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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Past Is a Foreign Country (FH3)

Taking Off From All of Your Comments

Thanks to everyone for weighing in. I can’t respond to each post, but, taken together I see a strand we all need to explore. Betty points out that Historical Fiction has a tendency to reflect the time of the author more than the supposed era in which it is set. That links nicely with Becky’s referency to George Macauley Trevelyan and my post about the Cliometric/Collingwood debate. See, while all of us easily lean to the Collingwood/Trevelyan/Reach-the-Reader side, there is a danger in that position. The more we, as historians or as authors of historical fiction, use the past as a setting for our current concerns, the more we try to create a past we are sure our readers will "get," the greater danger of both getting the past wrong and misleading our readers. Cause, see, what we and readers may agree on is fine for us, but may have nothing at all to do with what actually went on in another time.

I have always loved L.P. Hartley’s phase, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ And that is what the Cliometricians, more than the Collingwoodians, understand. For example, for 75 years or so, after the 1890s, the most famous, prestigious, American historians said that Reconstruction was a big mistake. Greedy, corrupt carpetbaggers from the North allied with southern blacks not truly ready for self government made a wrong-headed effort to rule the former Confederate states, until the nation saw the light and let the southern whites retake control. This view of the past matched the dominant white views in 20th century America. But from the 1960s on, historians went back and took a new look. They saw that blacks in the south had been quite responsible, in getting married, buying and working the land, seeking education, and voting. The problem with Reconstruction was not that it was a mistake, but that the white South resisted it, and finally found a partner in Northerners willing to end the experiment. 

Of course this new view of Reconstruction was in line with post-Civil-Rights America, so was, in its way, as much "of its time" as had been the older interpretation. But it is a clear warning — if we write with our current values in mind, we are at great risk of misreading the past. The example I alluded to in my first post is the most obvious one — spunky girls. Today we value independence, ambition, and pluck in girls as well as boys. As Betty has written, if we write about girls having those same traits in the ancient world, or medieval Europe, or Victorian London, we need to make a very, very good case for why this one character is so out of the norm. The fact that our readers prefer activity to passivity, assertion to submisision, independent thinking to obedience, does not mean we can impose those traits on girls in the foreign country of the past. 

In fact, if we have one prime goal as historians and authors of historical fiction it must be to honor the strangeness, the difference, the foreigness of the past, even as we offer our readers a tour of its most fascinating sites.


  1. Betty Carter says:

    I think that one of the pieces of historical fiction that gets a little mixed up is our desire to “hook’ readers, to begin books with “what they know.” The concept is solid, but there are so many things that readers “know,” that are not necessarily mirrors of their own lives. And, rather than populate historical fiction with spunky girls or plantation owners’ sons running the underground railroad (both of which fit nicely into our contemporary view of society), perhaps we’re better served with characters who are struggling to find their own identity (Johnny Tremain); trying to break away from their parents (How It Happened In Peach Hill); or caring for their siblings (Save Queen of Sheba). That these novels are set in the past shows differences of life then and now, differences that I think are important as youngsters consider their lives now. After all, big movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement or strides for women’s equality, have no meaning if children don’t know of the oppression that preceded them.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    One thing I’ve noticed again and again on the various children’s list serve discussions of history and historical fiction is the unfortunate idea that fiction is necessary to engage kids in the past. Years ago, Marc, you may recall we were together on a program speaking about historical fiction. For my part, I spoke about the various ways it has been used in classrooms, many of them problematic. Since then I figured I’d better put my money where my mouth is and have been doing a unit on historical fiction with my fourth graders. Over some time we consider what makes good historical fiction and then the kids research and write their own. (Since I can’t paragraph here I’m going to continue in a second comment so this isn’t too long.)

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    I very much appreciate Betty’s comment here and earlier. I well recall her excellent article on the different Revolutionary War novels. I think it should be required reading for anyone critically examining historical fiction (for any aged reader). Marc long ago convinced me that the writer has no obligation to the reader, just to him or herself. And thus I’ve become less strident in my comments about novels that seem historically problematic to me. If they are fiction I now agree that the author can fiddle as much as he or she wants. Still, the push to use historical fiction in classrooms as a way to introduce a historical topic continues to bother me. Both because of Betty’s point and because such works are not helping kids to learn how to think historically. (I care passionately about the teaching and learning of history in schools.) They will more likely read the books aesthetically, respond personally, and perhaps get a bit o history on the side. Sad that kids are getting history mostly through fiction and the relatively limited stuff in textbooks geared to prep them for the content tests.

  4. Betty Carter says:

    Monica touched on so many pieces of this puzzle that are so important to me. I really love the sentence that reads “They will more likely read the books aesthetically,” which is precisely what we want kids to do at the first, gut response. But, I would also like for them to bring a skepticism to their reading, as I know Monica does. I vividly remember reading Orsen Scott Card’s Seventh Son, the first book in the Alvin Maker trilogy. I was so caught up in his alternate word, so caught up in my aesthetic response, that I remember thinking at one point, “I had forgotten that Alexander Hamilton was president.” And I remember how caught I was a second later when I realized what I had done, how completely my aesthetic reading had overpowered any other interpretation. I think when adults present historical fiction as a way to “teach” history, we are bypassing that aesthetic stand and moving kids — whether or not they want to be moved — directly into the efferent. Coupled with the “problems” of historical fiction (mainly that it it is “fiction”), forcing kids into an efferent stance is not the way to develop lifetime readers. At the end of the day, I want them to read aesthetically but also question much in a book — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction — during that reading. That questioning may come in the form of wondering if the plot is full of coincidence, if the characters ring true, or if the setting and language and actions reflect a particular period, but I think this kind of reading it must come after the aesthetic stance. And I think the tension in teaching is to allow the first and decvelop the second without letting one overpower the other.