American History novels
Racing American history through fiction, we see public issues played out in individual lives. The novels that reveal the texture of American lives don't always concern matters conventionally regarded as the stuff of history-wars, elections, political movements. And yet they reveal American history through the clothes people wore, the landscapes they inhabited, the work they did, the dreams they cherished, the disappointments they endured.In general, the novels that best capture the "history" of a particular time are those written at the time, or a few decades later by authors looking back on an age with which they are personally familiar. "Historical fiction" - novels set in the long-ago past - tends to reveal as much about the period in which it was created as the one it depicts: Gore Vidal's deliciously acrid "Burr" scants the idealism of the 1770s in favor of the cynicism of the 1970s; E.L. Doctorow's edgily magisterial "Ragtime" views turn-of-the-century America with a post-Watergate sensibility. Since Americans didn't really take to fiction-writing until the 19th century, however, the key works about the colonial and revolutionary periods are historical novels.
Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850, but this descendant of New England witch-hunters was as consumed with questions of sin and individual responsibility as the 17th-century Puritans among whom he set his smoldering drama of adultery and expiation. In depicting pre-Revolutionary America at its most incendiarily judgmental and unforgiving, Hawthorne shows that the desire to suppress human nature and Mother Nature in the building of a godly society is also an ongoing impulse in American public life.
Himself a worldly and urbane gentleman, James Fenimore Cooper drew on his father's memories of taming the northeastern frontier in the Leatherstocking Tales, which asked early 19th-century readers to count the cost of imposing civilization on the wilderness and the Indians. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, was and is the series' most popular volume, with the best-developed Native American characters giving weight to themes of loss and change that resonate to the present day.
Somewhat surprisingly, the classic fictional account of the American Revolution is a children's book-though the length and language of Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain suggest that young adults read more patiently in 1943 (the book is aptly subtitled, "a novel for old or young"). Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, and other founding fathers are three-dimensional human beings as seen through the eyes of the sharp-witted adolescent hero; their political discussions illuminate the never-ending struggle to make liberty and equality walk hand in hand.
As the nation matured during the agonizing dialogue on slavery, American novelists were ready to address contemporary problems, nowhere more thunderously or to greater effect than in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In school we are taught to view Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel as a piece of history, the mega-bestseller whose popularity was frequently credited (or blamed) for making the Civil War inevitable. Those who actually read it may be surprised to find the impassioned abolitionist preaching buttressed by a propulsive narrative that vividly depicts antebellum American life. Stowe's maternal emphasis on slave families torn asunder is typical of the unabashedly sentimental, feminine voice that dominated mid-19th century popular fiction (the domain of "a damned mob of scribbling women, " according to the embittered Hawthorne) and spoke politically for female suffrage and an end to slavery.
The South was never able to alter the terms of debate Stowe seared into the American consciousness, but it got some revenge with . Margaret Mitchell's 1936 popular masterpiece imposes itself as the quintessential Civil War novel by virtue of its sheer ubiquity in our culture. Despite Ken Burns' efforts, modern Americans seem just as inclined as the indomitably self- centered Scarlett O'Hara to say "Fiddle dee-dee" to the war's big issues in favor of Mitchell's romantic images: the Confederacy as a glamorous Lost Cause; stately mansions (and a gracious way of life) burned to the ground by brutal Union soldiers. Even Mitchell's airbrushed portrait of benevolent slaveholders who understand black people better than carpetbagging Yankees has been astonishingly enduring, though Toni Morrison's blistering Beloved may finally have wiped it out. "GWTW" proves that, in a novel at least, history can be slanted as long as it's emotionally persuasive.
American fiction reached a new level of social complexity in the early 20th century. Problems that in a deceptively unified society seemed resolvable by the simple act of lighting out for the territory now proved as intractable in the New World as they had been for centuries in the Old. In roughly the hundred years since "Huckleberry Finn, " say, more American novelists have consciously sought to present alternative visions of society. The fiction most evocative of 20th-century history is not necessarily linked to specific events; the scope is broader, its attitude toward the mainstream often more confrontational.
Upton Sinclair's were published within seven years of each other, in 1906 and 1913, yet they belong to different centuries. "The Jungle" looks forward to assess the unsettling new social order being born in the nation's factories, "O Pioneers!" backward to consider the enduring impact of the vast empty spaces so rapidly filled and farmed by the homesteaders of the 1870s and '80s.
From its militant dedication ("To the Workingmen of America") to its fiery vision of a poisonous system that only socialism could salvage, "The Jungle" is a novel of the urban, industrial society our national ethos has never comfortably embraced. Contemporary readers virtually ignored Sinclair's appeal to end "wage slavery" but were appalled by his gut-churning portrait of unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry, which prompted passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. "I aimed at the public's heart, " the disillusioned author later remarked, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
Cather's Nebraska prairie, peopled by immigrants just as subject to the cultural shocks of Americanization as Sinclair's Polish factory workers, captures the turn of the century as faithfully, and with more artistry, than "The Jungle." The characters in "O Pioneers!" have a deep connection with the land and a reverence for spiritual over material values that are no less truthful aspects of American life for being a lot more palatable than class struggle and social injustice.
The First World War did not have the cataclysmic effect on American youth that it did on their European peers, but it hastened the already underway rejection of old certainties. Although Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms, " which counterposes the war's meaninglessness with a tragic love affair, is better known, Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos deals more directly with mechanized combat's dehumanizing blend of horror and tedium. The novel's protagonists react to military insanity with anarchism; in real life, more Americans embraced the Jazz Age hedonism F. Scott Fitzgerald critiques so poignantly in The Great Gatsby.
There are no references to public events (other than fixing the World Series) in "Gatsby, " yet it is palpably immersed in our history. No more acute description of the American character exists than the book's closing paragraphs: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
The American Dream took a beating during the Depression, which may explain why political fiction came as close as it ever has to seizing the artistic initiative from the personality-driven narratives we tend to prefer. Dos Passos's U.S.A. is the decade's greatest proletarian novel, but John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath perfectly captures the national response to a social/economic crisis: it is earnest, confused, awkwardly Biblical in imagery, incredibly sentimental in its political formulations, which work only because the human suffering they address is so movingly delineated.