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A Biography of America

The Redemptive Imagination

Storytelling is a relentless human urge and its power forges with memory to become the foundation of history. Novelists Charles Johnson (Middle Passage), Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), and Esmeralda Santiago (America's Dream) join Professor Miller in discussing the intersection of history and story. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., closes the series with a reflection on the power of the human imagination.

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Program 26: The Redemptive Imagination/Story, Memory and Identity

Donald L. Miller with Esmeralda Santiago, Arthur Golden, Charles Johnson, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


Miller: In A Biography of America, we’ve tried to bring to life some of the defining moments of American history using the medium of storytelling. At the root of all history are memories, memories that have been woven into stories. Today, we turn to four storytellers who have drawn on the past to create works of power and truthfulness. Esmeralda Santiago, author of When I Was Puerto Rican

Santiago: How did I end up here? Here I am in this, Katona, New York; and I started out in Macoum, Puerto Rico. How did that happen?

Miller: The Boston Globe called her one of the most powerful new voices in American fiction. Arthur Golden, author of the acclaimed national best-seller, Memoirs of a Geisha

Golden: Things don’t always narrow down to a sort of pencil point of truth. It’s kind of messy…

Miller: Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, winner of the National Book Award for fiction…

Johnson: …I used to ask my mother, “Well what about your grandmother, or my father? What about your great-uncle?”

Miller: And Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., author of Slaughterhouse Five, and a dozen other memorable novels.

Vonnegut: It is the past, not the future, which scares the heck out of me…

Miller: Today on A Biography of America, memories, storytelling, and history.

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Roundtable Discussion

[picture of the discussion group]

Miller: One of the great works of modern history is Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. Now Shelby’s a novelist, and he feels he’s got to explain that a little bit. And so in an after-word he writes this: “The point I would like to make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: truth. Not a different truth. The same truth. Only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, or in the imagination, they both want to tell us how it was, to recreate it by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around us.”

Arthur, you wrote a novel that is amazingly detailed about a geisha girl. You remind me so much of an historian at work, you put the details together into historical patterns and generalizations; you’re trying to enter into the culture. You’re using history, but you’re writing fiction. You’re performing a kind of high-wire act there, though, aren’t you? You’re a white, American male writing about a completely different culture, and trying to get inside that culture.

[picture of Arthur Golden]

Golden: Well, the way I finally gave myself permission was by saying, you know, I’m not trying to write about every Japanese woman; I’m not trying to write about what happened to a particular living person; I’m trying to write about what might have happened. And people do different kinds of things. There are all sorts of possibilities.

It was a character with a very, very different background and sensibility from mine, of course. And I came to think of writing as being like a war, really like a war. And what I mean is that there were times when you’re the general looking down the battlefield. And that is to say that you’re making big decisions about large issues like who’s going to be in the book, where’s it going to go.

Then there are these sort of tactical moments, where you’re the troop commander trying to take a hill. But then there are those moments where you are the guy in the trenches with the rifle. And those are the moments when something affects your character, and you have to say how it feels. And, you know, it really is a matter of just sitting there, closing your eyes, I think, and experiencing it. And that’s the thing that I think fiction can do so powerfully.

[picture of Charles Johnson]

Johnson: Well I think the key is that, as a writer, you have to have tremendous empathy. You have to project yourself into the circumstances, and the world of your character. But, you know, an issue came up earlier in our conversation that you raised, that I thought was kind of interesting. Because you’re doing this outside of your culture, into another, projecting yourself into another culture. The idea that comes up is can you write outside of your race, you know what I’m saying?

For the Africans in America stories, I got a chance. I could write about Frederick Douglass, but I could also write about Martha Washington, in first person. I actually don’t think it’s a problem. I think that with great empathy and imagination, and taking, this is what art does anyway. It takes us from over here and puts us behind his eyes, or behind her eyes. So we get to see the world from a different angle, with a different meaning, a different perspective, and finally a different truth. A truth of the world, not the truth.

Golden: And yet, we’re all wedded to our own perspectives. And as Charles says, the issue for art is, can you bring in a different perspective.

Johnson: It’s always a fact that what you’re going to have is provisional and tentative. It is not going to be absolute, whether it’s history or it’s art.

Miller: A truth of the world; not the truth…

Santiago: It isn’t just a bunch of data and statistics. It’s real people.

Miller: Esmeralda, you said that you felt compelled to write your own story…

[picture of Esmeralda Santiago]

Santiago: Yeah, I did, because I felt like I was doing a lot of work by being in the United States. I had to learn English, I had to learn how to live in a city, I had to learn how to be in American culture. And yet, I didn’t exist in its literature.

And I was a big reader, and I read a lot of books! And I wasn’t there! And there was this sense I had that, if I didn’t exist in the literature, I didn’t exist in the society. And when I speak about “I,” I’m talking about myself, and my 10 sisters and brothers, and my mother, and my children, and my nieces and nephews.

And this sense of, this invisibility is really what drove me to begin to write about my experience, because I thought it was really important for people to know that this happens in the United States. People come from other countries; people live the way we live; they struggle with these kinds of issues. And it isn’t just a bunch of data and statistics. It’s real people. And I wanted to become real to the rest of the United States. That sense of not existing was what drove me through that…

Miller: That’s what Charles was talking about, yeah.

Johnson: Or if you do exist, you exist as a caricature or a stereotype, or something produced by the plantation school; you know, at the end of the 19th century or early 20th. You don’t see the full diversity and range of a people and their lives. Because again, you know, you’re talking about writing about another group, of course a group has many kinds of individuals in it, you know? And so you want that same range, as well as depth, of portrayals.

And that’s one of the reasons I think novelists do in fact turn to history, because it’s all there; it just hasn’t been brought forward to center stage yet. You know, I find myself drifting to history repeatedly…

Miller: To know yourself?

Johnson: To know myself, and also, it isn’t a personal task. This is like a covenant that I have with my ancestors. It’s a covenant that I have with my children. And it’s the transmission of culture, and understanding, and the lives of people who shaped this nation from 1619.

You see what I’m saying? So it’s a duty in many, many ways. But it isn’t an onerous duty. It’s a duty that I love.

Miller: It’s all here; it just hasn’t been brought forward…

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Santiago: One person’s story that’s bigger than you ever imagined. I’d like to go back to something that you said earlier when you were — what gave you permission to approach this, or what gave you the courage to approach it, is this sense that this was one person’s story. And that then within that person, you could then go into that life, and they make mistakes, and whatever. And one of the things that — it really sparked something in me, because that’s what allowed me to write a memoir. I remember just being terrified at the prospect that I had to write about my life. And that, in fact, because there weren’t a lot of books about Puerto Ricans coming to the United States, and all the kinds of experiences that I had, that I knew on some level that it would be seen as representative of a whole group of people; when in fact, my experience was very particular.

But I do remember sitting in front of my computer one day and just saying, you know, I just have to write my story and trust that the reader is going to see that it’s one person’s story. And the interesting thing is that when you do that, you do put it in a historical context, because you have to. In order to be specific about your character, or about yourself as a protagonist, you have to get into the real, nitty-gritty specificity of that moment or of that life. And that’s what brings it, or makes it universal. Then it doesn’t seem as daunting. But in fact it’s a lot bigger than you ever imagined.

Miller: In the way you tell the story, you tell it front to back. Is there any reason for that?

Santiago: I think that’s the way I think! [laughter] I live chronologically, so…

Golden: You know, could I make a comment about this issue of chronology? Because I’ve thought about it quite a lot as a novelist. It’s terrifically important in storytelling; because if you imagine a situation like, for example, you’re at a dinner party and the host looks across the table at you a moment longer than he should, you’re a man, it doesn’t mean anything. But if you put a story behind it, you’re having an affair with his wife, now suddenly it’s a bone-chilling event when he looks at you too long like that.

But if you start a story with that, and then flash back to the beginning of the affair and work your way up through the dinner party, it’s a very different story from starting with the beginning of the affair and working your way through in its natural, chronological order. Because in the first case, you pose a question in the reader’s mind: “What was that look all about? Why did it upset him so much?” And now the story is really principally there to answer a question. It’s a sort of intellectual satisfaction.

But if you do it in its proper order, when you get to that scene, now it has an emotional effect upon the reader. And I think chronology is intrinsically more emotional, or emotion-laden.

Miller: I’d agree. But a lot of history has gotten away from the art of storytelling. We forgot Herodotus, we forgot Thucydides, we forgot what made history compelling; and we’re back to analysis, without story. But I think the idea of a storyteller has a more interesting legacy and heritage. I’d rather pen up with Homer, you know, than Charles Beard.

Golden: That sounds like an easy one!

[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: Yeah, yeah it is. But the storytelling technique, I deal with a scene in a book I’m writing now, in Vicksburg, where Grant goes behind the lines, the Confederate lines in Mississippi. He cuts off communication with Washington. And he wins. But again, in the history book, they’d say, “Well Grant, it was a fantastic campaign; he cut behind the lines, and he won.”

But what you don’t see, there was another army in Mississippi at the time that could have ambushed him. You don’t sense the danger of Grant going behind there unless you put those options out there, that all these things could have happened to him. And that’s storytelling, you know? All these things could have happened…

Johnson: And the grit, and the mud, and the dust of human experience and existence…

Golden: When you write, no matter how much you give yourself permission by saying, “It is just an individual,” it does often happen that readers read it and think there’s some larger meaning, which is all right, but it doesn’t have to be what you meant.

Santiago: You know, when people come to me and say, “I’ve discovered this, or I’ve found that, or did you mean this,” you know, I have to remind them I’m really not that smart to put that kind of very abstract thematic thing in there! It’s just not something that I sit down and say, “I’m going to put something in here so that you can write a doctoral dissertation!” Very few writers will do that. You really…

Johnson: I do that, though.

Santiago: [laughs]

Miller: You do?

Johnson: I do that, yes.

Miller: How do you start?

Johnson: Well I mean, my work is philosophical fiction, largely. So there is going to be usually some kind of universal theme. But the whole point is to put flesh and blood on it. I mean, abstract ideas don’t begin floating up here in the ether, or Plato’s realm of forms. They begin down in the grit, and the mud, and the dust of human experience and existence.

Santiago: But do you go and try, are you very specific about putting these things in there?

Johnson: What it is is, they emerge. They emerge from tracing the drama. Because there is no way, I think, that you can separate them. You know, very fundamental questions, such as who am I? You know, questions of identity. Even further questions like we’re talking about right here, like, what can I know? Questions of epistemology. What is knowledge? How do we define that? You know what I’m saying? Those are questions that can be dramatized, and indeed are in fiction all the time.

I mean, I personally think that fiction and history are sister disciplines. So you know, it’s not like putting things in one box, and that’s a novel; putting things in one box, that’s history. No.

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[picture of the discussion group]

Golden: But to speak to your sort of approach to fiction, if it’s true that a novel can be about one of four things; an idea, a story, a character, or a world setting, I think at a certain point they merge, and it ends up being about all four of them.

Santiago: Yeah. It would have to, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah, a novel has to be all four.

Golden: And I think it’s a question, you start with one. It sounds like you start with idea; a lot of people start with character. But in the end, you get to the same place.

Johnson: And it depends on the story. I mean, we don’t write every novel and story the same way. Some stories you start with an idea; some stories you start with a character; some stories you start with a question. But whatever the case is, I think that for the novelist, and I would certainly hope this is also true for the historian, what dominates this whole process is that it’s a process of discovery. You don’t go into, I believe, a historical work with your mind made up. If you are, you’re…

Miller: You shouldn’t.

Johnson: It’s like a scientist who goes in with a hypothesis. And the end of the process, in the lab, may contradict your hypothesis, right? Same thing with a novelist. It should be a process of discovery as we go along.

Golden: Don, in writing your history of Chicago, I’m curious what brought you to the subject, and if you were surprised by what you learned along the way.

Miller: Well I was surprised by the fact that I picked the book. I was going to write a novel based in Florence on the Lippi brothers, the painters. I had the novel all mapped out. And I came back, and was walking around Chicago, and, I don’t want to say I had an urban epiphany; but I was standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, and just sensing the sunny day, the river’s flowing, the skyscrapers in the background, the lake behind me.

I just sensed the power of that city, the incredible power, and the fact that how did this thing come to be? It’s only 180-some years old. And it just grew up like a mushroom out of that prairie mud. And wouldn’t that be a great story to tell?

And I came at it, too, with a sense of humility about my own discipline, because I have these real doubts about history. I think, I often call it a crippled discipline, because it can’t get at this elusive thing we call truth in its completeness. Records are lost, libraries burn down, people forget, people lie in their memoirs. How do you get at this stuff, you know? How do you get at the truth?

Santiago: Why is truth so important?

Miller: That’s the point. Why is it?

Santiago: I don’t know. I don’t know why we have this desire and this need to constantly look for the truth.

Miller: I think as a historian I’m looking for understanding as much as truth.

Golden: I think that’s where truth ties in, is that it’s not so much that you want truth, as that truth is a stepping stone to reach an understanding.

Johnson: I just have to interject this too. There’s another reason about the truth that’s so terribly important. If you’ve had negative histories written of a people over 100 years, I’m thinking of black Americans again, their contributions to this republic on every possible level, political, economic, and cultural, having the truth that brings forth those contributions is extraordinarily important, not just for the sake of building up egos with young children; but for the sake of having a more accurate record of this country’s evolution and history.

Miller: Well that’s what gets me angry. When the stories talk about truth, oftentimes what they’re saying is, what’s important is true. And it just so happened that what you’re talking about right now, to historians 50 years ago was not so-called “important.” But it’s damned important to you right now.

Johnson: Well it’s not just damned important to me. It’s damned important to anybody in a multi-racial, multi-cultural country. So that we don’t basically just have the history of those who won the wars, whether they were the wars against the Indians, or whether they were the wars against the slaves.

Miller: Truth is a stepping stone to understanding.

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Golden: Every history is an interpretation. It takes a very, very long time for a human being to start from nothing at birth and put together a framework on which to hang things in your mind, and a complicated enough understanding of the world and of himself and of his place in it. Then things begin to mean something.

Miller: You have the capacity for memory.

Golden: Well this issue of framework is terrifically important, I think, because there’s something that I call– I named it after myself. Nobody had ever named it, so I named it Golden’s Phenomenon [laughter]. And it is that thing that happens when you’ve never heard of something, and then you hear of it, and you hear it about six times over the course of the next two weeks.

Well actually what happens is, it’s been out there all along, but you never were aware of it. You become aware of it. And now it gets stuck in the screen; it doesn’t pass through any longer. I think that is such an important issue…

Miller: So we start to become these memory haunted beings. But a lot of times, as you’ve once said to me, you want to forget; you almost have to forget.

Santiago: I think for oppressed people, history is a burden. There’s a part of you that just doesn’t want to know. Because as you’ve pointed out, it’s been negative all along, for example; or it’s been ignored; or it gets in your way in one way or the other. And when I was writing my novel, I had this sense of America Gonzalez dragging her history behind her. And it is such a burden that it is hard for her to move at the speed at which she would like to move, because it’s there. And the thing is that if you have the history but you don’t know what to do with it, that’s when it really weighs you down.

Johnson: You have to understand how you got here. That doesn’t mean that you are entrapped by history, you know what I’m saying? Because again, every history is an interpretation. Really, history is liberating, rather than entrapping.

Miller: And also, every history, I think, what history shows is that we’re all of us constantly in a process of invention and reinvention. And so in the collective as the country…

Johnson: I think we are very mutable. I think we are about becoming rather than being. You know, we are verbs; we are not nouns.

Golden: But, I think that as you’re changing, you’re always lagging. Your sense of yourself lags behind the reality.

Miller: Your character in the book, I remember that one really tremendous scene where she looks in the mirror, and she’s in the process of moving from what she had been, living in a small seacoast town, simple fishing village, to being a geisha. And she’s about there, and she looks in the mirror, and she can’t even find and see her former self. That’s how far she’s gone. That morning she wakes up, and she’s not quite sure who she is. Yeah. Because she’s in transition.

Countries do this, too, I think. I don’t, maybe at the end of the 20th century we don’t quite know where we are, because so many huge changes are taking place. And we know we’re supposed to know about them and where they’re headed. But we’re not quite sure.

Santiago: If you change cultures, you constantly feel like that’s happening, because you’re constantly negotiating those two aspects of yourself, the one that you are, and the one that you’re becoming.

Golden: But human beings do change, because we’re able to transmit culture. And the culture accretes. You know, it changes over time. And that’s the only thing that keeps us from being what we would call animals.

Miller: Yeah. I’ll raise that very question with my students. I mean, what separates you from your dog? Because your dog has a kind of memory, reflected memory. You know, put him near the fire, he pulls away; “Come, Spot,” things like that. But…

Golden: But there’s no transmitted memory.

Miller: No transmitted memory. And because we’re hooked into our memory, as you pointed out earlier, we’re haunted by it! Or liberated… We’re burdened, or liberated, or haunted. Yeah! We’re these dream-haunted creatures…

Words on screen: Dream-haunted creatures falling out of history.

Johnson: It’s been true from the beginning of time. Man’s need to tell stories. From the cave paintings at Lescaux to the graffiti on the Berlin Wall, the stories we write and tell have contained our fears, expressed our joys, and given shape to our uncertainties. Whether we are talking about the African griot, the medieval bard, the contemporary novelist, or the historian, their stories define who we are, as individuals and as a people.

In his masterpiece, Invisible Man, the late, great novelist, Ralph Ellison, speaks of a character who falls out of history. At first a reader doubts that this is possible, because doesn’t history encompass everything? What Ellison wants us to think about is something every historian and storyteller knows: namely that history is only the events that have been seen and recorded. And that means most of life remains invisible to us most of the time.

So if one falls out of recorded history, one falls into not only the realms of imagination and the possible, but also into a universe of lives and events long hidden by official interpretations of what has been. One job of the storyteller in our time is to make the invisible visible; to put marginalized lives at center stage; and remind us again and again that all our knowledge is provisional, tentative, and always in need of revision.

Words on screen: And so it goes.

[picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.]

Vonnegut: It is the past, not the future, which scares the heck out of me. Military and political and financial histories of this century alone, never mind all the other numbered nightmares, can only persuade a sane and decent person of the following: Human beings are much too vile for a planet as salubrious and enchanting as this one has been for millions and millions of years now. We do not deserve to live here.

Histories of our humane imagination, of our fine arts, and especially of our music, I would have to say, can make us seem like angels. Angels, to be sure, with tears in their eyes. Our artists have again and again done what so many mothers have asked their gifted children, or even their ordinary children, to do if they can: Make this a better world than it was before you got here.

My synonym for the fine arts again would surely include our wisest histories of every sort. Humane imagination. Our Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights of our Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln’s address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, are literature. So is the speech Martin Luther King, Jr., made in 1963, in my time, in our time, which begins this way: “I have a dream that one day….” Music maestro, please. God bless us all.

Interview with Historian Virginia Scharff

The Historian as Novelist

Virginia Scharff, interviewed by Donald L. Miller

Miller: Virginia, you’re my hero. You’re an historian who’s taken on fiction, and successfully taken on fiction: you’ve written a novel. Now, history and fiction both deal with storytelling devices, they both deal with character. How do you go about writing fiction after writing history? How do you change gears? Do you do things differently? Do you treat character differently? Do you treat storytelling differently?

Scharff: Not completely, Don. You use a lot of the same kinds of devices. But the difference with fiction is that fiction doesn’t have to answer to a kind of cruel logic, I think, that history has to answer to. And when I write history, I feel like I operate in the same way. My mind has to operate the way a computer operates, on a kind of binary logic.

Miller: Why?

Scharff: Well, because history has to answer true/false questions all the time. We have stuff that we don’t know, and our objective is to get a zero or a one, to get a true or a false, and if something can’t be ruled strictly true or strictly false, it’s intensely frustrating to us. I think that’s the part that becomes difficult. But with fiction, that stuff that isn’t strictly true or strictly false — or strictly decidable — is what we’re going for. I think it’s what we want. It’s the realm of the undecidable, it’s often the realm of the moral.

Miller: But historical characters are supple; I mean, they’re subject to many interpretations. There’s no true/falseness about Napoleon, or Antoinette, or anyone else. They had their complexities, their many sides; I mean, there’s no true/false answers there.

Scharff: I guess my problem with writing history is not that characters aren’t complicated and that people can’t change over time, but I do think that what history wants us to do is to establish in a character, for example, some consistent thread of identity. We feel uncomfortable to imagine that Napoleon, for example, could be many people at the same time.

And I think when I write fictional characters, most of them are many people at the same time, I have found. And the ones that have given me the most trouble — the characters that escaped into kind of their own selves and spoke to me, and I felt like I almost was hearing them rather than inventing them — they were always more than one person at a time. I was always trying to get to know another dimension of them, and that kind of simultaneity of different people inhabiting one body was something that came to me very, very powerfully. It was very troubling to me.

Miller: Isn’t there a lot of cacophony there, though, with all those — that compression of many types, character types, into one character?

Scharff: There is, but I think it establishes the drama and the suspense.

Miller: How do you get one voice there?

Scharff: You always only hear one voice coming out of a person, but that one voice that you hear can come from so many different places. That’s how the human mind works. And I don’t think I understood that fully until I made a decision that I wouldn’t have to answer a true/false question about every single thing that one of my characters did, because first of all, they’re completely made up. But, second of all — and I use a lot of historical material in the work that I do, in the novel writing that I do — but I can make things up that get to places that can’t be determined true or false.

Miller: Can you give me a for instance?

Scharff: Probably the character I had the most difficulty with in my first novel is a man who was a German man, he is the lover of one of the sort of internal-plot heroines of the book, and he may or may not have been a Nazi, he may or may not have been a double agent. We really can’t know, we’ll never know, really, what he was all about. But he’s a person who I found compelling. I sort of walked into the heart of this book, or wrote my way into the heart of this book, and I kind of discovered him. There’s a moment when I discovered him, and I just thought, “Oh man, he’s going to be a lot of trouble.” And he was troubling to the very end of the book. And I think that that tension, the tension of this troubling, ambiguous, potentially monstrous, potentially marvelous character, drives that book to a place that was deeper than, at least until this time, I’ve been able to go with history.

Miller: So you don’t plot this thing out beforehand. I mean, do you plot your outline before?

Scharff: I did, but —

Miller: The character got away?

Scharff: Yeah. It was sort of my best intentions… and I found that the characters — fiction writers, novelists, always say this; they always say — the characters walked away from me, and then I just kind of followed them along on the page. And I really found that to be true. Whereas writing history, I do feel that I have to kind of establish control at the beginning. This isn’t to say that I don’t find out what I think.

Miller: What kind of control do you feel you have to have?

Scharff: There are certain things that I want to be able to talk about in a piece of history. I want to talk about how people move around through space, or I want to talk about the ways in which human actions matters for places, or I want to be able to talk about the ways in which places are transformed, in American history particularly.

And so I know that no matter what is happening to the people whose lives I’m writing about, that those messages have to come through. And I think, with the fiction, I didn’t have those kinds of agendas. Which is not to say that writing history, you don’t find out what you were thinking by writing it. I think we all do. I think producing narrative is always a learning experience.

Miller: Now, when you go back to history, and I assume you will…

Scharff: I am. I’m writing history right apace.

Miller: Exactly. Are you writing it differently, as a result of your fictional experience?

Scharff: What I’ve been telling everybody that asks me that question is, “I have more licks.” I know more about how to use different kinds of rhetorical devices to produce an effect that I want. I think I’m a better writer, I think I’ll be a better writer of history. I think I’ll be able to establish more drama. And you know, the work that you do as a historian is very dramatic, you use a lot of dramatic pacing.

I didn’t understand how to do that, particularly, until I’d made this experiment with fiction, and now I feel that I’ll be able to produce more of the kind of fictive elements that I learned how to use writing stuff that wasn’t true, that was made up.

Miller: We both teach, and I’m sure you’ve had the same experience: a student will come up to you and say, “I want to do a paper but I want to do, let’s say, Robert E. Lee, but I want to be Robert E. Lee, I want to write it with Lee’s voice, in a particular campaign and things like that.” Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s a very liberating experience for the student, because it teaches them something that they don’t usually learn, and that is, narrative drive and development of character, and storytelling, and even infuse a little more of a moral dimension into the story.

Have you ever done any work like that with students, in the classroom?

Scharff: I’ve used those kind of experimental exercises from time to time, just to try to get my students to understand that the people that we read and write about weren’t always dead, that people who inhabited the past had the kind of fears and hopes and ambitions and desires that we have, but they were very different because of historical circumstances.

Sometimes I’ll read out loud to students letters or things like that, just so they can hear a voice that is so exotic, writing about some similar kinds of emotions. I think that’s a powerful teaching tool.

Miller: Do you think that a writer who writes historical fiction has a responsibility to get the history right?

Scharff: I do, I absolutely do, and I work very hard to try to do that. When I use some piece of historical detail, I’m actually terrified that my historian friends will say things like, “No, that was 1878, I’m sorry, you got that wrong, you wrote that was 1877.” And I’m constantly kind of checking my facts in that regard. But that doesn’t mean that when I want to make up something else, I don’t. I just try to make something up that can’t be checked against something that really happened.

Miller: Yeah. So the history is the stage set and the characters are your own, and they’re prancing around on historically familiar territory, familiar to you — as a historian, you’ve created it. And then, all of a sudden, they do, occasionally, the unexpected.

Scharff: Well, they always surprise me, I have to admit that. Even when I’ll put somebody in a situation that I thought I understood, eight times out of ten, anyway, they’ll do something that I didn’t expect them to do, and it’ll drive the plot in a direction that I then have to cope with as an author. I feel like they’re escaping me.

But at the same time, wanting to get the history right around it sometimes means to me that I might want to put somebody in a situation that is very historically rich, that’s wonderfully documented, a place that I’ve been, a landscape that I know well, and I suddenly realize, in fiction, “Hey, I don’t have to put somebody on Zebulon Pike’s expedition, I can make up another expedition that’s out there at the same time,” if I wanted to. Put it a slightly different place, have slightly different things happen, and it opens up a whole realm of possibility. That if I put somebody on the Pike expedition, all of my friends who are fans of exploration history would be saying, “He was not on the Arkansas River at that point.”


Special Bibliography of Timelines and Chronologies.
Those desiring to further explore timelines will find much useful information and guidance in the following works:

Greenspan, Karen. The Timetables of Women’s History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in Women’s History. New York: Touchstone Books, 1994.

Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events (3rd Rev. Ed.). New York: Touchstone Books, 1991.

Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women’s History. New York: Roundtable Press/A Perigee Book, 1996.

Trager, James, ed. The People’s Chronology: A Year-by-Year Record of Human Events from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.

Urdang, Laurence, ed. The Timetables of American History. New York: Touchstone Books, 1983.

Wetterau, Bruce. The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies. New York: Prentice Hall Press/Stonesong Press Book, 1990.


  • Charles Johnson
    • Charles Johnson
      A profile of novelist Charles Johnson with a photo.
    • The Human Dimension
      An interview with writer and philosopher Charles Johnson.

  • Arthur Golden
    • Arthur Golden
      A brief profile of Arthur Golden. Link to an interview with the author on his book, Memoirs of a Geisha.
    • Book News: A Talk with Arthur Golden
      An interview with Arthur Golden.

  • Esmeralda Santiago
    • Esmeralda Santiago
      A photo of Santiago, a statement by her on her memoirs and a brief profile on her life.

  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
    • The Vonnegut Web
      Provides links to Vonnegut’s writings, interviews with him, biographical information, a chronology of his life, etc.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
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