From Publishers Weekly
As he did in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Barnard College professor Carnes rounds up a group of historians to comment on the uses made of their craft by creative artists. Since novelists generally stick closer to the facts than filmmakers, the tone here is more respectful (and, unfortunately, somewhat less entertaining) than in the previous book. We read a few too many times that historians are "quite willing to recognize--and to learn from--the novelist's license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal truth," as James M. McPherson puts it in his essay on Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, and almost all the living novelists who responded (Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver did not) offer some variant of Aztec author Gary Jennings's defense penned before his death in 1999: "Shit, I was writing a novel, not a Ph.D. thesis." Still, many gems here illuminate the complex interaction between art and reality, including Banks's remarks on the "precision and eloquence" of 19th-century speech that gave him his narrative voice and Carnes's comments on the new social history's neglect of individual experience, which left a gap to be filled by novelists like William Kennedy in Quinn's Book. Other standouts are H. Bruce Franklin's pointed comments on how Tim O'Brien challenges willed historical amnesia about Vietnam with In the Lake of the Woods and John Demos's passionate, very personal appreciation of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. By contrast, Eugene Genovese and Dianne Kunz irritatingly refight the culture wars and the Cold War in their respective pieces on William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The quality varies with the individual authors, but both history buffs and aficionados of literary criticism will find food for thought here.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Having examined how faithful Hollywood has been to the past in Past Imperfect, Carnes (history, Barnard Coll.) turns his attention to historical novels. The topic proves just as fascinating, but here Carnes attempts a "dialog" between novelists and historians that is not entirely successful. Most of the novelists e.g., John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tim O'Brien come from the last third of the 20th century, and their contributions are grouped by category as biography, the West, slavery, religion and culture, and war. Noted historians are given the opportunity to comment, and, where possible, a rejoinder by the author is included. Although Carnes has done well to avoid the overly broad sweep of Past Imperfect, a few problems arise from the varying structure and quality of the historians' contributions and novelists' rejoinders, resulting partly from the expected idiosyncratic style and personality among novelists. On the other hand, one would have hoped for better from several historians. Eugene V. Genovese's personal attack on William Styron seems quite uncalled for, and one wonders whether it is appropriate for Thomas Fleming to comment on his own historical fiction, despite the clever touch. On the whole, though, this book is well done a good work to support either a history or literature curriculum. Public libraries should also find it a useful addition to their collections. Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.