Yesterday I started teaching Death Comes for the Archbishop. As befits a student of Gerald Graff, my custom is to place course reading in the context of brewing and simmering literary debates. I wanted to contrast her “narrative,” as Cather preferred to call it, to the postcolonial novel (“The Church can do more than the Fort to make these poor Mexicans ‘good Americans,’ ” Bishop Latour reflects. “And it is for the people’s good; there is no other way in which they can better their condition”). So far so good. Now, what is a postcolonial novel?
Luckily I came across a passage in a Guardian essay from nine years ago in which D. J. Taylor asks the same question, then provides a kind of answer:
Since the United States has never been an imperial power, despite Leftist sloganeering, postcolonial novels show up in American literature only when, like Updike’s Coup (1978) or Vikrem Seth’s Suitable Boy (1993), they are set in a former outpost of the British Empire. Otherwise, like Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) or Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), they belong to immigrant literature.
If postcolonial novels are more broadly redefined as skeptical historical novels, though, several American examples leap to mind, starting with such “anti-westerns” as Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958), E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times (1960), and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964). More recent efforts to inject skepticism into the historical novel would include Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979), Morrison’s Beloved (1986), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1996), Jane Smiley’s All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), Valerie Martin’s Property (2003), and Geraldine Brooks’s March (2005). These would more appropriately be called revisionist novels if the term had not been corrupted, as I have written elsewhere, by neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust.
Accept the name skeptical historical novels, then. What is striking to me is the number of novels, over the same course of time, that mine American history, not for themes of duplicity and decay, but for triumph and achievement: Paul Horgan’s Distant Trumpet (1960), Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971), Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels (1974), Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (1980), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985), Hugh Nissenson’s Tree of Life (1985), Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler (1996), Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). They belong to the same literary tradition as Willa Cather. Call them historical novels of faith—not necessarily religious faith, but the faith that, even if men and women living in the past may not have shared the crochets and opinions of the present, they were neither stupid nor arrogant as a consequence.