Novel History

maya jasanoff considers the history of historical narrative.

Where does the line between history and fiction lie? Historians don’t go where sources can’t lead them, into the unrecorded realms of a person’s thoughts, senses, or speech. Fiction writers, though, can enter characters’ minds to determining effect. What Melville does so brilliantly in “Benito Cereno” is something a historian would be hard-pressed to achieve: he builds dramatic power through the misperceptions of an unreliable narrator, and follows this with an explosive revelation of truth.

History, by contrast, gains strength precisely from the reliability of its narrator—the authoritative historian—who guarantees (usually with the help of endnotes) that what is chronicled is more or less “true.” Another line between history and fiction runs outside an individual’s mind. Historians try to strip away the subjective in order to make arguments: they identify patterns surrounding plots, locate individuals in collectives, set problems in spatial and temporal perspective.

Norman Rockwell, Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965).

If postmodernism taught historians anything, it’s that subjectivity can’t ever be avoided. Nonetheless, conditioned as much by professional conventions as by kinds of evidence, historians writing for a general audience still more or less follow the forms set by the Victorians.

…The novel has come a long way since the Victorians, and popular history can benefit from a creative update. That said, any narrative’s success at delivering an argument can rise or fall on matters of selection: what to reveal when, how much detail to provide, which characters to place in the foreground, and so on. …The thing about a kaleidoscope is that you can be mesmerized by its colorful patterns and still have no idea what you’re actually looking at.

Maya Jasanoff, “The Great Trap for All Americans,” New York Review of Books, 13 October 2016

 

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