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How the Historical Novel Has Changed!

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By:Catherine Savage Brosman | June 27, 2018
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Should one read Hervey Allen or Anne Rice?  Why should the question be asked at all?  Why might a discriminating reader today even think of picking up either Hervey Allen’s massive best-seller of 1933, Anthony Adverse, or The Feast of All Saints (1979) by Anne Rice, a hugely popular contemporary author?  (Both are still available through major booksellers.)  A literary face-off here between the two historical novels, chosen out of scores of works that might invite adversarial (if not saintly) confrontation, is instructive.  They are not without resemblances—an illegitimate hero, questions of race and status (including slavery), and a New Orleans setting for Rice’s novel and part of Anthony Adverse.  Each illustrates the genre differently.

Allen (1889-1949), from Pittsburgh, was graduated (according to the Columbia Encyclopedia) from the university there, then fought in the Great War.  Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I records his experiences.  He taught English in Charleston, South Carolina, and collaborated with DuBose Heyward on a poetry collection, Carolina Chansons (1922).  He is best known for his biography of Poe, Israfel (1926).  According to 1933 interviews in New York newspapers, he spent five years composing Anthony Adverse.  He later published other verse and fiction.

Anthony Adverse has broad chronological and geographical scope; the plot is elaborate, the characters numerous.  For proper understanding and appreciation, readers need some acquaintance with art, architecture, languages, politics, and history (for instance, the early Napoleonic period).  To be sure, this is a strength, not a weakness.  Gruesome acts occur.  While enthusiasts of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code might be attracted to Allen’s work, they would soon find it different—characterized by thoughtfulness and moral sensitivity, and without appeal to sensationalist tastes.

The term picaresque novel, used in reviews, is inappropriate.  Anthony Adverse is not just a string of episodes involving a clever, rascally hero who must live by his wits.  Although Anthony trades in slaves around 1800—a man of his time—he is concerned with morality and generally conducts himself honorably.  Nor are other characters cardboard figures who simply advance the plot.  Napoleon, convincingly portrayed, plays a not-inconsiderable role.  The writing is often poetic (no minimalism or Hemingwayesque spareness here), the vocabulary rich, the syntax good.  A few errors can be overlooked.  Exotic settings add their strangeness to chronological distance, but they are not exploited excessively.  Natural features are described well and human relationships with nature explored, notably when Anthony is a boy and, much later, when he lives by himself in the American wilderness, then is captured by Indians.  The dominant metaphor is that of the tree, so like man in its birth from darkness, vertical growth, flourishing, and inevitable end.  Despite violence, good taste is not assaulted.  If you don’t know what that means, don’t ask; I won’t tell.

In addition to its concern with justice, which Rice’s novel shares, Anthony Adverse asks numerous other “great questions.”  How can a man understand himself without knowing where he came from?  Anthony, an orphan, never learns his parents’ identity or even nationality.  (In this respect he is worse off than Rice’s Marcel Ste-Marie, a quadroon, who knows his mulatto mother and white father.)  How should one respond to evil (particularly, the malevolence displayed by Anthony’s mother’s husband, who goes so far as to condemn him to near-certain death in a leprosarium)?  How should one deal, in a class society, with one’s inferiors?  How can one live a Christian life, short of following Brother François, who returns good for evil and is crucified by primitive African fanatics?  How can a man redeem his errors?  What is genuine love of woman?  Are intimations of spiritual reality mere illusions?

Anne Rice is a manufacturer of best-sellers.  Born in New Orleans in 1941, she was called Howard Allen (her father’s name) O’Brien; her mother found that “interesting.”  The child adopted the name Anne.  Her mother died of alcoholism in 1955.  Anne attended Catholic schools in New Orleans until the family moved to Richardson, Texas.  Her husband of four decades, the late Stan Rice, a visual artist and poet, was a high-school classmate there.  They went to California; Anne ultimately got a master’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State, where Stan taught that subject.  In 1989, they left California for New Orleans.  Her first novel, Interview With a Vampire, appeared in 1973.  Subsequent titles, including such words as vampire, witches, devil, damned, and mummy, suggest exploitation of public credulity and ghoulishness.  Her books have sold more than 100 million copies.  Three films were drawn from her work, and a 2001 miniseries was based on The Feast of All Saints.  She herself wrote the text of a vampire musical, starring Elton John.  In 1998 she returned to her childhood Catholicism.

There is more.  Under the pen names Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure, Rice composed what one listing terms “classic erotica,” including Exit to Eden (1985), now in paperback.  One commentator described her pornography as “explicit sado-masochistic erotica.”  “Her characters’ sexuality is fluid, often displaying homoerotic feelings.”  She said that she looked for bisexuality in her characters.  Her son Christopher, also a novelist, is a homosexual.  The Feast of All Saints depicts homoerotic relationships, but without details.

For some Chronicles readers, a prima facie case against her work has been made.  Should such personal and publishing facts really bear, however, on literary appreciation and judgment?  Many fine authors have been shady, callous, or perverted—even moral monsters.  Perhaps Hervey Allen had a skeleton or two in his closet.  (Information on him is scant.)  At some chronological remove, moral factors are usually discounted.  But that may be because genuine literary merit, confirmed by generations, offsets what is otherwise offensive, or time has eroded our sense of the author’s moral deformities.  Perhaps such indulgence in judgment, or “the condescension of posterity,” is not justified.  Or we realize that the author of risqué material wished not to encourage perversion but only to épater le bourgeois (amaze middle-class readers), though that cannot be said of the Marquis de Sade.  What about current writers, our contemporaries, sometimes our neighbors?  (In New Orleans I lived next door to one of Anne Rice’s three Garden District houses.)  Certainly, I should not want to enrich and encourage present-day pornographers by buying obscene books, no matter what their fame or purported literary qualities.  The Rice novel in question here and one other came into my hands by chance, gratis.

In the present case, there is little need to weigh ad hominem judgments against high literary value; Rice’s 570-page novel, while readable, with a generally plausible story, is mediocre.  What would one expect, given her sales figures?  Fiction that draws 100 million readers is unlikely to be fine writing.  Common readers used to appreciate better fare.  Think of Victor Hugo’s fame, of Mark Twain’s.  In the late 19th century, Robert Maudslay, a sheepman from Ozona, Texas, recorded in his diary the contents of the library in the two-room stone house he shared with his brother: a complete Shakespeare, a complete Scott, and the Illustrated London News going back to 1840.  The basic literary education that enabled many ordinary people to value good writing prevailed, broadly speaking, well into the 20th century.  Allen’s novel sold very widely and was reprinted, but it is closer kin to Scott’s and Victor Hugo’s than to Rice’s.  In the 1960’s and 70’s, an expanding but undiscriminating population, schooled by trashy English departments and popular journalism in relativism, and exposed too little to elevated tone and contents in literature, generally expected, and got, sloppy writing, superficial depictions, sensational plots, and otherwise worthless, if not offensive, subject matter, instead of high truth and high seriousness.

Rice does demonstrate basic skill in plotting, in a narrowly defined fictional framework.  The narrative carries readers along; one wishes to know what happens, just as, say, following a news report on an (allegedly) abusive “boyfriend,” we want to know whether he has been apprehended.  But that’s just curiosity; to fulfill it takes no genius.  Rice’s only notable achievement is to depict sympathetically the lives and difficulties of French-speaking Free People of Color in New Orleans in the 1840’s.  Unfortunately, she calls them gens de couleur libre, rather than libres—making the color, not the people, free.  Ah well, what does one expect from her and from Simon & Schuster, also the publishers of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, for whom accuracy (at least in terms of crediting sources) was once shown to be unimportant?  The Free Blacks or Black Creoles, with roots in the 18th century, remain a significant element of the city today.  They populate several neighborhoods, churches, and schools—including Xavier University; businessmen, noted poets, craftsmen, professional people, and numerous members of the political class come from this segment of the population.  Using invented characters and minor historical figures, Rice recreates its peculiar situation before 1865.  Free in some respects (they owned property, including slaves), often cultured, sending their sons to France for school, the Black Creoles nevertheless faced restrictions in dealings with whites and, in response, developed customs such as plaçage.  Whether Rice’s interest in them was out of true appreciation or, rather, a desire to milk the topic for exotic value, thumb her nose at white New Orleans society, or profit from current multicultural fashion is unclear.  Questions of justice that arise suggest her sympathy with the class.

Rice’s expository style (everyone has a style, even inept students) is lackluster, characterized by basic grammar and diction errors, comma splices, missing commas, sentence fragments, lack of parallelism, dangling phrases, and other improprieties in syntax.  (No proper copyediting, obviously.)  The portrayal of the French Quarter relies on local color details and terms such as banquette (sidewalk).  Much of the depiction is hyperbolic, and emotions are conveyed without shading and subtlety.  Though minor, a few puzzles in the exposition are annoying.  There are pages that I’d consider soft porn (not that I pretend to authority in the matter, even with my grounding in French literature).  Readers interested in Free Blacks might enjoy and profit more from George Washington Cable’s The Grandissismes and Old Creole Days, and Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Sketches.

When the historical novel arose in the early 19th century, it appealed to readers’ feelings and their thirst for the past—particularly the Middle Ages—and for flamboyant dramas in exotic settings.  But it was also truth-bearing, even inspiring, as understanding, ultimately judgment, of behavior and events arose from the recounting and shaping of fact and imaginative additions.  Well into the 20th century, good historical novels by modern authors helped depict and interpret the past.  Though the genre lost ground to “true novels,” cheap romances, and “suburban” fiction (à la Cheever and Updike), fine examples, especially concerning the American South and West (Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for instance), were still produced after 1950.  Rice’s Feast is not, however, one of them.  Of course, in a dentist’s office, you’d read almost anything, right?  But choose Anthony Adverse for broad design, beautiful prose, multilayered truth, and astounding goodness.

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