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  • gilbertj4


Although history and fiction are close neighbors in the humanities their address to human experience is separate and distinct, even when they seem most intimately associated. Being a historian of the Twentieth Century—in effect the contemporary world of the last three or four generations—was immensely fascinating to me in part because the slow pace of cultural change made, even the last years of the 19th Century, seem present and vivid. At first, as an intellectual historian, I tended to see the unfolding of ideas as, somehow, sequential and developmental. But when I gravitated toward what became known as cultural history, I found that explorations required a broader, horizontal lens: to see and understand the circumference and inter-relations of ideas in literature, art, social interactions, politics, religious belief and so forth. I became fascinated with such topics as the moral panic over juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, for example, and the various sites of dispute between religion and science, and especially, later, the experience of Americans attending the great World’s Fairs of the early 20th Century.

It was that word experience—so often assumed to be understood—with the possibility of its depiction and understanding—that gave me a jolt For as much as I loved doing research and discovering caches of documents no one had used before, and bringing them to light in new contexts, I became dissatisfied at the inaccessibility and incomplete understanding of historians as to what experience really meant. Of course I might have turned to biography, but even that seems to me to end, finally, in mystery about the interior life of an individual, let alone understanding the motivations behind general cultural behavior.

And so I turned to fiction writing, knowing full well that I was giving up a broader perspective and adopting a viewpoint from which it would be a peril to generalize. In exchange, however, I believed it possible to know more of the inner life of my characters—not everything, of course, since they are my characters and I cannot truly know myself (and hence them). But I believed I could stand closer to their interior and convey to the reader some insights into the unique psychologies of my fictional creations.

Of course my years as a historian would not be easy or even necessary to shrug off, should I ever have desired to do so. In everything I write now, I continue to do research and often create characters who “lived” in the pasts that I knew from my other writings.

Finally, a word about memory and personal experience, both of which inflect works of history as well as fiction. For the historian everything she or he brings to understanding the past will inevitably have something to do with experience and memory. For these personal elements help define questions that are asked and, in particular, inform the construction of what seems to be a plausible story. So too with fiction, but with one further step: the author of a tale, I believe, often cannot fail, even unintentionally when imagining a character or a plot in a story, to conjure up someone or some situation of his or her own experience, whether this is explicit or veiled or merely a distance reverberation informed by an unconscious memory. Of course the historian may also imagine such likenesses, but the documents, the determining record, renders this less compelling. To me, this is the crucial distinction, for it allows a great margin of creativity: the freedom to follow my imagination, to discover the surprising characters and stories of which I find myself capable of inventing. In sum, then, writing of fiction is an adventure of discovery.

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