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Pages:
320

From the Civil War to the Apocalypse

Postmodern History and American Fiction
A reconsideration of the relationship between history and fiction in the context of postmodernism

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Why don't we read novels as if they were histories and histories as if they were novels? Recent postmodern theorists such as Hayden White and Linda Hutcheon have argued that since history is a narrative art, it must be understood as a form of narrative representation analogous to fiction. Yet, contrary to the fears of some historians, such arguments have not undermined the practice of history as a meaningful enterprise so much as they have highlighted the appeal history has as a narrative craft.

In addressing the postmodernist claim that history works no differently than fiction, Timothy Parrish rejects the implication that history is dead or hopelessly relativistic. Rather, he shows how the best postmodern novelists compel their readers to accept their narratives as true in the same way that historians expect their readers to accept their narratives as true. These novelists write history as a form of fiction.

If the great pre-modernist American historians are Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and Henry Adams, who are the great modernist or postmodernist historians? In the twentieth century, Parrish argues, the most powerful works of American history were written by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and Cormac McCarthy. What survives a reading of these novels is the sense that writers otherwise identified as multicultural or postmodern share the view that nothing matters more than history and what one believes its possibilities to be. In other words, Parrish concludes, history, not identity, is the ground of postmodern American fiction.

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