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Volume 11, No. 3—April 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Invitation to a Beheading

THE PARENTHETICAL IN THE TITLE OF MARK C. Carnes's new anthology, Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), is misleading. In theory, the book's unusual structure could have encouraged intellectual conflict: In each chapter, a historian tackles a historical novel, and the novelist has a chance to reply. And there are moments of scrappiness. But mostly the historians worship the novelists, and the novelists accept the worship, graciously.

Of course, some novelists are more gracious than others. At her own peril does a historian hint that Gore Vidal might have less than utter mastery of the code duello in early America. No one knows what Alexander Hamilton said to upset Aaron Burr so badly that Burr demanded a duel, but Vidal, in his novel Burr, imagined that it must have been a charge of incest. In an otherwise complimentary essay in Novel History, Joanne Freeman mildly suggests that Vidal has underestimated how sensitive and eristic pre-Jacksonian gentlemen were. Much pettier slanders, she asserts, could lead to murderous fights.

If Vidal himself were a Founding Father, his response would prove her correct. "Now Joanne Freeman," he writes. "You will climb these six steps to the scaffold, holding in your hand a scarf. Kneel at the top. Place your neck on the block and, when ready, drop the scarf and...But I am not in decapitating mood." In a phone interview, Freeman, an assistant professor of history at Yale, says she appreciates the reprieve. "As I started reading his response, I thought, Uh-oh, he's marching me up the steps. I'm about to die. I was very pleased that he spared me from death."

But, alas, if even Gore Vidal hesitates to let the blade drop—Freeman is "a good writer," he explains, to justify clemency—there's no prospect of any more bloodshed than a styptic pencil could take care of. Indeed, Novel History risks being a love-in.

"I am indebted to Professor Kammen for his thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of World's End," writes T. Coraghessan Boyle. Tim O'Brien politely ratifies H. Bruce Franklin's thesis about In the Lake of the Woods—namely, that most of the explanations it offers for a woman's disappearance are, like the American military's explanations of My Lai, not to be believed. "Mr. Franklin's argument is convincing," O'Brien consents. "I dispute almost none of it." Don DeLillo agrees with the key insight of David T. Courtwright's "clear-eyed and knowledgeable essay," which explains why Oswald's third shot misses in Libra when in reality it (probably) didn't. More than thirty years after he was pilloried for portraying the rebel slave Nat Turner as sexually aroused by a white girl, William Styron receives a spirited defense from Eugene Genovese—to whom he apologizes for a depiction of white slaveholders that was "unwarrantably harsh." All the affable treatment leaves Larry McMurtry at a loss for words: "I thought Professor West's piece [about Lonesome Dove] was smart and good-natured, but what else to say?" Never at a loss for words, John Updike is so charmed by "Paul Boyer's lively, friendly appraisal of Memories of the Ford Administration" that he volunteers a catalog of anachronisms that Boyer failed to chew him out for. Do Chip and Dale, the always courteous Disney chipmunks, hold the fate of the historical novel in their paws?

"There's a complementarity [between] the historical novelist's and the historian's enterprise," explains Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College. By contrast, Carnes's 1995 anthology, Past Imperfect, pitted historians against filmmakers. "We were never on the same wavelength," Carnes says, and so for his sequel he turned from film to historical fiction. The resulting amicability doesn't surprise him: "We didn't choose novelists whose evocation of the past was hilarious or farcical or poor."

But novelists should be warned: The historians are probably being nice only because the novelists have something they want. John Demos, for example, is frank about the envy mixed with his admiration of Wallace Stegner. His initial reaction to Angle of Repose was almost painful, he confesses, because he recognized it as "a deeper, more powerful evocation of 'family history' than anything done by scholars." Years later, in The Unredeemed Captive, Demos would write a history with novelistic texture, and his ambition has been shared by a number of social historians. John Lukacs even speculates that the historical novel, and the more recent "nonfiction novels" of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, have merely been flawed, discardable instars of history's ongoing metamorphosis. "It is indeed possible," Lukacs writes, "that in the future the novel may be entirely absorbed by history."

Caleb Crain

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