Thursday, September 27, 2012

What I like about fiction and history

The same things draw me to history as draw me to literature. A well written history is a great story in the same way, say, Moby Dick is. To be more specific, I think good history and good literature are exercises in empathy. Both provide windows into characters and worlds that are often difficult for me to understand or even conceive of. After reading Lincoln by David Donald or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, I felt like I understood the minds of people who lived in different universes and had much different values than me.

There's a tendency towards presentism in reading history--that is, a tendency to evaluate the past in the context of the present--and there's a tendency to write literary characters without regard to their different settings. That is, it's much easier to write a character who thinks essentially like a modern person from a familiar location and culture than write a character from a strange time, place, and culture. Writing characters true to their time and place; evaluating historical characters in their native context: these are strains of the same problem.

When I read Alexander Stephen's Cornerstone Speech, I wonder: how could someone think that? And then I try to understand. It's easy to write off slaveholders or confederates as evil, but the challenge of history is to understand them in context. Similarly, it's easy to write off soldiers of Nazi Germany as basically evil (Saving Private Ryan does this, even though it is a great movie), but the history is obviously a lot more complex.

It's often said that science fiction is at its best when it uses its central idea to interrogate some aspect of modern culture. I believe that this is true in general for all literature, and for history as well. Eric Foner's Reconstruction describes in detail the hope and eventual betrayal of reconstruction. By the end I felt frustrated and horrified. But the book is also a warning. It suggests that the compelling central issue of reconstruction (how should the United States change to include African Americans?) is still relevant, still urgent.

Works of literature and of history represent acts of imagination by an author. These works are full of characters who have motivations and desires that are often outside my realm of experience. Each story is a ticket to another universe and other minds, and I like that.

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