When I was a master’s student, I remember a professor waxing philosophical about the future of academia. In one of her lectures, she discussed the possibility of a degree concentration in Counter-History, in which scholars imagine history differently than it transpired, perhaps even contrary to actual events, in an effort to uncover new perspectives. Of course, some of this might be revealed in Cartesian philosophical orientation, but as of today, I know no doctoral program in Counter-History.
Though it may not exist in academia, I’ve found it to be alive and kicking in the literary world.
These days, it seems like a great novelist is more than a story teller. She or he is a historical analyst, an investigative journalist, and a first-rate researcher. A rich historical context, along with the possibility that a story could be “based on true events,” makes a story real and far more intriguing to read. Of course, none of this is actually new. Popular novelists have been borrowing from history for generations (Jo Rowling and Rick “Percy Jackson” Riordan commonly feature figures that exist historically, either in real life or in literature). But I’m not talking about borrowing from history, I’m talking about recreating history, and creating the mystery around the possibility of a new truth. I’ve found this gem of novel writing in two recent books: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The Poe Shadow.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine B. Howe. I have to admit, I stumbled upon this book with quite a bit of serendipity. While waiting for the free samples at Cost co one day, I saw this book promoted on their table display. I judged the book by its cover (I’m a sucker for nicely designed books), picked it up and, after reading the back cover, rushed…to the library to get a copy. Brilliantly researched book by the descendent of not one but TWO condemned salem witches, which works great since it’s a book about the Salem Witch Trials. Many of the events and circumstances were real. The story, however, was not. Nonetheless, there was so much real about Howe’s book, I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl: I actually found this book, again, by accident. Howe had acknowledged Pearl at the end of her Physick, for his literary help on the book. When I later found the book, noticed Pearl’s name, and checked to make sure the title and picture on front were intriguing enough (book cover judging again), I was sold (figuratively of course, it doesn’t cost money to borrow a book at the library, though I do believe I had $.50 in late fees on it). In the Poe Shadow, Pearl takes the mystery of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe and builds it into a seemingly real-life narrative of the effort to uncover the mystery. Though some of his characters are fictitious, the argument he makes for what may really have happened the days before Poe was found listless in a Baltimore Tavern shortly before his death. With his cleverly spun tale, not only is Pearl’s book real, but in it he proposes hypotheses and demonstrates findings that are entirely new to the debate. So instead of writing an academic paper spawning a lecture series about Poe’s last days, he writes an ingenius narrative that is both compelling and unforgettable.
These are only two of a voluminous library of books that recreate history, taking literary liberties for both the good of the reader, and history itself. Through this genre of historical-based novels, writers put a new spin on history and keep the eternal flame of history’s many and varied stories burning.