Are Historical Figures and “Legends” of U.S. and World History Fair Game for an Historical Novelist?
by Robert W. Walker, historical and suspense novelist
Recently heard a questioning complaint against an author who depicted Julius Ceasar as a murderer and Mark Antony (Anthony) as a drunkard but heroic warrior, and Brutus as a Hamlet type character. I have heard via the grapevine of “historical plays” by one historical fiction author named William Shakespeare that these depictions are pretty close to his research. Legend has it that Will improved on Plutarch’s Ceasar. In other words, Will got some of his information from earlier writers (surprise!), many purporting to write “truth” as perceived by the earlier authors, some who couched their work in Greek and Roman plays. Shakespeare went on to write historical plays about Antony and Cleopatra, depicting them as human beings rather than statues; Willl wrote about historical events much closer to his own time as well—The Historical Plays of Shakespeare depict kings and princess clashing on the battlefield and behind closed doors. Do we hold Shakespeare to a higher standard or a lesser one than the historian who depicts Henry II. By the way, my money says Ceasar likely did away with a lot of people beyond those his armies conquered in order to hold onto power.
As both a suspense writer and historical novelist and researcher, I have my own take on working with historical figures in my novels. I have to begin by asking -- What do they say about history? When the "legend" becomes truth, print the legend. So how much truth is there in "nonficitonal" versions of history? How much do we know about the secret heart of any man? Including the historian? Like the guy who wrote Revelation in the New Testament? We know little of him and less of his motives, and few people know he was writing a condemnation of Rome. By the same token, how much do we know of what went on behind the scenes of the Lincoln Administration? He was not for instance a big proponent of his own Emancipation Proclamation; he was no doubt moved by the circumstances of slaves and he advocated against slavery, but there's a lot of "evidence" or "legend" that he used the issue to further his main cause--the maintenance of the Union. I've also read that he felt and urged freed slaves to make a country of their own--a new African nation. Okay and Adolph Hitler loved his dog. All the same, I am circumspect whenever dealing with "a legend" either one of EVIL or GOOD, or someone who has long stood on a pedestal. It's hard to argue with legendary characteristics or to depict a Lincoln or a Washington that does not convey the statue as well as the pedestal.
As a rule, I write about characters I have created who may have an opinion say of U.S. Grant or Sherman, etc., rather than bringing on Grant or Sherman; and I may have Mark Twain on the marquee, and I may have another historical figure walk through, but I did have to do a whole depiction of one of the Pinkerton boys -- William Pinkerton -- in City of the Absent. I eluded to an affair, to his having secrets, to his having regrets, and in effect I created a typical human being with some atypical characteristics. However, his main purpose in the book is to bolster and further define my main character—Inspector Alastair Ransom with whom he is at odds. He becomes the character I needed to further Alastair Ransom's story and character. Is that a crime? Does that slander Pinkerton? Will I be sued by his decendents—of whom there are apparently many? I can only do my respectful best to depict him not as a god but as a man. In the end, the two men have respect for one another but Pinkerton has as yet to stop working for “the man”--people in power—exclusively. Although he and his brother have ended all work as strikebreakers by 1893, something their father, Alan Pinkerton wished the agency to put an end to. By now they are concentrating on bank safety, rail safety, and chasing fugitives.
I got my "evidence" and "legend" about the Pinkerton Agency and family from a terrific historian and his book, which I give thanks to in acknowledgements in the first book in the series--City for Ransom. All one can really do is read, read, and read more, and in reading biographies and histories of a once living man or woman, make up your writer’s mind and depict the person you feel the "legends" have given you. If one reads and finds different renditions as I have over the years with Abraham Lincoln (read some British historians who take on American History), you have to in the end make up your mind as to what is and what is not relevant to your story. Who is and who is not relevant to your story. I co-wrote a book where in the end we have Fidel Castro come in to sort things out after all the murder and mayhem has taken place in his country. We depicted Castro as people might expect him to be while still healthy. We based all of his characteristics and even the way he spoke on a great deal of research—including videotape. I think we nailed him. This book, Cuba Blue, is still looking for a brave publisher who believes as my co-author and I do that readers would love our fictional heroine, a Havana cop named Qui Aguilera. Castro is a “force” throughout the novel but he is a person on the page, a man with his own agenda.
In the end, however, historical fiction is not altogether different from a lot of history. Early historical texts I was spoon fed in school still called George Armstong Custer's loss at the Little Big Horn a massacre while his and other Anglo wins in the War for the West and the governments; "Indian Problem" as great achievements of Manifest Destiny. This Manifest Destiny included (but did not say in the books) giving Native Americans smallpox (early germ warfare via diseased blankets) as well as removing them to a state of reservation now called Oklahoma on a death march ordered up by the President of the United States and backed by Congress. Ironic that George Custer’s middle name was ARMSTRONG as in strong arm.
So when I hear someone complaining about how some poor schlep like Julius Ceasar was treated badly in a Roman noir novel, I first assume the legend is being chipped away at by a thoughtful person who has done reams of research and put in hours, days, months, maybe years of blood, sweat, and tears and has read the other side of the arguments, and who has some acquaintance with actual historical research as well as the legend passed on from generation to generation—often spurious stuff. And so often, I have found that the loudest complainer, the one who shouts to the rooftops how bad the book is, how awful the author is to depict say FDR or another “giant” of history as having a moment of doubt, or a human frailty, who might display unbridled anger, etc., that complainer knows NOTHING of the facts and ought to read the books used by the author in the creation of his novel. I once had a complaint about the gun used by Alastair Ransom, that it did not exist in 1893, and yet I can point to it in the then Montgomery Ward Catalogue.
So often the historical novel depicts the historical figure far more as a man than a god (George Washington comes to mind here). My Dr. Christian Fenger who appears in the entire City for Ransom trilogy is depicted as a man and not as the "god" of Chicago's early surgical world in Chicago and the Midwest. He was an amazing surgeon, way ahead of his contemporaries and the man every wanna-be surgeon wanted to see in a surgical theater. However, in my informed opinion, much of his angst and sadness is depicted in his photographs alone. He is the picture of melancholy. That’s at the core then of my depiction of the man.
In essence, good, well-researched historical fiction imbues historical figures with more humanity than does a textbook. The novel centers on one figure, one set of events, one main plot, whereas most historical treatises cover a huge amount of time and space and often the entire panorama of history and as a result much is given short shrift—turned over to the footnote as often happens with the first major witch hunt in America at Salem Village, Massachusetts. This topic is my next historical. I wrote a 70 page history term paper in my junior year of high school on this. My graduate thesis for my Master’s in English Education was a novel of Salem Witch Craft. Over the years, I have read everything ever written on the subject, and I have come to deep, abiding conclusions about all the principal players and am now building the definitive historical novel on Salem entitled BLOODROOT. I have definite defined ideas as to how all of the characters are to be depicted, and all but a few are historical people who lived through it. There is no other way to depict historical figures other than the conclusions you come to via the research. And if you begin to fear being sued or pissed on for your efforts, you will never succeed in getting the novel written.
Look, depicting Abraham Lincoln as a serial killer might be over the top and indefensible but most serious historical novelists would know better. Allowing a “fictionalized” Lincoln to have thoughts of murdering someone—say one of his own Cabinet members, however, is not far from the truth and the legend. Depicting Adolph Hitler as a social philanthropist again might be ovet the top, but he did have an entire nation “feeding” out of his hand, so again it so depends on one’s purpose and the amount of work put in. I’d find an historical novel from the point of view of Hitler’s spiritual advisor of interest, but this is me. And this is entirely my humble opinion.