From History to Story

When I published The Story in History in 1992, the idea of using historical material to inspire creative writing was far from new–there was, after all, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, 1869, not to mention the Shakespeare plays about all those English kings, Henry IV Part One with Falstaff and Prince Hal being my favorite. But aside from rather fluffy historical romances of the type I loved to read as a Southern teenager, about belles in the antebellum South, and dashing soldiers in gray, the notion of reinterpreting history through the lens of poetry and fiction needed some updating, some diffusion into modern creative possibilities.

Today that enrichment has extended beyond my own modest dreams to the point that some of the greatest poets and prose writers of the last twenty years astound us with their concoctions. Now looking at the recipes from the historical end intrigues me as much as discerning how fiction can enrich our portrayal of the past. Let’s take David McCullough’s 1776. What can this masterful historian teach us about weaving brilliant narrative from solid documentary evidence? What are some differences between contemporary fictional treatments of history and what history itself creates?

1776 brought the rebels surprising victories early and late, but in the middle, the American forces under General Washington suffered horrendous defeats in and around New York. It was one of the times that try men’s souls, not to mention the women at home, receiving their letters.
The pen, for the historian, is far mightier than the sword: pity the poor historian in a hundred years, trying to piece together what common soldiers in Afganistan and Iraq, or their commanders, have to say about battles there. All told in emails, I suspect. Will they have survived?

McCullough’s narrative is enriched time and again by vivid quotations from Washington’s general orders to his officers, by his letters to Congress, to Mount Vernon. McCullough quotes letters from the youngest soldier, a fifer aged 15, and from his superiors, for instance Henry Knox all of 26, former bookseller in Boston, turned ordinance commander. The English are no less literary. It’s these voices from the front, and occasional responses, especially from Abigail Adams, at home that bring McCullough’s narrative to life.

Their authenticity is unquestionable. They are not fiction. The portrait McCullough paints of the public Washington–his facade of indomitable courage, his refusal to give up, his cool presence on a powerful horse leading the weary and shoeless men through icy countryside to attack Princeton at the turn of the year–all this is echoed by the men who observed him. But his letters show us his private griefs and doubts, his exhaustion and fears, and his continual return to thoughts of Mount Vernon as an antidote to this war he was learning to fight. These two perspectives prove one of McCullough’s conclusions: the war, which would drag on another six years, ending only in 1783, was won through the perseverance, intelligence, and courage of George Washington. We are right to call him the father of our country.

How would a fictional account differ? A contemporary fiction of this important year? I suspect it would not focus on Washington at all, but take an unexpected point of view. Maybe the 15 year old fifer; maybe one of the Hessian soldiers captured at Trenton in a battle that lasted 20 minutes and roused American spirits after long months of defeat and mistakes in and around New York. That “Crossing of the Delaware” made so famous in the painting by German Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1851, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) might inspire a cross-dressing rower as a subject for a novel. As there were in the Civil War, so probably also in the Revolution: women took up arms after disguising themselves as men.

Another element that distinguishes McCullough’s narrative is its sweeping portrayal of landscape. We get bird’s eye and more earthbound views, positioning us on either side of the Delaware; rather insistent chronology of Congress’s removal to Baltimore, for fear of a British attack; of British General Howe’s decision to pull the largest portion of his army away from the Delaware, leaving only a small force of 1000 Hessian troops at Trenton. Washington couldn’t figure out for the longest time whether Howe had left the area or not. But we, the historical readers, know more than he did. We have hindsight to sweep forward and back through time, and up and down the coastal geography. This differs from what a fiction writer would probably choose to do: to embed our knowledge narrowly in the more limited perspective of participants. We would tramp with the Americans, shoeless and freezing in the tempest-tossed Delaware, uncertain of whom we would meet at Trenton. Though tension certainly exists in McCullough’s narrative, it’s not as fierce as a fictional account might create.

And McCullough does not dwell on the grisly or nefarious possibilities. Though he describes how the Hessian commander stuffed a warning of an American approach into his coat pocket and continued playing cards that Christmas evening, he does not do more than mention the possibility that the Hessian leader was thoroughly drunk. He died in the battle, McCullough tells us. That is enough to put such speculation to rest. I suspect that a fiction writer would not be so gallant. Go where the drama is, ferret out the possible underlying cause that the Hessians and their well-tried commander failed so miserably. Though McCullough includes the experiences of commoner and foot soldiers, he does so almost always to portray what is tinted with a bright hue, the red of freshly spilled blood, or the trembling voice of a storekeeper in British-occupied New York, who pulls a captured American soldier into the back room to relate that General Washington has taken 800 Hessians prisoner. Historians write for posterity; novelists turn over the dead and pillage their pockets and guts.

There are many more differences, of course. For now, this Sunday morning, when our contemporary course as a nation struggles on, this heroism and perseverance seem one of the best parts of our historical legacy.

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