A few thoughts on fiction and history

All novelists take liberties when they write historical fiction, drawing on their imaginations and from the raw material of the past. The question, then, is: how much should they stray from the historical record? How much should they rearrange facts, events, and timing to suit the needs of their plot?


For some postmodern authors, the very idea of “facts” or of a “historical record” is an illusion. They’ll blithely deconstruct and distort because they argue that what we call history is a subjective narrative by and for the powerful. (Include E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover, among others, in this camp). Along those lines, the novelist Don DeLillo has written: “There is pleasure to be found, the writer’s, the reader’s, in a version of the past that escapes the coils of established history and biography and that finds a language, scented, dripping, detailed, for such routine realities as sex, weather and food, for the ravel of a red thread on a woman’s velvet sleeve.”

For counterfactual historical fiction (“what if Hitler had won the Second World War?”), there’s also a heavy reliance on elaborate fabrication. For example, novels like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Dominion by C. J. Sansom—which all imagine a world altered by a Nazi victory—change history and then consider the ripple effect.

I prefer historical fiction grounded in reality. I like reading novels that are well researched about a given period of time and that are (for the most part) accurate in their depiction of events and personalities. It’s a more engaging way to learn about the past—Rudyard Kipling claimed that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. When authors stray too far from the record, or when their dialogue includes jarring contemporary phrases, I feel let down.

In writing historical fiction, I try to avoid errors of fact and also of interpretation on matters small and large. So I’ve spent time researching the cost of a pay phone call in New York City in 1949, and the footwear of Manchu women in Beijing in 1794. Details matter, because they help create a sense of time and place.

Sometimes there are questions without clear answers, or where historians disagree. I’ve encountered some of these unresolved questions during my research. Why did the French Revolution descend into savagery in the summer of 1793, into the Terror? Could there have been a different, and peaceful ending, to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956?

In the end, it’s a balancing act. An overemphasis on the historical can weigh a novel down; a lightly-researched book can feel weightless, untethered to historical reality. The trick is to breathe life into the past—a different country.

Literary scholar Daniel Aaron had it right: “Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music.”

©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

William Shakespeare and the Mind of the Maker

In The Tutor, an elegantly crafted novel that imagines William Shakespeare’s life during the early 1590s (during what scholars call his “lost years”), author Andrea Chapin accepts the notion that one of the world’s most famous writers was, indeed, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon, a provincial English town.

The Tutor

That’s a distinct improvement over the recent attempted rewriting of literary history in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 movie that depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as having secretly written Shakespeare’s plays. De Vere died in 1604, well before Shakespeare’s later plays were staged, but that doesn’t give the Oxfordians pause. They claim that de Vere must have left a cache of writings.

Another group of literary conspiracy buffs argue that Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, is responsible for Shakespeare’s works. As with de Vere’s advocates, the Baconians claim that their man had the education, background, and biography to be a literary genius, and Shakespeare didn’t. They’re wrong. Columbia University’s James Shapiro does a masterful job of debunking Bacon-as-Shakespeare and the other candidates in his Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, noting that Shakespeare’s literary rivals and colleagues never called his authorship of what were very popular plays (and well-received poetry) into question.

In The Tutor, Chapin’s Shakespeare isn’t a fraud, but rather a man-on-the-make capitalizing on his gift of glibness. He’s a bisexual rake who manipulates men and women through his quick wit, personal magnetism, and brilliant acting. In the novel, Shakespeare is a schoolmaster, a tutor, to an aristocratic Catholic family in Lancashire. A young widow, Katherine de L’Isle, becomes Shakespeare’s muse and his quite critical line editor, as can be seen in this passage from the novel:

“…she dipped a quill in ink and started to write on Will’s pages, circling words, querying meaning and placement and feeling. Her lines stretched out at strange angles from his neat and careful handwriting, connecting his words to his. By the time she finished, the pages looked like maps, his words countries whose boundaries and allegiances had been called into question.”

Even while Chapin accepts the reality of the Stratford Shakespeare, she can’t resist introducing a classically-educated character to “improve” and inspire his writing. His torrent of sonnets and plays suggests, however, that Shakespeare didn’t need prodding to write, and apparently didn’t need much in the way of editing—one contemporary noted that his manuscripts had few corrections or revisions.

William Shakespeare

It’s hard for some university-educated types to accept that William Shakespeare, a commoner with (perhaps) a grammar school education, remains one of the world’s great authors. Yet I’ll argue, based on what I’ve seen in journalism and publishing, there’s little positive correlation between formal higher education and great writing ability. (In fact, ofttimes the more advanced degrees the writer holds, the more stilted the prose.) Look no further for proof than to those notable writers lacking academic credentials: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Gore Vidal, Doris Lessing, and Stieg Larsson.

There’s a reluctance to embrace this truth: a writer needs only imagination and a way with words to invent a believable world.

Writers need some education (apparently the grammar schools of Shakespeare’s time could be fairly rigorous), and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of research—I write historical fiction, after all. I suspect Shakespeare was a very curious man, and one who turned to people, and books, to learn what he needed to know for his plays.

I hold, however, that the creative Mind of the Maker (to borrow Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful term) counts for more than long hours in the archives. Even first-hand experience can be overrated, despite Ernest Hemingway’s admonition: “In order to write about life first you must live it.” A number of inventive fabulists (James Frey, Misha Defonseca, Margaret Seltzer, Greg Mortenson) have shown that a skilled writer can fool critics and readers into thinking that the imagined is real. (These authors have established a new genre: the false memoir.)

Other marvelous writers have demonstrated that, with enough craft and some diligent research, they can fashion a seamless fictional world with little or no first-hand experience. Experts on life in the Soviet Union raved about the accuracy of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and yet the novelist didn’t speak Russian and spent only two weeks in Moscow before writing his bestseller. Patrick O’Brian, author of the famous maritime series featuring Jack Aubrey, apparently couldn’t sail. Sid Smith’s Something Like a House, a novel about the Cultural Revolution, won Britain’s Whitbread First Novel Award and yet Smith couldn’t read or speak Chinese, and hadn’t worked in or visited China. Creativity, it seems, can trump biography. In fiction, what matters is that the reader believes.

At the same time, I do think accuracy in detail counts—especially in historical fiction. Getting things (geography, clothing, historical context) right helps the reader enter the different country of the past. I’m sensitive to anachronistic speech—I find it particularly jarring when a character uses slang or a phrase that doesn’t fit the story’s historical period.

In the end, what ends up on paper or in pixels must first emerge from the mind of the maker. Shakespeare noted the power of imagination for the poet:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

William Shakespeare, commoner, didn’t achieve title or rank, didn’t secure a position at court, and (from what little we know) didn’t travel extensively. But he had the poet’s eye, and that was more than enough.

©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

The stories we tell

We need stories.

They help us make sense of our existence, of where we have been and where we are going, of what is right and wrong, and what purpose and meaning we find along our way, crooked or straight.


It seems there is a story ready-made for every phase of our lives. We borrow these stories and mold and shape them to fit our own circumstances.

There is the story of birth, the story of coming of age, the boy-meets-girl story, the overcome-odds career story. The stories of joy and grief, of love and loss, and of success and failure, of faith and redemption. Finally there is the last story, the story of death, one that others will have to tell for and about us, for we will have departed the stage.

Some stories are one-of-a-kind, bespoke stories, made unique by events or by circumstance: the first man on the moon or the last man (or woman) standing after a tornado has swept through a farm town.

Others are universal, archetypical, templates for the human condition, mythic in their scope and focus. In some magic way these legendary stories reflect elemental truths or record traditions of great value.

Scholars like Joseph Campbell have outlined the repetitive myths that have excited our imaginations for centuries: the Quest of the Hero, the Pursuit of Love, the Adoration of the Sacred, our Rendezvous with Death.

These stories tap into powerful human memories, into what Jung called the collective unconscious, in strange and surprising ways. How else to account for the continuing popularity of the saga of Beowulf? The story’s appeal to its original 8th century audience seems natural: it tells of a hero who fights the monsters that roam in the dark outside the warmth and light of the Great Hall, both a cautionary tale and one designed to inspire the courage of its listeners.

The primal power of Beowulf has lasted. The saga has been retold in fiction and film repeatedly. There have been four full-length cinematic versions in the first decade of this century alone, including one featuring Angelina Jolie (director Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 Beowulf) and another, Outlander (2008), that reimagines the story from the perspective of a warrior from outer space.

Hollywood will never run out of material, for like children at bedtime, we seem to crave hearing the same tale—with some embellishments—over and over again.

Then there are our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves. They chronicle our existence. They may, or may not, align with what others see or experience but they are stubbornly ours. In them we often play the role of unreliable narrator (a term invented by literary critics), and yet we can be reliably expected to fashion a story that somehow meets our psychic needs. We may be victim or hero, bystander or protagonist, innocent or guilty. We may sand off the rough edges and conveniently forget those awkward moments that don’t quite fit into the storyline we have crafted. Under extreme pressure, we may even create a freshly-conceived, alternative reality and come to believe in it.

We need these stories, both the personal and the borrowed. They help us find our place in the world. They give us roots. They can gird us for combat or prepare us for love. They inspire us (remembering that inspire in the Latin means to breathe into). They are the stuff of dreams and of nightmares.

They may very well be what sets us apart from the rest of creation. Who else tells stories? And who else lives by them?

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: icebergs, raisin bread, and the short story

What makes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing even some eight decades after its publication is how this brief story illustrates some of Hemingway’s literary rules of thumb in practice. It features Hemingway’s clean, plain-style prose (“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way”); his “iceberg principle” of omitting detail and forcing the reader to decode the story; and his belief that symbols should be naturally baked into a narrative (like, he once wrote, plain bread) and should not stick out “like raisins in raisin bread.”

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was always conflicted about matters literary. On the one hand, his contrived “author-as-action hero” persona hampered extended discussions of literary theory. After all, why would a naturally-gifted author ever pay attention to such effete concerns? So Hemingway often maintained that authentic writing meant translating emotional experience onto the page: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Yet Hemingway cared deeply about his literary reputation (see, for example, his dismissal of rivals F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford and his aggrandizing self-portrait in A Moveable Feast) and recognized that he had to advance some “theory of writing” to engage and satisfy his academic critics. In many ways he shared the attitude of the Beatles’ John Lennon, who mocked music critics for writing “intellectual bullshit” about his songs but acknowledged such interpretations served to establish the group’s mythology (“Still, I know it helps to have bullshit written about you.”)

There’s an air of contrivance about “Hills Like White Elephants”—as if Hemingway had one eye on the critics when he sat down at the typewriter. His choice of topic for the story—a young couple arguing over whether the woman should have an abortion—had significant shock value in the late 1920s when abortion was universally illegal and a taboo subject. And shocking the respectable (“épater la bourgeoisie“) had been a strategy for establishing artistic credibility since Baudelaire and Rimbaud, one Hemingway clearly wasn’t above employing.

The iceberg principle

“Hills Like White Elephants” is well-crafted: Hemingway’s bare prose and taut dialogue pull us into the story, and he shares just enough about the couple to keep us interested. This omission of detail represents a deliberate literary technique, as Hemingway once acknowledged in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

His somewhat mystical view that “the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” could perhaps be more accurately phrased as “the reader, if the writer is leaving enough clues and hints, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” (That readers would recognize “hollow places” in the writing when the writer was omitting out of ignorance is, plainly put, nonsense.)

Throughout “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway provides plenty of clues while deliberately withholding key details. We never learn the name or occupation of the male protagonist. There are no physical descriptions of the couple. We must piece together the facts of their predicament from their disjointed conversation.

Yet there is enough of the iceberg showing to give us a good sense of what is going on: the girl, Jig, is resisting the American’s pressure for the abortion. She has begun to question the emptiness of their lifestyle (“That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”) and the sincerity of his feelings for her. It’s clear that Jig can envision a different, happier future (prefigured by the natural beauty around them), but she realizes her lover doesn’t share that vision.

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

The resolution of “Hills Like White Elephants” is famously ambiguous. Literary critics have argued over whether Jig agrees to the American’s demands and takes the train to Madrid for the abortion, whether he will leave her after the operation, or whether, in the end, she will resist his entreaties and bear the child to term (the most unlikely outcome). (Nilofer Hashmi has an excellent summary of the varying theories in her essay “‘Hills Like White Elephants’: The Jilting of Jig“).

Plain or raisin?

Unlike some of Hemingway’s more naturalistic stories (for example, “Fifty Grand” or “The Killers”), “Hills Like White Elephants” is more overtly reliant on symbolism. Later in his career, Hemingway talked about the question of symbolism in a Time magazine interview in 1954:

“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.”

No doubt Hemingway’s intent in “Hills Like White Elephants” was to offer “plain bread” symbolism—in practice, however, the result feels more like “raisin bread.” Hemingway starts the story with a stripped-down description of the Ebro valley’s landscape and has Jig introduce her poetic simile about the “line of hills” that “were white in the sun”—with its heavy symbolic freight— in the ninth paragraph.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

Hemingway makes extended use of the simile, explicitly linking this conceit to the underlying conflict between the American and the girl. The hills, of course, can be read as symbolic of fertility and the Jig’s unborn baby can be regarded as a white elephant—a valuable but too costly possession that is hard to dispose of. Her lover’s irritation with her repeated references to the “white elephants” reflects his rejection of any alternative to what he wants her to do. When Jig abandons the simile, it signals that she will comply with his wishes.

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Some critics have focused on additional symbols in the story—from the meaning of Jig’s name to the symbolism of the beaded curtain to the significance of the hotel stickers on the couple’s baggage. While some of these readings are far-fetched, Hemingway did, consciously or unconsciously, provide plenty of ambiguous “raisins” with room for interpretation.

Too clever by half?

It’s possible to admire the technical craft involved in “Hills Like White Elephants” and still find the story wanting on several levels. There’s a certain flatness in this vignette of a love affair gone bad; for an author often criticized for his weakly-portrayed female, Jig is—ironically enough—the more human and rounded character, while the American comes across as a narcissistic lout.

Hemingway’s writerly cleverness—the shock value of writing about abortion, the deliberate omission of detail, the heavy-handed symbolism–is too much on display in “Hills Like White Elephants.” In the end, it’s “too clever by half” and these tricks lend the story an overly calculated and mechanical feel—an irony, indeed, for a writer who prided himself on authenticity.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the world of work

Herman Melville knew not only how to tell a straightforward story, but also how to slyly include enough different elements, literary references, and symbols to add several layers of meaning to his tales; this ability to fuse narrative and symbolism is on full display in “Bartleby The Scrivener,” a longish short story first published in 1853.

Melville understood the value of ambiguity. By making the character of Bartleby, a legal scrivener (or copyist), so strange, so opaque, and so memorable, Melville insured the story’s lasting appeal. We never learn why Bartleby “prefers not” to tackle his office duties, and the underlying reasons for his stubborn resistance remain unexplained. As “Bartleby the Scrivener” begins, its narrator, the Wall Street lawyer who employs Bartleby, emphasizes the man’s mysteriousness:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him…

Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein has noted that this “blank Bartleby” has encouraged multiple readings of the character. Who is Bartleby? Who is he meant to represent? Some critics have viewed Bartleby as a stand-in for many of Melville’s sometimes difficult contemporaries (Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne) or for Melville himself. Was Bartleby a response to the negative reviews and flagging sales of Melville’s novels Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), a suggestion that Melville “preferred not” to produce more accessible and less metaphorical fiction, even if readers preferred it? A different interpretation casts Bartleby as a Christ-like figure, misunderstood and persecuted by the world; those of a Marxist bent see him as the archetype of the office worker resisting the mind-numbing demands of exploitative capitalism.

Not every reader of Melville appreciates his fondness for the baroque and not all critics have delighted in his literary tricks. The English novelist D.H. Lawrence, in a critique of Moby-Dick, disapproved of what he called Melville’s attempt to “square himself with the intellectual world by dragging in deliberate transcendentalism, deliberate symbols and ‘deeper meanings.’ All this is insufferably clumsy and in clownish bad taste: self-conscious and amateurish to a degree, the worst side of American behavior.” In contrast, Lawrence writes, when Melville “renders us his sheer apprehension of the world…” then “he is wonderful” and his writing commands “a stillness in the soul, an awe.”

“Bartleby the Scrivener” does give us more “sheer apprehension of the world” and it can be read in simpler terms, as a story highlighting the tensions and contradictions in relationships at work. Melville caught some of the absurdity and alienation of office work at a time when most Americans made their living on farms. Bartleby’s eccentric office-mates—Nipper, Turkey, Ginger Boy—would fit right into the hijinks at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of the television sit-com “The Office.”

A prudent narrator

One entry point for the story is the narrator, Bartleby’s boss, whose dealings with his strange employee provide Melville’s narrative arc. The narrator/lawyer decribes himself as “rather elderly man,” one who is “eminently safe,” and he is sure to note that he has been praised by the famous financier John Jacob Aster as prudent and methodical. Yet the narrator has been living an “unexamined life” (to borrow a phrase from the transcendentalists). Proud of his commercial success and prudence, with a “natural expectancy of instant compliance” from his employees, he is totally unprepared for Bartleby’s resistance (“I would prefer not to”) and rejection of convention. Bartleby’s response puts the narrator strangely on the defensive. The lawyer regards himself as a decent, Christian man and we sense that he is not completely comfortable with wielding authority over his “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” employee. He cannot bring himself to confront Bartleby directly, and becomes profoundly linked to this strange employee:

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.

The lawyer tries to cope with the situation rationally: he attempts to reason with Bartleby, to negotiate with him, and, finally, to pay him to go away. He finds that he cannot alter Bartleby’s insistence on withdrawing from work and from life. It is only the fear that “the strange creature I kept at my office” will damage his reputation, and hurt his law practice, that leads him to end their relationship, but even then he cannot do it directly, instead moving his office to escape Bartleby, this “intolerable incubus.”

Yet the narrator remains haunted by Bartleby. What does he owe him? Where does his responsibility end? All of his attempts to help Bartleby are rebuffed, but the lawyer still feels guilty when Bartleby’s stubborn rejection of the conventional costs him his life.

Some of the lasting appeal of the story is that it reflects, in exaggerated form, the natural workplace tension between boss and employee. How does the manager exercise his or her authority? By command and control or through gentle persuasion? And who ends up with the real power in the relationship? After all, the worker is not without leverage—sabotage or deliberately shoddy work is always an option, or (as with Bartleby) passive-aggressive resistance.

The puzzle of Bartleby

The close to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (what the narrator calls a sequel), fails to solve the puzzle of Bartleby. We learn that Bartleby served as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and had lost his job with a change in administration. (Some critics have argued that the Dead Letters represent Melville’s failed novels, and that Bartleby’s despair reflects Melville’s despondency over what he thought was a dead-end for his writing.) The narrator draws a connection between Bartleby’s prior occupation and his eventual breakdown: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned.”

But somehow Bartleby’s tacked-on past doesn’t seem enough to explain his bizarre behavior, his deadened affect, his anhedonia. His alienation and separation must have deeper and hidden psychic roots, but Melville deliberately leaves the mystery of this strange, ghostly scrivener unsolved.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.