Finding the 'Art' in Historical Fiction and Narrative History

Christopher Bram's sincere love for historical storytelling is contagious.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 162 pages
Author: Christopher Bram
Price: $12.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-07

The one thing that comes through most clearly in The Art of History is Christopher Bram's genuine love of both history and historical fiction. His sincerity makes the overall tone of the book more like a comfortable conversation with a friend as you sit in his library and he points out the books that have worked best from those that haven't. He's a friend perhaps more passionate than yourself, but it's an infectious passion and you can't help but enjoy listening.

Bram's clear command of the subject gives him the authority to dispense concise criticism of the genres in such a short book without it seeming rushed or abbreviated. There are undoubtedly worlds more to say about both historical fiction and narrative history, but Bram delivers more than enough in The Art of History to both defend historical fiction as a genre and excite the reader about the potentials of narrative history. For Bram, each complements the other. Both can provide a micro or a macro view, but only fiction can allow us to fully get inside historical characters' heads (genuine or otherwise); while narrative history can preserve the past's mysteries in ways that fiction cannot. As he phrases it, "...fiction needs to mean something, while true events can simply be."

Bram's in-depth familiarity with the subject keeps him from praising books he doesn't believe work even when others might surely disagree (e.g., Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or Edward P. Jones's The Known World). He isn't reticent to describe Cormac McCarthy's writing as "phony" as he analyzes the successful use of dark comedy in historical fiction. For Bram, Blood Meridian can be handily dismissed as the "fantasy of a really mean adolescent boy" when compared to the more successful mix of "slapstick and bloodshed" in Charles Portis's True Grit.

The Art of History relies on a series of Exhibits, as Bram calls them, to make the case for history as a critical storytelling device. Each exhibit sits astride powerful historical mechanisms, whether social or political turmoil in Latin and South America (Love in the Time of Cholera and The Path Between the Seas); war (War and Peace); or the legacy of slavery in the United States (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Beloved, etc.).

Between each of these exhibits, Bram looks at the different elements that go into creating a successful or unsuccessful historical story -- whether fictional or not. As he demonstrates success and failure in each, he treads through a library of both universally familiar books and ones that are far less familiar. But Bram's analysis is most convincing when he writes of the role of lives in both fiction and non-fiction. In writing fiction, history can lend the author an avalanche of information, giving authors like Gore Vidal room to finesse the legendary Aaron Burr into something unique, elusively familiar, and entirely contemporary.

As Bram writes, "It doesn't really matter that the real Burr wasn't nearly as smart and entertaining as Vidal's version of him," no one reads Burr for a dry, tick-tock of the man's life. Fictional biographies like these allow us to enjoy our understanding of the past, not perfect it. In comparison, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley is a biography of "responsible invention." Written about a woman whose life is still frustratingly impenetrable, Ordeal reveals "a series of landscapes without a figure, a world populated by an absence." It's an opacity that fiction would be hard pressed to sustain. After all, "Novelists know everything, of course, or they can if they want to...."

Another highlight of Bram's book is the expertise with which he digs into Exhibit D, American slavery. As a subject of historical storytelling, America's so-called "original sin" has produced some of American literature's undeniable masterpieces; from Toni Morrison's Beloved to firsthand classics like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Although Bram spends more time on the latter than the former, he also explores the subject via his usual route: through the less widely-read classics and even personal favorites. One book he particularly draws upon is William Styron's 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which Bram admits is controversial, but also provides a perfect example of how historical fiction can expound upon, embellish, and improve its often dry historical precedents.

The actual confession of Nat Turner was less than 20 pages and "reads like legal boilerplate." In fact, the bloodshed resulting from Turner's slave revolt might be lost in the actual confession, while historical fiction can fill the void, not to sensationalize the historical incident, but in order to allow readers to contextualize, comprehend, or perhaps even to empathize with actors and acts (violent or otherwise) on a scale we might not otherwise we able to understand. Bram writes later on a related subject, "This silence leaves the subject wide open for novelists..."

Bram appropriately ends his book with a short epilogue on "Endings" in historical storytelling. After all, how does the narrator end his story when it is plainly only one small excerpt from history? Where does the historical narrator draw the line in a story that has no ending? Some, as Bram points out, get seemingly overwhelmed by the vastness of their source, such as Tolstoy's famously multiple epilogues in War and Peace; others find a way to punctuate their story with a solemn recognition that no historical story really ends. The good writer can even find a meaningful way to end a story long after it's expected or natural "ending" has passed.

At 157 pages, The Art of History is just an introduction to the role of history in literary criticism, but it's an excellent introduction with a conversational style that makes Bram's criticism accessible to anyone with even a modest interest in historical storytelling.





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