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Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other) Hardcover – March 9, 2001


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (March 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684857650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857657
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,694,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Rasband VINE VOICE on April 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a companion volume to Mark Carnes' "Past Imperfect", which examined the historical accuracy of some popular movies. In the current book, several well-known historians contribute appreciations of some famous historical novels and many of the authors respond with essays of their own. Eugene Genovese adds a new essay on William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner"; it's his first treatment of the book I've read since Genovese became identified as a sort of neo-conservative. What is new is that he finds deep religious themes in the novel, which is somewhat surprising for Styron, the self-proclaimed atheist. He also deftly analyzes Styron's deconstruction of the romantic revolutionary hero, showing that figure to be more problematic than the Left supposed. Genovese's conclusion: "Confessions" is far more than an artifact of the 60's--it will live on.
Joanne B. Freeman provides a perceptive explication of Gore Vidal's "Burr" as a satire. She finds that Vidal is attuned to the contingency of early American politics and the unsureness of whether the American experiment could survive--conditions which Joseph J. Ellis also explores in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Founding Brothers". We tend to think of the Founders as marble statues who could never have screwed up; Vidal shows us their all-too-human sides (especially T. Jefferson.) Vidal responds with a witty essay defending the accuracy of his historical novels.
Other works that come under scrutiny are "The Great Gatsby", Gary Jennings' "Aztec", Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose", John Updike's "Memories of the Ford Administration", Russell Banks "Cloudsplitter" (by "Battle Cry of Freedom" author James M. McPherson.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on May 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In Novel History, editor (and contributor of one essay) Mark C. Carnes has gathered together an interesting collection of essays written by historians examining works of historical fiction with, often, rebuttal essays by the authors of the books. I will admit that I have only read three of the novels selected for this collection but that did not stop me from enjoying this book at all and, in fact, has lead me to purchase a couple of the historical novels discussed. Not all the pieces work effectively. It is a little awkward having Thomas Fleming discuss his work both as a historian and a writer of fiction and Richard White was too harsh in his assesstment of Annie Dillard. For all these quibbles, though, this was a fine and interesting exercise and it does make one look at historical fiction in a different way and appreciate the complexity of the form and the energy and skill in producing it.
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Format: Paperback
The reviews that comment on the unevenness of the essays in this book fail to communicate that even the least of these essays is an amazing and thoughtful delight. The collection works as an introduction to dozens of fascinating historical topics, from Civil war desertion to JFK assassination theories to farming crises of the 1980s to the rise of the social history movement. It works equally well as an introduction to the writing -- and in some cases, individual creative processes and personalities -- of authors ranging from Don DeLillo to T.C. Boyle. Any aspiring writer looking for insight into the historical novel or the broader subject of realism in writing (and how to achieve it) will learn much from this book. I'm looking forward to reading many of the novels discussed, which I might have overlooked except for the fascinating double-introductions provided by the historians and novelists themselves. The main question I'm left with: isn't every novel, in a sense, a historical novel? (At least one essayist and perhaps more in this collection make the same claim.)
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By Danny C. Johnson on October 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I highly recommend this book. An anthology of articles by historians critiqueing historical novels. The reviews are uniformly excellent and many of the author's responses are truly inspired. Great source of suggested reading for lovers of historical fiction.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amy E. Harth on January 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is an absolutely fabulous collection. The organization is simple: each historian/critic presents his/her argument and each author defends his/her novel. It is always charitable, never mean-spirited, but doesn't quibble about addressing the tough issues of historical representation. It is not, however, the confrontation that is memorable, but rather the gifted, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring writing. I read this book with angelic joy radiating from my face. Word choice, grammar, imagery were perfect. It is a masterpiece. I re-read and own this book with pride. Mark Carnes should be rewarded for superb editing and compiliation skills. I cannot recommend this book enough.
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