Researching Historical Fiction

‘Warm feelings of personal connection’

My last post about visiting the homes of famous (dead) writers got me thinking about an article published in the Washington Post nearly a year ago (Feb. 7, 2012, to be exact).

In “Objects of Her Projection,” Philip Kennicott reviewed Annie Leibovitz’s “Pilgrimage” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He called the exhibit “a photo record of her visits to the homes, gardens and stamping grounds of some of her favorite dead people.”

Leibovitz’s images caught my eye, especially Annie Oakley’s heart-shaped target shot through the center.

Kennicott slammed the exhibit, though. He criticized Leibovitz for fetishizing and glorifying celebrities in her portraits and continuing the work by doing the same with their possessions—and for acting like a privileged insider while reminding the rest of us that we are outsiders.

He also disapproved of the whole notion of traveling to historic sites to try to connect emotionally with the people who had lived there.

Millions of Americans make some version of the kind of pilgrimage captured in Leibovitz’s images. Catering to this tourism has been an industry for a century or more, and there is a widespread belief that these visits help establish an emotional relationship between 21st-century Americans and their history. But warm feelings of personal connection to a historical figure don’t necessarily carry with them any particular understanding or knowledge of what that figure did. Not enough suspicion is directed at the inherently mythologizing tendency in this national pastime.

He argues that when it comes to history, facts and ideas are what matter. But for me there’s no denying the power of walking across a Civil War battlefield and seeing the sweep of the landscape and hearing the buzz of cicadas on a hot summer day. Or visiting a 19th-century house and noting the way the light comes through the warbled window glass and imagining what it would have been like to spend your days there.

There are some things you just can’t get from books (and I say that as a writer who hopes to publish a book someday soon).

I am one of the millions of Americans who engage in historical travel, and you can expect to see many posts about my visits in this blog. For a novelist, emotional connections to the past are essential. How else can we get inside a character’s head?

And how can we hope to understand the decisions and actions of people in the past without knowing something about the emotions that drove them? When you close yourself off from the emotional aspects of events, history becomes a dry and sterile thing.

Then again, Kennicott would probably say writers of historical fiction are even worse offenders than certain historians and photographers.

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