Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reverse historical fiction

In two earlier posts, I wrote about the APA conference I attended recently, but I wanted to add one more note. In the same session in which I read, a colleague of mine at UCA, Conrad Shumaker, presented a terrific piece that I can only describe as "reverse historical fiction." In many historical fictions people out of real life are rendered anew in the imagined universe of a novel or short story. There are so many examples of this, both in adult and young adult historical fiction, that I don't think I need to prove it to you. But here's the thing about Conrad's piece: he took a very familiar fictional character and moved him into the real world. Sort of. Conrad's story is an epistolary one in which a literature professor describes the troubled history of a (deceased) colleague's doctoral dissertation, one that the colleague was forced to drop. The long and short of it is that while a graduate student, this man discovered that Huckleberry Finn was no fictitious character but a real person who wrote down his life story and gave it to Samuel Clemens, merely hoping for assistance in getting the memoir published. Except Clemens up and stole the manuscript, recreating it--with only minor changes, and no acknowledgement of the real Huck--in his own The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that of course won Clemens considerable critical acclaim and not a little income. The real Huck, as it turned out, didn't quite "light out for the territories," or, rather, he did but only to wind up the owner of a greasy spoon in Missouri. The protagonist of Conrad's story had uncovered and proven Twain's literary theft, but the discovery was so provocative, so potentionally threatening to the American literature canon, that he was forced to give up the project and his (typewritten) manuscript (this was the 1950s) was destroyed.

My brief summary can hardly do justice to Conrad's comic/academic/detective tour de force. It was intoxicating in the way of all great stories but also eyeopening. It reminded me that the door between the fictional and the historical--through which writers of historical fiction so often pull real people kicking and screaming--swings both ways. We can also take fictional characters and push them into our tawdry, duplicitious world.


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