Friday, February 06, 2009

Historical novels of faith

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:

What kind of books are these, in which the white man’s burden, taken off into a quiet clearing and stealthily unpacked, turns out to contain all kinds of alluring plunder? In her penetrating study, Traces of Another Time [1990], the American critic [Margaret] Scanlan defined this genre as the “sceptical historical novel.” The public past it outlined is not one of triumph and achievement, but one inglorious and violent. It focuses on defeat rather than victory . . . and draws attention, however subtly, to stupidity and arrogance rather than to heroism.Matthew Kneale’s Whitbread-winning English Passengers (1999) provoked Taylor to ask the question, but he mentions several other Commonwealth novels that “mine these themes of imperial duplicity and decay”: J. G. Farrell’s brilliant Siege of Krishnapur (1972), William Boyd’s Ice-Cream War (1981), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1987), Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar (1988), Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1991). Tracing their descent through Heart of Darkness (1898), which he names as the “core text,” Leonard Woolf’s Ceylonese Village in the Jungle (1913), A Passage to India (1924), and Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934), Taylor decides that recent postcolonial novels represent a “literary tradition in late maturity, rather than a dazzling new strike into the historical unknown.”

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.


Anonymous said...

Your essay on February 3 reminded me of Mortimer Adler's essay "How To Mark A Book":

Art Durkee said...

Another type of post-colonial novel, which I think you overlook here, and which I freely admit I often find more interesting to read, is those novels made by former colonial subjects. The two exemplars that come to mind most readily for me are Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee, both Indian-born story writers of excellence, both of whom deal with being migrants, immigrants, exiles, and about families negotiating both the old and new worlds, and the conflicts that arise from what can only be called culture shock, which goes both ways.

E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" is a novel of the Raj, but it is also a post-colonial novel, in the sense that it looks at the impacts the Raj has had on India. "Colonials" and "natives" are very tangled together.

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks. I do mention Mukherjee above, although her Jasmine is only partly about the postcolonial experience in India. That part is quite provocative, however—much superior to The God of Small Things. How much of Jasmine’s experience in America, though, derives from her being a “former colonial subject”?

Much better on this subject is Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, although it is probably the weaker novel overall. Marshall is quite good, though, at showing the tensions between Caribbean immigrant blacks and U.S.-born blacks.