Historical Fiction as a “Gateway Drug” to the Past

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule

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.


9 thoughts on “Historical Fiction as a “Gateway Drug” to the Past

  1. I have a similar love-hate relationship with historical fiction. Some of it, like Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-era Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, are fantastic for historians and non-historians alike. On the other hand, popular, highly romanticized hist. fic. such as Philippa Gregory’s novels or shows such as The Tudors make me cringe (a brown-haired thin Irish guy as Henry VIII?!) Yet such books and films brought visitors from around the world to the London palace I worked at in droves – where, hopefully, us interpreters could bust any myths and inspire a stronger passion for history!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ashleigh! It’s sounds like our views on this topic are pretty much the same. Henry VIII as a thin brown-haired Irish guy sounds cringe-worthy!

  2. The more and more I study films, the more and more I’m surprised at how much I “like” what historical fiction does. For me, it was getting over accuracies per se and looking more at larger representations and notions of truth at play. You might like “In Defense of Hollywood.”

    1. I agree 100%, Andrew. I’ve also taken an increasing interest in film as a way to communicate ideas about the past and the present because of the “larger representations and notions of truth at play.”

  3. Nick,

    Yes, I agree with your title “Historical Fiction as a ‘Gateway Drug’ to the Past.” I guess the only question is do most people get beyond the gateway? Do they actually try to unwind the historiographical arguments? My thinking is they just enjoy the book.

    So, I am not sure about, “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.” I like to see some evidence of this qualitative or quantitative.

    A couple months back I held a similar discussion about historical fiction, so at least we are thinking about similar issues:

    I think the one trait that most historical fictions is that they pull out the “sexy” parts of history…can’t say I blame them for leaving out year long gaps….it sells. Historical fiction may be a great tool for rounding out a historical context for a narrative.

    What do you think?

    Luke Sprague

    1. Hi Luke,

      Thanks for jumping in with a thoughtful comment and link to your own musings on this topic. Let me try to address some of your thoughts and questions:

      “I guess the only question is do most people get beyond the gateway? Do they actually try to unwind the historiographical arguments? My thinking is they just enjoy the book…I’d like to see some evidence of this qualitative or quantitative.”

      No, I don’t think most people actually cross the gateway from historical fiction to historical scholarship and primary sources. That’s purely anecdotal on my part, but I feel pretty confident in that assertion. I would say, however, that in most cases you can’t really predict how you’re going to respond to a book or measure how a book provokes a change in your thinking and actions. If you could predict such responses, what fun would it be to read a book?

      While I think most readers of historical fiction probably do so purely for the entertainment and enjoyment of that particular narrative, the key here is that there are readers who are so stimulated by the narrative that it provokes them to want to learn more. Sometimes those readers go into the book with the intention of learning more about the historical records afterwords, but it’s equally true that some readers who probably intended to simply read a fun story find themselves compelled to learn more after reading. That’s why I argued in the first paragraph that historical fiction offers “a potential opportunity to make new intellectual connections.” The emphasis here is on “potential opportunity” in that while it’s true that some may not necessarily make those connections, each reading of historical fiction offers a chance for such connections to be made. So, in sum, we can’t assume that readers of historical fiction aren’t interested in “what actually happened” because there are many times when reading such books provokes an interest in the historical record.

      “I think the one trait that most historical fictions is that they pull out the “sexy” parts of history”

      Yes, or they just make up their own “sexy” parts. “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule” definitely dramatizes the relationship between Julia Dent Grant and her slave Julia and overextends the contrasting views of Julia’s family and Ulysses S. Grant towards slavery, but that discussion is probably good for another post.

      1. Hi Nick,

        Perhaps that is what we should be focused on as historians, allowing people the “potential opportunity,” like you argue, to make a decision to cross the gap into actually researching the history; otherwise the leap is too far for their efforts. Good discussion.


  4. In my opinion historical fiction is primarily for entertainment, yes there are historical fiction authors who are historians but it is incumbent upon the reader to dig deeper on a premise which caught their attention. Yes, I do agree that a disclaimer is useful but as for the placement of such at the beginning or the ending, I am indecisive. I feel increasingly that historical fiction authors are burdened with the role of historians thus on the receiving end of loathing (tad bit strong) from historians, history students etc. Their novels generate interest in many historical figures and events thereby generating revenue for museums and such and film adaptations (now that is another story), shouldn’t we yay? nooo?

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