I’ve been thinking a bit about historical truth lately primarily because a part of my current project involves historical events that took place in Israel during the late 1800s and early 1900s when a group of evangelical settlers moved from Chicago to Jerusalem in anticipation, they believed, of Christ’s reappearance on earth. Of course, some of the events and most notably the motivations and beliefs of the primary actors differ based on whose recounting one reads.
Assuming there is some basis for different accounts, which version do I believe? What is historical ‘Truth’ anyway? I suppose if the state of current affairs is any guide, both in literature and history, it depends on what interpretation I want to make.
I was listening to Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, who gave a lecture last year at The Key West Literary Seminar (by the way, there are some fabulous readings and lectures available for download at the KWLS site). Dr. Foner says in the lecture, “The line between historical scholarship and historical fiction is not as hard and fast as we sometimes might think. ... Every novel is an expression of the sensibility of the novelist; and, as E.H. Carr wrote, 'to study history, study the historian.' The reason historical interpretations change is that historians change, as does the world around them.” In other words, history depends on who is telling it.
Historical truth is always contested and ever changing. All history is to some degree contemporary history as it depends on who writes the history books. In Turkey, the Armenian massacre was written out of textbooks. In Japan, their pre-WWII rule over parts of Asia as considered ‘humane.’ In Russia, Stalin is being rehabilitated, while in the US, the abomination of slavery continues to be watered down (see how they’re handling it in Texas). Here in Israel, different versions of Israel’s War of Independence (called The Naqba or The Catastrophe by Palestinians) exist side by side.
So what does that mean for my poetry and for fiction in general? On therumpus.net, Travis Kuowski relatedly asks, “Are there rules that govern the representation of the “real world” in fiction? How much should fiction writers be allowed to misrepresent history before being called out for it?”
He writes later in the same essay, “History and fiction have long been a team. The fictional transformation of historical fact has been going on since literature’s beginnings—I am thinking particularly of Gilgamesh and The Iliad, both about historical kings their authors never met, battles they never witnessed. And historical accuracy has always been a bit, well, uneven—short story pioneer Washington Irving never visited the Catskill mountains until after he wrote about them in “Rip Van Winkle”; and Homer didn’t fact-check the Trojan War before composing a 16,000-line poem about it. Luke Slattery argues in The Australian, “To the extent that Homer’s Troy exists at all, it exists in the imagination.”
When asked if his stories were true, David Sedaris once answered that they were “true enough.” Much like character, setting, and symbolism, history is simply an element of the writing, and the only verification the writer must make for any element is if it “rings true” within the realm of the story, not that of reality.
At the same time, I’d like to think that when I read historical fiction or poetry, that there is an element of truth to it, at least as far as the writer is able to ascertain. Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Ted Genoways are examples of writers whose work often springs from the past. While I’d bet that much of what these amazing poets created was from imagination, at the core, I also believe, are real, and true, stories.
Ted Kurowski goes on, “Fiction most often—perhaps always—exists in that middle ground between the real and the imaginary.” Perhaps, but at the root, if one is referencing past events and history, I think, there still needs to be the seed of truth, otherwise it is not historical fiction, but pure fiction.
As for me, I’m going to research the events I’m referencing as much as possible, visit the places the immigrants settled in Jerusalem, read as many accounts as I can. I recognize however that in the end, what I believe about the past will be my choice.
Remembering W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)
5 weeks ago