Essay: How History Affects Fiction by Victoria Mixon

by Rebeca on March 28, 2009

Essay: How History Affects Fiction  by Victoria Mixon

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Surely, my dear, you must have heard the expression meaning that something is not a true picture, or has it quite died out nowadays? ‘All my eye and Betty Martin’.” –Agatha Christie, “Strange Jest”

Christie’s indubitable Miss Marple solves the mystery of the “Strange Jest” by knowing more than one antiquated saying. The other is “gammon and spinach” which, according to her, means “nonsense”. There is no way that a reader unfamiliar with these terms could draw the conclusions that she draws, that the recipe for ham and spinach is a nonsense recipe, that the dying man who tapped his eye and left behind love letters from Betty Martin was pulling someone’s leg.

Like Dickens, whose Tale of Two Cities chronicles the fall of the French monarchy, without history Christie would have had blessed little to go on.

At first glance, though, it seems that history has blessed little to do with fiction. Fiction is pretend. History is real. Fiction is entertainment. History is inevitable. Fiction falls from the fingers of its author, willy-nilly, without interference from outside source. 

History is the outside source.

If you were Samuel Beckett, you could claim to write in a historical vacuum. Poor Estragon and Vladimir wait and wait for Godot, completely cut off from the world around them. It seems they could be a couple of everymen from any land, in any human epoch.

And yet you’d be lying. Waiting for Godot clearly owes homage to King Lear and just as clearly influenced Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. History moves on, reflected in the parade of literature, from corrupt Elizabethan politics to the ennui of post-WWII shellshock to the absurdity of anti-establishment psychedelia. In every era, the little guy faces down the powers that be. In every era, the little guy’s expectation of failure or success — the expectation of the manner of failure or success — alters.

We are the children of our times. I was born in the 1960s, when dingaling hair-sprayed go-go girls dancing in cages could exist alongside hippies in rags staging love-ins against war. I grew up in the 1970s, amid the cacophony of disco and fear of OPEC. I was a young adult in the 1980s, when Reagan’s Trickle-Down Economics brought us the homeless and the adult children of ’60s radicals brought political activism into mainstream American culture.

There’s always a little guy. There are always the powers that be.

And through this we find our fiction, the imaginary universes that writers dream up, where average flesh-and-blood characters grapple with the mocking forces of fate — sometimes gaining ground, sometimes losing it, sometimes on top of the wheel of cosmic fortune, sometimes dragging through the muck and slime at the bottom. They put on their go-go boots and spray their beehives and march out there to contend with life to the best of their abilities. Will they fail? Of course they will. Life is infinitely bigger, stronger, smarter, and better equipped than a dippy dancer with hair-spray. Life is going to kick their butt.

Do we want to hear about it? Of course we do. That’s us in the go-go boots. That’s us carting around those towering beehives. We long to be righteous, ethical, innocent, and courageous. Our hearts yearn for meaning. At the same time we desperately need to be accepted. If everyone we knew were wearing shoes built inches up from the ground and blindingly-bright rayon shirts and leaping around a lit-up plastic floor posing momentarily and staring gloomily straight ahead and flinging our arms from one compass point to another as though guiding an airplane into the hanger — we’d do it too.

Don’t you know how to do the Funky Chicken? Don’t you know how to Hustle?

So do fictional characters. They know all about living heartfelt among the debris of the ridiculous. That’s what history does to human beings.

Write it down, testify to the real history of the human race. We will always remember.

About Victoria Mixon:

Victoria Mixon is a professional writer and editor who has worked in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for over thirty years. She co-authored the nonfiction Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and EducatorsPrentice Hall, 1996, and has published pieces in various literary magazines. She freelances as an editor for fiction authors and writes articles on the art of fiction at www.victoriamixon.com.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carter March 28, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Interesting essay, Victoria–but I have one big bone to pick: "the ennui of post-WWII shellshock."

No way. The late '40 and the '50s were filled with adventure for most of us. Getting married, having babies, moving to Levittowns, Communists under the bed, kids going under their school desks in fear of The Bomb, some of us (including me) getting shot at in Korea, W.E.B. DuBois detained, Pete Seeger, McCarthyism, Mickey Spillane, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Saul Bellow, James T. Farrell–so much I could go on for pages. Take a look here:
http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/home.html — just one compilation of sources that would take you years to get through. Oh, no, "ennui" is nowhere. You missed a lot, girl.

Carter

Sheldon March 29, 2009 at 12:08 am

Carter:

I believe Victoria is talking about the play, not the era.

Anonymous March 31, 2009 at 12:26 am

I completely agree with Victoria’s assessment. History certainly has a profound effect on fiction. I remember actually learning quite a bit about history when I was young by reading fiction, and usually coming away with a much firmer grasp of the actual events than I did when reading history books.

In fact, I still find that, and I have found in working with young adults as a professor that fiction is sometimes the only way to reach people. I very much appreciate that Victoria can recognize that and put it into words.

As regards the prior commenter, I might roughly share his age, but not his experience. I can definitely attest to what Victoria eloquently calls the “ennui of post-WWII shellshock”. I remember that shellshock. That war altered everything for all of us, and afterward there was a real sense that we in America could never go back. I think that feeling of helplessness turned up in a lot of the art and writing of that time.

Now that I think about it, the previous comment makes me appreciate the breadth, gravity, and clarity that fiction brings to history, in addition to the other way around. Without the benefit of fiction, I may have ended up blissfully unaware of the actual events taking place in the history of my own time, which would have been sad indeed.

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