outer boundaries of history and fiction, where art clearly stands as art and facts are clearly false. At the other end, I could likewise cite James McPherson’s Pulitzer-winning Battle Cry of Freedom or Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering as examples that clearly stand in the realm of history and where facts are clearly true. One pole privileges story over fact, the other fact over story. Somewhere in between rest the examples I’ve discussed in this paper. All of them, fiction and nonfiction alike, strive to strike a balance between fact and story in the service of a particular truth.

“People interested in the Civil War become obsessed with facts and don’t have much patience with fiction,” Ashdown says.[6] They criticize art for being “unfactual” (just as artists criticize history for being “boring”). Before they insist on sacrificing art on the altar of fact, though, they’d do well to keep in mind the lesson Grant knew well: facts themselves are hard things to hold on to and can be interpreted into all sorts of happy and unhappy truths. His favored view of the war’s meaning, the Union Cause, faded from collective memory. The Reconciliation Cause subsumed the Emancipation Clause even as it itself was co-opted by the Lost Cause. Truths compete with truths.

“Today, professional historians call truth ‘Interpretation,’” Waugh said—but what interpretations are true? What kinds of interpretations lead to the best kinds of truth? What truths are true?

What to do with facts and how to interpret those facts into truths are central issues for storytellers of all sorts, whether historians or novelists, documentarians or feature filmmakers. “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory,” Robert Penn Warren said, “for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.”[7]


[1] Ashdown, 8.

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Ashdown, 19.

[4] Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York: Vintage, 1997. Pg. 342.

[5] Ibid, 23.

[6] Ashdown, 7.

[7] Warren quoted by Jones in “Introduction,” pg. ix.

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7 Responses to Telling History vs. Making Art: Fictions and Histories

  1. Dawn says:

    Art, too, offers another part of the story
    And if that stimulates critical thinking than what is that harm in blending fact and fiction?

    • I think the issue there, Dawn, is whether or not the art actually stimulates critical thinking (of any sort) or whether it’s blindly accepted as fact. One of the greatest values of art (vs entertainment) is the way it invites audiences to engage with it.

  2. Gene Adcock says:

    Great series, Chris…maybe your best!!

  3. Eric Hedden says:

    I certainly agree with Gene Adcock’s assessment.

  4. Meg Thompson says:

    You were correct–this is certainly something that will influence my own work, especially in my classes. Now to make a book out of your dissertation–do I hear “Pulitzer?”

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