Gilding Lincoln’s Lily


by William Safire
Doubleday, 1,125 pp., $24.95

William Safire
William Safire; drawing by David Levine

Much as they may deplore the fact, historians have no monopoly on the past and no franchise as its privileged interpreters to the public. It may have been different once (though Aristotle thought the claims of the poets superior), but there can no longer be any doubt about the relegation of the historian to a back seat. Far surpassing works of history, as measured by the size of their public and the influence they exert, are the novel, works for the stage, the screen, and television. It is mainly from these sources that millions who never open a history book derive such conceptions, interpretations, convictions, or fantasies as they have about the past. Whatever gives shape to popular conceptions of the past is of concern to historians, and this surely includes fiction.

Broadly speaking, two types of fiction deal with the past—historical fiction and fictional history. The more common of the two is historical fiction, which places fictional characters and events in a more or less authentic historical background. Examples range from War and Peace to Gone With the Wind. Since all but a few novelists must place their fictional characters in some period, nearly all fiction can be thought of as in some degree historical. But the term is applied as a rule only to novels in which historical events figure prominently. Fictional history, on the other hand, portrays and focuses attention upon real historical figures and events, but with the license of the novelist to imagine and invent. It has yet to produce anything approaching Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Some fictional history makes use of invented characters and events, and historical fiction at times mixes up fictional and nonfictional characters. As a result the two genres overlap sometimes, but not often enough to make the distinction unimportant.

Of the two, it is fictional history that is the greater source of mischief, for it is here that fabrication and fact, fiction and nonfiction, are most likely to be mixed and confused. Of course historians themselves sometimes mix fact with fancy, but it is a rare one who does it consciously or deliberately, and he knows very well that if discovered he stands convicted of betraying his calling. The writer of fictional history, on the other hand, does this as a matter of course, and with no compunction whatever. The production and consumption of fictional history appear to be growing of late. Part of the explanation for this is probably the fragmentation of history by professionals, their retreat into specializations, their abandonment of the narrative style, and with it the traditional patronage of lay readers. Fictional history has expanded to fill the gap thus created but has at the same time gone further to create a much larger readership than history books ever had.

Emboldened by their success, some writers of fictional history do not stop at justifying their license to mix fact…

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