The articulate audible voice
“In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time: the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.”
— Thomas Carlyle
There’s at least one realm where the past, present and future really do co-exist, and that is in the world of books. Popular authors of historical nonfiction, such as Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough, use skillful storytelling to shed light on the past and how it can influence our lives now and in years to come.
If you’ve ever read a novel that takes you back to the past and brings it to life in your mind, it’s safe to assume the author did extensive research while writing. Despite the occasional anachronisms and other historical errors (which are likely to become more common now that many books are published without the in-house editing that once preceded publication), I’ve found that most authors exhibit an impressive knowledge of the period inhabited by their characters. The enduring popularity of historical fiction argues against the commonly-heard assertion that history is boring and irrelevant.
To really travel back in time, though, nothing beats reading the works of authors who wrote of their own time so skillfully that their works became classics. It’s illuminating to view an era through the eyes of its contemporaries, who wrote without benefit of hindsight or today’s politically correct censorship (Mark Twain’s works are consistently among those most frequently challenged in libraries).
Recent historical novels often feature characters created to appeal to modern sensibilities, but I sometimes wonder whether this represents an unlikely distortion of the social and political climate that would have been pervasively influential. The characters who lived in the same era as the authors who created them are arguably more authentic than even the most well-researched invention of a modern author.
If you’ve enjoyed a historical novel set in a time recent enough to make this possible, here’s an idea to try: seek out a novel that was written during that same era, set in the period in which it was written. How do the two compare? If you enjoy nonfiction, drama or poetry, you have a much greater span of centuries from which to draw comparisons with recent literature; pretty much all of recorded history includes examples of these forms that survive to this day.
It’s hard to say how future authors might portray our own time, but probably there will be at least a few exaggerations, omissions or misunderstandings. Were we around to read them, they might prompt us to say “But it wasn’t really like that!” I hope that many of today’s literary voices will survive and be read for generations to come. An articulate, audible voice from the past will always have an authenticity that can’t quite be duplicated, however well it is imitated.
One year ago today: