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  • Robert Birnbaum

Too Much History, Not Enough Story



Herodotus, (known as ) the Father of History




I can't recall the topic of his New Yorker piece but what I do remember was Nicholas Lehmann relating an anecdote about helping his son with his US History homework—where he opined ( I paraphrase here )that the trouble with teaching US history was that there was too much of it. I took his point to be that rather than emphasizing the endless memorization of dates and chronologies, telling the stories of the people who were actors in the nation's narrative would encourage an interest where there is now an almost universal antipathy. Not to mention (but I must) that such antipathy and ignorance allows for the propagation of the specious ism known as American Exceptionalism (a special blend of home grown nationalism and cryto fascism .


As both a student of American History ( in which I include the entirety of the Western Hemisphere ) and an omnivorous reader of literary fiction I am drawn to the fictional narratives that rely on actual personages and events. One of my early favorites is Thomas Mallon's Henry and Clara —a story that centers on the couple who were seated next to President Lincoln, at the Ford Theater, the night of his assassination.


As I am not going to litigate the case for the value of literary fiction based on historical personages and events, let me at least provides some by ostensive definition with the enumeration of a few examples of the kind of novels I have i mind


In Little Big Man, Thomas Berger humorously revises Wild West mythology that stood as the popular history until late in the 20th century. In Pete Dexter's splendid Deadwood, which has unfortunately been overshadowed by an HBO series, legendary gunman Wild Bill Hickcock comes to the Black Hills town of Deadwood in 1876. where the real wild west is pictured correcting regnant dime novels telling. Rag Time is EL Doctorow's pastiche of the United States in the new century up to The War to End All Wars. In John Sayles' ambitious and sadly overlooked A Moment in the Sun, set in 1897, gold is discovered in the Yukon, media moguls Hearst and Pulitzer drive U.S.to war with Spain in Cuba; a white-racist coup takes place in Wilmington, North Carolina and the US initiates a bloody intervention in the Philippines. In Riven Rock, we meet the heir to the McCormick reaper fortune who is stricken with schizophrenia and more interestingly is married to the extraordinarily accomplished Katherine Dexter Boyle. In the The Tilted World, Tom Franklin and Beth Fennelly lluminate the great Lousiana flood of 1927 ( that may the most underreported natural disaster in US History.)Fredrich Busch's The Night Inspector gives us a totally fictious Herman Melville but for the character study Busch gives us of the despair burdened life of the great visionary writer.






Under my radar, until now, are the six splendid stand-alone novels in Norman Lock's The American Novels series. Set in 19th century America, Lock engages an enthralling caste of characters —author, Herman Melville, Brooklyn Bridge architect Washington Roebling, the dying Ulysses S. Grant, Samuel Clemens, Thomas Edison, P. T. Barnum, Huck Finn ,Emily Dickinson, John Brown, Walt Whitman, robber baron Thomas Durant, frontier photographer William Henry Jackson, General George Custer, Crazy Horse, surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter, and the Walden gang Edgar Allan Poe, and the Walden gang ,Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison ...




Feast Day of the Cannibals by Norman Lock


Feast Day of the Cannibals


Feast Day of the Cannibals is the the latest book in the series —Herman Melville makes a less fantasized appearance the New York City Custom House inspector. with a cast of other historical personages including Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the soon-to-be-completed Brooklyn Bridge, a dying Ulysses S. Grant, Samuel Clemens, who will publish Grant’s Memoirs; and Thomas Edison—even a herd of elephants sent by P. T. Barnum to rumble across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge. As in his previous novels, Lock both presents an engrossing storyline and a vivid sense of life in late 19th century Manhattan— a time also known in histories as the The Gilded Age




The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel


Lock extends Huck Finn and Jim's story including decisive battles of the Civil War, and "the betrayal of Reconstruction’s promises to the freed slaves, the crushing of Native American nations, and the electrification of a continent." Lock's audacious flight of fancy tells the story from Huck's point of view covering 170 years, ending with him as an old man in 2077.




The Wreckage of Eden


U.S. Army chaplain Robert Winter first meets Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, encounters young newspaperman Samuel Clemens, and radical abolitionist John Brown is present for the Mexican War and the Mormon Rebellion,





American Meteor


Brooklynite Stephen Movan transverses the country on the newly constructed Union Pacific railroad ,

from the battle fields of the Civil War to the Battle of Little Big Horn,H e meets Walt Whitman, railroad mogul Thomas Durant, frontier photographer William Henry Jackson, and General George Custer and Crazy Horse.




The Port-Wine Stain


In this"gothic psychological thriller" set in 1844, young Philadelphian, Edward Fenzil, is befriended by Thomas Dent Mütter, a surgeon and collector of medical “curiosities,” and Edgar Allan Poe. The narrative is a brilliant mimicry of a Poe tale.


A Fugitive in Walden Woods



Via the Underground Railroad, slave Samuel Long escapes from Virginia, north to Walden Woods. He chances upon transcendentalists and abolitionists Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and others.






It should be obvious that there are countless entertaining, worth while and useful novels that belong which should be this list. And as with Norman Lock, there are a few authors who have created series of credible historical narratives—Gore Vidal's American Empire novels (also known as Narratives of Empire Series) —Burr, Lincoln 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age. More recently Thomas Mallon's (Fellow Travellers,Watergate, Finale, and Landfall ) depict the McCarthy Red Scare, the dark hours of Richard Nixon, the Reagan years and the Bush II 's handling of Katrina and Iraq.