Historical fiction is a widely-read and popular literary genre. Some readers, no doubt, rely exclusively on historical fiction for understanding the past. I personally think there are a lot of problems with historical fiction and rarely take the time to read it, but I believe that every time someone reads such a book a potential opportunity to make new intellectual connections with the past emerges.
We have been talking a lot about historical fiction at work lately. The novelist Jennifer Chiaverini recently published a work of historical fiction about Julia Dent Grant and her slave Julia entitled Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. The books seems to have been well received. Amazon reviewers (however much stock you want to put into their reviews) seem to look at the book favorably. The St. Louis County Library purchased 122 copies of the book and according to my friend and colleague Bob Pollock, it took several weeks for his book reservation to be completed. And now there’s a second work of historical fiction about Julia Grant entitled Julia’s Spirit that aims to explore Julia and her family’s experiences in Galena, Illinois. This book was written by Mary Timpe Robsman, a retired teacher and tour guide at Ulysses S. Grant’s Galena home (the one local residents built for his family at the end of the Civil War, not the one he lived in prior to the war). You can’t find Julia’s Spirit online, but you can buy it at the local Piggly Wiggly in Galena if you find yourself there.
Bob read Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule and came away unimpressed. He made three points about the book and historical fiction in general. One is that the available evidence for documenting both Julia Dent Grant and Madame Jule’s lives is extremely thin. Julia Grant’s personal memoirs and a few scattered letters are all we have of her records, and the evidence for Madame Julia’s life exists in a few spare passages in Julia’s memoirs. Given this lack of evidence, historians have struggled to completely understand these stories and much remains open for interpretation. Making up stories to fill in the blanks runs the risk of further confusing readers about the actual historical record.
Bob also criticized Chiaverini for placing a disclaimer about her research in the back of the book instead of the front, which I completely agree with. That disclaimer reads as follows:
Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is a work of fiction inspired by history. Many events and people appearing in the historical record have been omitted from this book for the sake of the narrative. Although the lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant are well documented, almost nothing exists about Jule beyond a few brief mentions in Julia Grant’s memoirs. Thus her life as depicted in this story is almost entirely imagined.
As already mentioned, Chiaverini’s claims about the Grants’ lives being “well documented” isn’t quite right, and that goes for Ulysses too. The documentation for Ulysses’s life before the Civil War is extremely limited.
This placement of the disclaimer at the end of the book leads to Bob’s third criticism, which is that readers will leave the book unsure about what was true and what was invented by Chiaverini. If we again place stock in the words of Amazon reviewers, his criticism is valid. Various reviewers remarked that “I learned a lot about the Civil War and people’s attitudes”; “This book is full of history about the Civil War”; “I found the history element fascinating as I live in Australia and wasn’t aware of all the facts”; “This book gave me a whole new view of the life of General Ulysses S. Grant and his family life”; and “[I] love historical fiction, especially when you get to see a different side of the person we all think we knew.”
For all of these issues with historical fiction, however, something remarkable has happened. Since the release of Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule in March we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have met and interacted with several visitors who wanted to visit the site precisely because they had read that book. Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule inspired these people to visit Julia’s childhood home and learn about her life and the lives of the enslaved people at White Haven. And a couple years ago when Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln came out (a book that I’d put somewhere between fiction and history) I met at least fifteen people who visited the site because they had read about Ulysses S. Grant in that book. I can’t think of any works by professional historians that have elicited as much interest in visiting the site as these two books.
I am often asked by visitors to make recommendations on good scholarship about the Grant family and nineteenth century U.S. history. I would never recommend a work of historical fiction simply because it’s tough enough to get to the truth through the available evidence we already have. But if historical fiction inspires people to visit public history sites, purchase well-researched historical scholarship, and engage on their own intellectual inquiry into the past, then who am I to wag my finger at someone for enjoying historical fiction? For all my concerns, I believe the genre offers a path for connecting with the past in a meaningful way. If it pushes people to seek “what actually happened” and critically interact with primary source evidence, that makes it even better in my book.