Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where are the Great American Historical Novels?

We are ignorant of our past, and one reason is the paucity of American historical fiction
Where are the novels of American history? asks author PAMELA R. WINNICK
Sunday, April 17, 2011
I remember reading "Gone With the Wind." I was 15, a 10th-grader at Bayside High School in suburban Queens, part of New York City's then-stellar school district. For American history, I'd been blessed with the best teacher in the school. He breathed life into the factoids of our sterile textbooks. He brought the Civil War into our classroom.

But Margaret Mitchell he was not.

A recent Newsweek poll confirmed what has become painfully obvious: We are a nation of dunces. Not only are we illiterate in science and math, but we're clueless about our own history. Thirty-three percent of the 1,000 individuals polled by Newsweek couldn't name the date when the Declaration of Independence was signed. (Duh, that long summer weekend, the firecrackers?)

Worse, many of us flunk the U.S. citizenship test. Though I did manage to pass, I was stumped by the following question: How many times has our constitution been amended? How embarrassing after two semesters of constitutional law. (In my defense, No. 27 was passed in 1992 after I received my degree.)
• • •
Inevitably, critics of our educational system indict the public schools, teachers' unions and textbooks that stultify brain cells. Add to the list standardized testing, which favors dull fact over lively interest.

In a Google search, I found plenty of suggestions for teachers. Here's one I like: "Introduce Benjamin Franklin to your students and his role in history. Also explain what it was like having Ben Franklin supporting the rebellious patriots against his son William Franklin, who was governor of New Jersey and a loyalist to King George. What was it like in the Franklin household?"

A little more exciting than the typical dinner-table political discussions, I imagine.

But parents, too, have a role to play: Encourage your children to read! And to read history!
I recently visited the Northland Public Library in the North Allegheny School District and asked the children's librarian to recommend books that might interest kids of all ages. There were shelves of nonfiction history books. Jim Murray's "A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy" looked so appealing that I checked it out myself.

But, unfortunately, I found relatively little historical fiction about America. For middle-schoolers there's a novel by two-time Newbery Award winner Patricia Reilly, "Giff's Storyteller," in which present-day Elizabeth comes upon the story of Zee, a girl whose life was interrupted by the outbreak of the American Revolution.

For adults, there also is an embarrassment of riches in nonfiction -- not academic treatises but vivid books by authors such as Pittsburgh native David McCullough. His biography of John Adams was a mega bestseller and later a popular mini-series on HBO.

Other authors likewise make history dance. Ron Chernow has written superb biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Michael Bechloss, a presidential biographer, has written (among so many other fine books) "Presidential Courage," focusing on pivotal moments in the lives of certain presidents, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.

But my personal favorite is Mr. McCullough's "1776," an account of what might have been the most dramatic year in American history.
• • •
In late August of 1776, the American rebels suffered an ignoble defeat at the Battle of Long Island. Those who survived the battle -- about 9,000 men -- gathered at Brooklyn Heights. To their dismay, they discovered that they were still in harm's way. The peninsula was surrounded by the all-powerful British Navy. Their only refuge was New York, across the mile-wide East River.

Imagine a fictional hero -- say, 19-year-old Patrick, a rifleman from Maryland. When night falls, he helps Gen. Washington load small groups of men and ammunition onto long boats crewed by stout Massachusetts fishermen. The process is laborious and slow. Hours go by. Patrick is still in Brooklyn, anticipating the British onslaught.

As he steps into the last departing boat, Patrick winces: Pink flushes the horizon as he and his companions, no longer shielded by darkness, are fully exposed. He closes his eyes, awaiting a thunderbolt of British fire. Then ... nothing.

Patrick opens his eyes. The pink has been extinguished. Fog is rolling toward him. It came from nowhere and is so thick he can barely make out his own hands.

Embraced by the fog, Patrick's boat finally touches the shoreline of New York. All 9,000 men made it across the river, he learns. Not a single life was lost. A Catholic, though not particularly devout, Patrick crosses himself. Now he knows how Moses felt at the parting of the sea.
• • •
Historical fiction can make history come alive. In addition to "Gone With the Wind," the novels of Kenneth Roberts, also published in the 1930s, are exciting and heart-throbbing, though minus Rhett Butler. Through Roberts' work, I was privileged to "meet" Benedict Arnold, one of the most enigmatic figures in history -- American or otherwise.

Regrettably, few novels about American history are published today. In a press release announcing a writer's competition, a prestigious New York literary agency requested "pitches" for historical novels. Specifically excluded: novels about American history -- because "the market is not favoring" them. The agent in question did not return a phone call seeking elucidation of this vague, rather insulting, comment.

The lack of interest in American historical fiction, I believe, comes from a preconception that our history isn't "glamorous," like Britain's. We never had a King Henry VIII and his six wives. Nor Anne Boleyn, her beautiful neck poised on the chopping block. Nor grand palaces, such as Versailles, whose dungeons housed the toppled King Louis XVI, his servants, his family, the precious dauphin.

Britain had a "glorious" revolution in 1688. Our own, presumably, was "inglorious." But it was a cliffhanger to the end and, though our soldiers wore rags instead of regal redcoats, we did emerge victorious.

We never had princes or queens, but we've had more than our share of princely men and queenly women. Some were slightly scandalous. Benjamin Franklin was renowned throughout Europe for his diplomacy, wit, scientific accomplishments and habit of chasing jupe through the salons of Paris.
What knowledge most Americans do have of our history relies for the most part on legend, not fact. I learned this the hard way last fall.

In a packed auditorium in Manchester, England, British author Bernard Cornwell "outed" our mythic heroes. Paul Revere, for instance, turns out mostly to be a product of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's imagination. He never actually completed that famous "midnight ride." The British audience howled. The sole Yank in the audience, I slunk in my chair.
To our former colonial masters I longed to say: Abigail Adams may not have been a fashion plate like Anne Boleyn, but at least she kept her head!

Reprinted with Permission Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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