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From the Civil War to the Apocalypse

From the Civil War to the Apocalypse: Postmodern History and American Fiction

Timothy Parrish
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    From the Civil War to the Apocalypse
    Book Description:

    Why don't we read novels as if they were histories and histories as if they were novels? Recent postmodern theorists such as Hayden White and Linda Hutcheon have argued that since history is a narrative art, it must be understood as a form of narrative representation analogous to fiction. Yet, contrary to the fears of some historians, such arguments have not undermined the practice of history as a meaningful enterprise so much as they have highlighted the appeal history has as a narrative craft. In addressing the postmodernist claim that history works no differently than fiction, Timothy Parrish rejects the implication that history is dead or hopelessly relativistic. Rather, he shows how the best postmodern novelists compel their readers to accept their narratives as true in the same way that historians expect their readers to accept their narratives as true. These novelists write history as a form of fiction. If the great premodernist American historians are Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and Henry Adams, who are the great modernist or postmodernist historians? In the twentieth century, Parrish argues, the most powerful works of American history were written by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and Cormac McCarthy. What survives a reading of these novels is the sense that writers otherwise identified as multicultural or postmodern share the view that nothing matters more than history and what one believes its possibilities to be. In other words, Parrish concludes, history, not identity, is the ground of postmodern American fiction.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-145-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: When Fiction Became History
    (pp. 1-41)

    This book addresses the claims of recent postmodern theory that history works as fiction does. I will not be arguing that a postmodern understanding of history means that history is dead (or hopelessly relativistic). Ordinarily, one assumes that novelists offer “versions” of history—they make readers think or rethink what history means. Historians, in contrast, seem to offer the real thing—history by itself and separate from one’s contemplation of it. The basic premise that theorists such as Hayden White and Linda Hutcheon have advanced is that history is a narrative art, or practice, and thus must be understood as...

  5. 1 Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner’s True History of the South
    (pp. 42-79)

    InBeyond the Great Story, Robert Berkhofer observes, “In all histories as productions we may separate the text as a form of discourse from the meaning or message of the discourse” (77). Yet the central achievement of William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!is to deny that such separation is possible. As we saw in the Introduction, the practice of history since Leopold von Ranke has largely depended on making a hard distinction between “the past as past” and the present as something separate from the past. To many historians, this understanding means that the past is an object that can be...

  6. 2 Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: The First and Last Book of America
    (pp. 80-116)

    In Cormac McCarthy’sBlood Meridian, fictional and historical characters intertwine within a story that describes U.S. imperial expansion as a “heliotropic plague” tending westward through cycles of death and destruction extending into a future that includes but is not contained by contemporary American reality. One cannot say precisely whether the novel is about the true nineteenth-century historical events that it describes or about the nature of history itself.Blood Meridianmay seem at first an exemplary postmodern text because it seems to deny what Robert Berkhofer calls “the primary premise of the historical profession: the separation of history as the...

  7. 3 Off Faulkner’s Plantation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon
    (pp. 117-149)

    William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!imagines a fictional universe in which African Americans have no say over their history and thus no future separate from white control. For unrepentant, post–Civil War white Southerners, Faulkner’s novel implied a future in which the past would not have to be forsaken or forgotten but cherished as an abiding memory that becomes the context for the continuation of white Southern mastery over their environment. A hundred years passed after the Civil War before black Americans in the South could vote with impunity or attend the same universities that white Southerners attended. It took another...

  8. 4 Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon: Drawing a Line in the Sands of History
    (pp. 150-192)

    Thomas Pynchon’sMason & Dixonimagines an America other than the one we have inherited. Set in 1786 Philadelphia, on the eve of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the 776-page text is an implausible one-night bedtime story told by an avowedly biased narrator, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. In form and content, the book clearly parodies popular histories such as those written by Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis in that it rejects the assumption that American history can be reduced to the tale of its founding by a handful of great and divinely inspired men. Replete with thousands...

  9. 5 History after Henry Adams and Ronald Reagan: Joan Didion’s Democracy and Don DeLillo’s Underworld
    (pp. 193-231)

    At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Adams describes the historian’s plight in terms that predict how Don DeLillo portrays the plight of historian Nicholas Branch inLibra. Branch, like Adams, is so overwhelmed by the inundation of “facts” about the subject of his inquiry and by the multiplying theoretical explanations that these facts suggest that he is helpless to construct a narrative that can adequately account for what has occurred. Adams’s modernist plight predicts DeLillo’s postmodern predicament: the inability to construct a linear narrative that connects the present to the past. Along with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon...

  10. 6 Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro: Postcolonial America
    (pp. 232-268)

    The texts discussed thus far have been either postmodernist histories or postmodernist-oriented critiques of history as a practice. Denis Johnson’sFiskadoro(1985) is a prophecy about how American history will end. The novel implies that the U.S. Empire ended with the fall of Saigon and that everything after that date pointed to the inevitable nuclear holocaust. The concluding episode of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War is portrayed through the eyes of a young girl, Marie, who will later survive the nuclear holocaust that destroys the United States and will become the oldest living person in the world ofFiskadoro....

  11. Notes
    (pp. 269-290)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 291-302)
  13. Index
    (pp. 303-308)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 309-309)