Adam Haley, PhD

ENGL 262: The Possibilities of Postmodern Historical Fiction

In the era of “winning the future,” we seem to spend a noteworthy amount of time and cultural energy adjudicating and reworking the past. Political and cultural struggles present themselves as fights over historical interpretation; historical analogies become increasingly the only vehicle through which we can understand contemporary situations, such that we think Iraq through Vietnam or the recession through the Depression. We’re as obsessed with history as we are haunted by it; we find it both impossible and imperative to grasp, both buried under our present experience and looming over it, both utterly distinct from our contemporary moment and crucial to understanding it. If lists of bestsellers and award-winners are to be believed, consumers and critics alike gravitate towards novels, shows, and films that live in one past or another. Whether eliciting nostalgia for golden ages past or the finger-wagging moral superiority of the present, history and the project of remembering, representing, and deploying it clearly occupy a central place in our collective imaginary.

On some level, this has always been the case (“The Song of Roland” was Braveheart long before Braveheart was Braveheart, and really, what is a creation myth but a historical fiction to end—or begin—all historical fictions?), but there’s reason to think that both the nature of history and our relationship to it have changed in recent decades. On the former count, the pace of historical change increased dramatically during the last century. For perspective: my grandmother is 102 years old. She was born in 1909. She was a child during World War I; she grew up during the Roaring Twenties; she lived through the Depression and World War II; she raised children and grandchildren during the Eisenhower ’50s and the countercultural ’60s; with the rest of the world, she watched the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the Iran hostage crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War(s), the Oklahoma City bombing, the destruction of the World Trade Center. She was born mere months after the Wright brothers’ first public flight demonstrations and lived to see Project Mercury, the moon landing, the Challenger explosion, and what might turn out to be the entire history of this country’s manned space flight program. She was an infant when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line; she’s a centenarian in the age of the Prius. You can imagine her astonishment at the iPad.

When the vicissitudes of history become visible within the timescale of individual existence—when one lifetime can encompass such an enormous swathe of human history—it would be difficult for our relationship to history to remain the same. As history becomes more mercurial, more difficult to hold on to, so does it become more central to our experience of the fleeting present. Though the past may be irretrievably lost, it also seems to be what must be found. (And re-found. And tweaked. And played with. And re-found again.)

Faulkner tells us that not only is the past not dead, it’s not even past; this course will ask how, why, and to what effects the past is present (and I mean this both chronologically—present as now—and spatially—present as here). How, in particular, do fictional engagements with history fit into this spectral presence of the past? How is historical fiction different from, say, academic history? What’s the difference between encountering history in a textbook or a documentary and encountering it in a short story or a graphic novel? What happens when historical fiction gets, for lack of a better word, weird? What’s the difference between straightforward period drama and something like alternate history or time travel or historical haunting? How do these weirder versions of historical fiction change our understanding of history, and how does their prevalence reflect broader changes in our relationship to history? What can historical fiction do, and how? Most pressingly: what is, or should be, the relation between the “historical” part and the “fiction” part?


See the full syllabus here (PDF).


Adam Haley • August 28, 2011

Previous Post

Next Post