The study of history is an important and popular pastime for many people. In fact, there are over 4,000 independent historical societies in the United States alone (D’Addezio). Authors, both aware of their readers’ interests and finding the subject intriguing themselves, meld literature and historical events together seamlessly to create a vision of the past. This type of work, aptly referred to as “historical fiction” has gained prominence because it gives readers a view of a famous historical setting or event not seen in a textbook.
For many people, these books fulfill a longing and a curiosity to be a part of a famous time: to go back to the World War I days, or the 1950s, and get at least a secondhand feeling of what life was like. However, with this addition of historical events comes a responsibility the writer must shoulder. The author has an obligation, for the sake of historical integrity, to inform his readers where he or she is taking a stand against popular thought or deviating from a common teaching. That is, the care writers must take with regard to historical situations in their work is directly proportional to the controversiality of the ideas they are trying to put forth; “history” they are presenting.
Within the field of history, there are many absolute, accepted facts and conversely almost as many debatable uncertainties. If an author does nothing in his or her work but support unarguable truths, and there is no major manipulation of facts or concepts, then the author holds no duty to give 100% correct information or a disclaimer. Basically, a work such as this is harmless when in comes to altering people’s opinions. On the other hand, if the author chooses to utilize a somewhat debatable historical occurrence in his or her work, then he or she carries the burden of somehow informing the reader that the piece is simply speculation, a probable explanation, or a total fabrication, and not a doctrine meant to be read as a nonfiction work. If authors fail to make this obvious in their work, either through a disclaimer, side notes that tell the true history or opposing viewpoint, or in the text, then they run the risk of being dangerous to the public.
Historical authenticity must be respected for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that the written word serves as the primary recorder of history. What happens when people 100 years from now read a novel full of “false history” and assume it to be genuine? They will take it for truth unless another source or a factual statement is given to them, or they have background knowledge that tells them better. As an example that most readers will take a book to be true unless told otherwise, a respectable number of people believe that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a book full of true or mostly true events with real people and names until they are told that the characters and stories, although loosely based on real people, were fabricated.
Another reason is that history takes on a role of being more that “just what happened in the past.” It is used as a foundation for a wide spectrum of philosophies. Precedence, or the history of other cases, is the foundation of the American legal system. When a work crosses the line from being a “harmless” piece to causing an alteration in a person’s opinion of a subject, the work becomes damaging to society if the opinion is changed to anything except a proven truth. Therefore, the resulting question is: Where is this line that separates the harmless from the damaging? Three novels that clearly illustrate the difference between non-detrimental situations and potentially risky ones that must be written with regard and care to detailed history are Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Don DeLillo’s Libra, and the aforementioned The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. These three novels also represent different techniques in dealing with their subjects and informing the public of their work’s validity.
Beloved is set during the mid-1800’s, and is essentially about the long-term emotional and physical scars caused by a life in slavery, even after freedom from the system is given. Although a few characters are indeed based on realistic individuals, neither these people nor their stories are well-known to the general public, and therefore many readers presumably deem the work to be pure fiction instead of having any historical basis other than the 1850s-Reconstruction era atmosphere. Many reviewers and critics refer to the work as a exposition on slavery and not a retelling of the Margaret Garner story. Therefore, the novel is classified as historical fiction because of its setting, as opposed to ones that are identified as such because of well-known characters or plot (such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration).
Because, from the view of the average reader, the history in Beloved revolves around the book’s environment, Morrison’s only obligation is to provide a correct setting in terms of showing a plausible view of what life was like for a slave and later a common African-American single mother in Ohio in 1873. As long as this creation is free of exaggerations or statements that defy documented facts, such as arguing that “slavery was wonderful for everyone,” the work as a whole is innocent because the average reader’s perception of the slave-owner system will be relatively unaffected.
But what about the liberties Morrison takes in altering a real-life event? Again, the event she bases the plot on is reasonably unknown except in groups that study the novel and esoteric history discussions. The true story involves no influential people, and the actions described did not incite social change or establish a notable precedent, and is thus basically nothing but an anecdote that enhances historical studies. This, coupled with the fact that the story is unfamiliar, frees Morrison from obligation to inform the reader where the truth lies because she is not attempting to change conventional notions or challenge set principles, but instead is merely trying to write a story with slavery as the backdrop.
This is not to say that altering a real-life event is completely ethical, but that in this particular situation it is acceptable. The author still has obligations to be reasonably accurate when it comes to adding any historical numbers or detail. In Beloved, the most recognizable inclusion such as this is the dedication, “Sixty Million and more,” which seemingly represents the number of slaves who died coming from Africa to the United States. Many critics have stated that there is a problem with this number, or its inclusion. The only problem with respect to actual historical integrity is the number itself. Morrison refutes these claims by asserting that “Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million” (qtd. in David 126). This leads the reader to believe Morrison does an overall decent job of resisting exaggeration to support her claims. The way she writes Beloved is undamaging to society’s view of the historical event of slavery and truthful where Morrison is required to be cautious.
In stark contrast to Beloved, at least from the historical fiction perspective, is Don DeLillo’s Libra, a novel that hypothesizes about the behind-the-scenes events that led to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The difference between Morrison’s characters and DeLillo’s are that in Libra, the main character, Lee Harvey Oswald, is known to the average reader, as is the main event in the story. Since Oswald and the assassination are very notorious subjects, DeLillo has a duty to inform the reader whether his work is his honest believable explanation, a total invention, or somewhere in between. He succeeds in showing his stance with his disclaimer at the end of the book, stating that “This is a work of imagination…I’ve made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination” (DeLillo 485). Without this clause at the finish of the book, one might presume DeLillo is an avid Kennedy Assassination fanatic who spends every possible second studying the edividence. He obviously studied the case to great depths, with all the references to the Kennedy Assassination subculture in the scenes with Nicholas Branch and the details to which he knows the lives of Oswald, Banister, Ferrie, etc.
Such a statement is requisite on a novel dealing with the Kennedy murder because the topic itself is so controversial. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what really happened, and therefore any work that takes a stand, even one that sides with the Warren Commission, will more than likely come under critical fire. By stating it was just an imaginative work, first and foremost, Don DeLillo relieves himself somewhat from being lampooned by those who disagree with the stance his novel takes. He stated after the publication of the novel that he wanted to give “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years” (qtd. in Carnes, 77). This seems to support the notions set forth in the disclaimer, yet also bring up an interesting point.
He admits, with that statement, that his work intentionally left out the “half-facts,” and therefore stuck only to the concrete or near-concrete truths. By choosing to use only what he felt were mostly undisputable details, DeLillo fulfills another requirement of good historical fiction by not basing any main plot point within his realistic sequence events on an unstable fact. If he had chose to accept such details for inclusion, he would have inevitably been taking a more radical stance on the subject, and therefore jeopardizing his ideal of a novel that is not “overwhelmed by possibilities.” When discussing his reasons for utilizing definite facts and basing the plot of Libra around a commonly accepted theory among conspiriologists, DeLillo said, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood” (qtd. in Carnes 78).
This concept of doing “justice to historical likelihood” is one that all authors should adopt. A writer whose subject constricts the imagination must respect those boundaries, or else they run the risk of miseducating the public. Using DeLillo and the Kennedy controversy as an example, say that he chose to put Oswald on a side street during the shooting, and then had Oswald performing some other crime when he runs into Officer Tippit, it would be harmful because it contradicts a near absolute fact. Some readers could be deceived into believing that Oswald wasn’t in the book depository during the shooting. This is a rather extreme example, but the main idea is that a work of writing such as this, despite the definition of fiction, is often a source people use to get facts or ideas to work off of. The Kennedy Assassination is no different. Many readers of Libra doubtlessly learn quite a bit of factual information concerning Oswald’s life and other facets of the assassination over the course of the book. It is therefore imperative that DeLillo stays within the historical restrictions, which to his credit he does in his effort to have “historical likelihood.”
In between the relative freedom from specific limits found in writing Beloved and the somewhat strict, careful manner that must dictate a novel like Libra if it is to have any integrity is a book like The Things They Carried. Like Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien wrote a book using characters the reader is unfamiliar with. However, the external setting for these characters, the Vietnam War, is a well-known distinct event in history, as opposed to a general ongoing idea such as the plantation system. O’Brien therefore is free of the character limitations placed on DeLillo, but is still must maintain accuracy when talking of things pertaining to the war, such as sequences of large scale events, military protocol, etc. Since, as mentioned earlier, many people believe the book, or at least large parts of the book, are true, then the book becomes a source of information, at least in a subconscious way. O’Brien lulls the reader into the “realism” of his novel by starting the book with a long list of items soldiers carried with their weights. Because he elects to do this, thereby soliciting the reader’s trust in his facts, O’Brien must follow through by using accurate history in the course of his narrative.
There really is no obligation on the part of O’Brien to say which parts of his book are true because he qualifies it by making such a big deal in his book over what is true and what is not. As long as O’Brien tells historically correct facts in doing so, it really does not matter because all he is doing is fooling the reader. The real danger would be if he altered the undisputable facts somewhere in his story and gave the readers false information.
Naturally an author making minor adjustments to suit a novel is not the end of the world, but it does undermine the historical integrity spoken of earlier. One reason commonly given as to why the study of the past is so important is that a society can learn more about itself, and how to handle events in the future. Anachronisms are sometimes humorous to notice, but in large numbers they can be a powerful entity. If even the minor events in history are misunderstood, then it results logically that the major issues will be misunderstood, and before too long the history which society bases its principles and plans upon will become distorted. As a result, writers hold a responsibility to be historically accurate and “do justice to historical likelihood” when necessary.
In conclusion, the responsibility taken by a writer is dependent on how much history is integrated into their story, the familiarity of the setting to the reader, and the controversiality of their subject matter. Regardless, the author must pay attention to detail and pay special care when addressing their work, such as Toni Morrison in Beloved, Don DeLillo in Libra, and Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried.