Sunday, April 21, 2013
Question for the audience
A question for the audience: Where do you draw the line between historical fact and artistic license? This question comes up most in discussions about films with historical themes, such as JFK or Lincoln, but the same discussion also applies to books. I admit I am a purest on this question and feel historical facts, as we can understand them, are always more interesting and colorful than fabricating information to add color. Edmund Morris's Dutch, a biography of Ronald Reagan, famously added characters that allowed the author the ability to provide some additional perspective. Morris felt this allowed him to tell a better story. Like many, I feel adding fictional material to what is purported to be an historical account (as biographies are) damages the integrity of the final product. In Dead Certainties Simon Schama tells two stories. One is the death of General Wolfe during the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, and the second is a murder mystery revolving around the death of George Parkman, uncle to historian Francis Parkman. The historian Parkman is the only thing tying the two sections of the book together. In this case Schama identifies his book as a novella, but he weaves verifiable fact with fiction. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this work, but I still wonder what was real and what was not. Currently, I am reading William F. Buckley's Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, an account of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the introduction Buckley refers to the work as "reliable" but adds that it is "not strictly factual" (both quotes are from page xi). In essence, Buckley feels he has the spirit of the times, but takes liberty in writing conversations (although he defends himself in stating that these words fit the character of the orator as the author understood it). One wonders, though, where to draw the line in using this book for classes, research, etc. I almost put down Flying High, but decided to continue reading it because it is enjoyable. On the historical side, I will take the broadest message from it. Of course, works labeled historical fiction are a totally different beast. It makes no pretense to historical accuracy, even though many historical events are portrayed accurately in such works. I do find historical fiction a valuable tool to understanding the past. I believe that examining other possible outcomes to real events helps better understand what actually did happen.