The articulate audible voice

Booksellers at the Dickens Fair sell "contemporary" Victorian selections. San Francisco, California, December 2002

Booksellers at the Dickens Fair sell “contemporary” Victorian selections.
San Francisco, California, December 2002

“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:

Irrevocably a reader

23 Comments

  1. Recreating a different era in a book or film is really difficult. In films it is more difficult because of the extensive sets that are required. Even some of the big-budget films have been criticized for the errors that had crept in the sets, costumes, dialogues and the references made. Imitations have their limits, after all.
    I fail to grasp some sections of O. Henry stories where he refers to the contemporary social conditions. But for those who are familiar with that period it would be enjoyable.

    • Yes, it can be a challenge to read these older works. O. Henry also uses a lot of idioms and local color that seem fairly obscure. Usually his plots are strong enough that I can enjoy the story without understanding every phrase. And some things seem universal, such as the boisterous kid in The Ransom of Red Chief, one of my favorites – as a teacher, you must read that one, if you haven’t already! When I watch a film set in another era I usually don’t know enough about it to catch the mistakes, but there are always those who are quick to pounce upon such things.

      • Have read and taught that story. Remember how the children enjoyed the character of the boy. πŸ™‚

        • Bindu, one of my favorite passages in all literature is this part of the story, where Sam comes back after Bill has been left babysitting “Red Chief:”

          ‘Sam,’ says Bill, ‘I suppose you’ll think I’m a renegade, but I couldn’t help it. I’m a grown person with masculine proclivities and habits of self-defence, but there is a time when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times,’ goes on Bill, ‘that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of ’em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been. I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there came a limit.’

          ‘What’s the trouble, Bill?’ I asks him.

          ‘I was rode,’ says Bill, ‘the ninety miles to the stockade, not barring an inch. Then, when the settlers was rescued, I was given oats. Sand ain’t a palatable substitute. And then, for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was nothin’ in holes, how a road can run both ways and what makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only stand so much. I takes him by the neck of his clothes and drags him down the mountain. On the way he kicks my legs black-and-blue from the knees down; and I’ve got two or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.

          ‘But he’s gone’–continues Bill–‘gone home. I showed him the road to Summit and kicked him about eight feet nearer there at one kick. I’m sorry we lose the ransom; but it was either that or Bill Driscoll to the madhouse.’

          Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of ineffable peace and growing content on his rose-pink features.

          ‘Bill,’ says I, ‘there isn’t any heart disease in your family, is there?’

          ‘No,’ says Bill, ‘nothing chronic except malaria and accidents. Why?’

          ‘Then you might turn around,’ says I, ‘and have a look behind you.’

          Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind. And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job through immediately and that we would get the ransom and be off with it by midnight if old Dorset fell in with our proposition. So Bill braced up enough to give the kid a weak sort of a smile and a promise to play the Russian in a Japanese war with him as soon as he felt a little better. (Taken from the full text of the story at this link.)

          A little boy I used to babysit when I was about 14 years old was like a real-life version of Red Chief, right down to the red hair and freckles! I have some funny stories about him that I tell to this day.

          • Do share those stories with us. Would love to read them. πŸ™‚

            • Bindu, I’d love to be able to do that, but telling them well involves a lot of acting, body language and vocal tones to really do this little guy justice. Suffice it to say that he managed to be so hilarious that I could never get infuriated with him for very long. One night I kept sending him back to bed again and again after all the usual stall tactics (drink of water, bathroom, forgot to tell me something, etc.) and I said “BOB! You get back in that bed right now and don’t let me hear one more word from you tonight!” A few minutes I was sitting there watching TV and heard a little snorting laugh and looked up to see him standing several feet away with his feet planted wide apart, one arm drawn back and one eye closed while aiming a SLINGSHOT right at my face. I couldn’t help but crack up laughing and he did too – he didn’t fire the slingshot and really never intended to, he just wanted to keep up the mischief.

  2. Julia please pray for my husband,Ron. He is sick but won’t go to a doctor. Bad experiences. Please pray for me to be able to help him.

    • Cherie, I am so sorry to hear that your husband continues to struggle with illness. It must feel so helpless when he won’t go to a doctor. I can be reluctant to do that myself sometimes. I will certainly be thinking about you and praying. I hope that many others who read this will do the same. Please keep us posted on how he is doing. Thanks for letting us know so we can pray for you and keep you in our thoughts.

    • Cherie, praying with you for your husband. And for you.
      Blessings.

  3. Well said, Julia. Interestingly, your blog will be immortalized digitally for years to come. That adds a whole new dimension, doesn’t it.

    • Ooooooohhh, that’s kind of scary isn’t it! Hopefully it will be sitting in an obscure corner of cyberspace where, in the words of Galway Kinnell, “only those that adore the story can find it.” (From one of my favorite poems by him.)

  4. raynard

    Julia even though i read Mc beth in H.S. I got one for you. Remember that tv show from the 80’s ( you can find it on NBC.Com classic shows) Quantum Leap? Where the Dr traveled back in time and he always ended up in someone’s elses body? Then there’s old star trek and Twlight Zone? Nuff said. be blessed

    • Raynard, I remember hearing of Quantum Leap, but I never watched it.I did watch some Star Trek (not much, but I liked the movie) and way too much Twilight Zone for my own good. Wow, lots of totally scary stuff there! And later the first episode of Night Gallery, the horrible story about the painting. I can’t watch too much scary stuff because my imagination is WAY too big! Hope you are doing well and having a good week. P.S. for a long time, Macbeth was my favorite Shakespeare play! “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

  5. Hello Julia, thanks for your interesting comments. I like history and
    David McCullough is my of my favorite authors.
    I have to be careful about the scarey stuff…I like mysteries and supense but must limit what I read. Mary Higgins Clark and Stephen King were authors used to read but not any more.

    • Hi Merry, I’m so glad you like McCullough. I don’t read very much suspense anymore. The older I get, the more I enjoy nonfiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, classics and uplifting, positive fiction (such as Alexander McCall Smith or Jan Karon) that leaves me feeling happier when I finish reading. I think Stephen King is a gifted writer but I only ever read a few of his books, and always the more psychological ones (such as Misery and Dolores Claiborne) and though I think the writing is quite good, he is a bit too intense and raw for my taste. I never read much of Mary Higgins Clark although I know a lot of people who like her books. With so many good books to read and so little time I am learning to be a bit choosier about what I read. I used to hardly ever put a book aside without finishing it, but now if I start one that is offensive or distasteful to me I will quit reading it and move on to something else.

      • I enjoy Jan Karon books. read all her books. I’m careful about what I read…I also like reading books that makes me happy. I used to do the same thing, if I started a book I finished it. Not any more, if its offensive or distasteful, I don’t read it.
        Stephen King is a gifted writer but not my type of reading. I used to read all of Mary Higgins Clarks’ book but not any more.
        I like Richard Paul Evans, Debbie Macomber and Anne Perry’s books. I don’t find as much time for reading these days…maybe it just takes me longer to do things…lol

        • Debbie Macomber is an author I think I would like. I have read some of her nonfiction essays and some reviews of her fiction that made me think I need to read some of her novels. I also like Maeve Binchy because her books tend to be upbeat and though there are problems, there is usually a positive resolution. Ditto on the “not much time for reading” and everything taking longer for me now – which is why most of what I “read” is in the form of an unabridged audiobook to which I listen while walking, weeding, washing dishes. Nothing like an interesting book to make the chores done in no time. As Mary Poppins would say, “a spoonful of sugar.” πŸ˜€

  6. Michael

    I liked -“Killer Angels” for the Civil War era. And McCuloughs book on Teddy Roosevelt. My wife likes the Jean Auel series-“Clan of the Cave Bear,” though I am not sure these could fit into the category.
    What was the story with the painting in “Night Gallery.” I was often terrified as a child by the “Twilight Zone.” Do you remember the one in the operating room where they are operating on a patient who had been -terribly disfigured” and then they turn the lights on? Absolutely terrifying. I think you can get those on DVD now.

    • Michael, is that the Twilight Zone story where the people in the operating room were all grotesque and the “disfigured” patient looked beautiful? I remember that one. For some reason it didn’t scare me, I think because I watched it on re-runs when I was older and I saw the ending coming. The Night Gallery premiere story was the third of three in that long first episode. It was about a night watchman who dreamed of being in a real-life setting that was pictured in one of the paintings in the museum. I don’t want to tell you the rest because it would be a spoiler and the whole horror of it is based on the surprise ending. Yes, all the episodes are available on DVD and they have them at one of our public libraries, but I could only watch two or three before I decided I had better not watch any more. Between having a great imagination and a proclivity toward anxiety, I probably need to stay away from that stuff. The “Talking Tina” episode of Twilight Zone absolutely terrified me when I was a kid.

  7. Michael

    I stopped reading King after -“Pet Cemetery” which completely disgusted me as gross, over the top and in a sense-cruel. I think I need some uplifting positive fiction- Jan Karon? I think I have read a couple of the Alexander Smith books.

    • Michael, I highly recommend the Mitford series by Jan Karon, and be sure to read them in order, beginning with the first one, which is called At Home in Mitford. My favorite of McCall Smiths series (he has several) is the one set in Botswana, beginning with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. Someone referred to his style as “deceptively simple” and I agree, because his characterization is quite good. You need to read the books in order to get to know the characters, though. His sense of place is very strong and makes me want to visit Botswana. I asked a woman who was living in Uganda and loved the series, whether she thought it was authentic and she said it was. McCall Smith lived in Africa for many years so apparently he became familiar with the culture. If you like audiobooks, I recommend the versions narrated by Lisette Lecaux because she is very good with the characters’ voices and African accents and that adds considerably to the story. The Mitford audiobook series narrated by John McDonough is also wonderful; he puts so much character into the voices. These books always cheer me up no matter how blue I am feeling. Mma. Ramotswe (from the McCall Smith series) is one of the most congenial, comforting characters in all literature.

  8. Michael

    Yes that is the Twilight Zone story I was referring too and I don’t remember the “Tina Doll” episode. Was that a talking doll scenario?
    What about the guy in a tiny space ship that gets swatted by a giant lady with a broom?

    • Michael, the episode about the talking doll was called “The Living Doll.” I had not realized until I read about it online that Telly Savalas played the main character in that one. I vaguely remember the one about the lady with the giant fly swatter or broom or whatever, but not enough to remember the actual plot. The other one I remember most vividly was about the guy who had a stopwatch that caused everything to freeze – I won’t tell the ending (spoiler). πŸ˜€

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