Monday, November 30, 2009

The Fact is in the Fiction?

I couldn't help but notice that one particular conversation in my WWI class kept swaying in and out of post-modernist thought, which I tend to be incredibly intrigued by. I was caught in a bit of a "deer-in-the-headlights" look when I was posed with the question of why we study WWI novels.

Now, of course, my cultural historian blinders led me down the path of using literature to examine the culture in which they were produced. It seemed a bit obvious to me at first, perhaps that's because I never fully questioned the value of a war novel, but as I sat there absorbing the conversation with a furrowed brow (as per usual), I began thinking of the implications that this particular class had for the field of public history.

I think a lot of the time, we forget about studying literature and texts - because that's what academic historians do (not that public historians are not academic historian, because we ARE) - but perhaps we examine these texts in a different way. These war novels, for example, are really just material culture, in a way. They're artifacts that can certainly be studied in the same way as a monument or a 19th century dress or an amputation kit from the civil war.

With topic of war fiction, the question becomes more one of how conflict inflences culture than it does of one trying to pull an accurate representation of the war out of the story. I believe this is why the issue of war novels has become a bit of a pain - because they become quite problematic once people start accepting them as factual history.

One of the major criticisms is that novels project one single opinion or perspective of the war onto all those involved. For example, the famous Canadian war novel, "Generals Die in Bed", (from what I understand, because I've not had the pleasure...),portrays a fairly negative opinion of the soldier experience during WWI, which is fine, but it also kind of implies that every single soldier had this similar experience, which is not fine. This is the criticism, anyway.

Part of me (I think it's the public historian part) wants to think that this generalization can be useful in a way. In the public history sphere, we do this sort of thing all the time. We can't possibly represent every single interpretation of every single topic - so we use the approach of the "typical scenario" to piece together parts of the "puzzle of the past." Think of the living history museums, or monuments that are built to encompass veterans of all conflicts. Really, unless this war novel was claiming to portray a specific and historically significant soldier that performed certain actions at a certain battle of WWI, does it really have an obligation to be completely and utterly historically accurate? Does such a thing even exist?

That's really what this discussion comes down to. That's really what most historical debate comes down to. Historical accuracy? Actual reality? Who knows? What do you believe?

I feel this is an appropriate time to quote an Indie songwriter, Conor Oberst:

"I had a lengthy discussion about the power of myth/ with a post-modern author
who didn't exist./ In this fictitious world, all reality twists"
See, this is the great thing about blogging - I can write about whatever I want to. If I want my strange and slightly pretentious music interests to overlap with my academic musings (which they often do, in my head), this is certainly the arena for that!

Anyway, I also believe one of the great criticisms of this war novel was that the author was claiming that it was the "true story" of WWI. I think that statement has heavy implications and it should not have been used in this circumstance - but really, who's to say it's not the true story? It could be the true story for someone - for the unidentifiable soldier, from Anytown, Canada.

Personally (as an historian who has had experience with the battlefield that is the high school history classroom), I don't see a huge problem in calling "Generals Die in Bed" the "Great Canadian War Novel" and forcing indifferent Grade 10s to read it. It may not be an accurate depiction of WWI that considers several interpretations, but let's face it, neither is the information in their textbooks - and in many cases, it'll be the only depiction of WWI that an individual will ever have. These novels paint a picture, spark interest in the past, and say a great deal about how we choose to remember our pasts.

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