Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Neglected, Seemingly Forgotten Chicago Mural Is Now Extinct, Seemingly Forgotten

"IOU": The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).
“IOU”: The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).

MIT professor of urban studies Larry Vale recently published a book that deals with what he terms, “twice-cleared” places. A prominent example he employs is the site of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. There, a mixed race low-income and working-class community was cleared in the mid-20th century. After a generation of mass public housing, the iconic—if not infamous—Cabrini-Green towers were then razed as part of the city’s landmark demolition of concentrated projects. Upon this second clearance, officials directed the construction of lower-density mixed income housing, a Target, etc, etc.

As Vale shows, twice-cleared areas represent complicated, layered social and cultural productions of space. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—the city’s perpetual ‘next big thing’ neighborhood—there are an increasing number of twice (and thrice, and more) cleared spaces. The current iteration of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment in Uptown centers around the $203 million renovation of the CTA Wilson Red Line station. After several years of planning, budgeting, and community feedback, demolition has finally begun. Among the first structures to meet the wrecking ball was a CTA viaduct wall that had borne witness to a contentious clearance of space one generation earlier. This wall hosted a mural painted in direct response to the clearance of a low-income area in favor of a city community college. The mural became faded and obscured by plant growth. Its sun-bleached, mournful, almost seething message could only be seen during the winter. Now demolished, the mural is only a memory, a fitting parallel to the challenge of preserving the history of displacement in Uptown.

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Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath

Every historian knows the challenge of bringing history to the public. However, these challenges bring with them exciting possibilities. Public History takes as its raison d’etre the belief that people – communities, individuals, social groups – can and should engage with historical forces at work in their lives. There is (I find) a belief of empowerment, of bringing to light lost silences and new nuances in local and national narratives.

However, this vision becomes complicated when the grids of time and space are enlarged. When one studies pre-modern, non-American societies, can he or she go about the task of public history? Ostensibly, those publics are long dead. In a world (and a field) that largely sees the United States as its frame of reference, looking to a distant past – whether it be Han China or 8th-century Gaul – seems eclectically antiquarian at best, and puffed-up navel-gazing at worst. Unto temporal remoteness is added the hurdle of geographical remoteness. Outside of daily news, the rest of the globe is a distant other, mindfully shoved aside to deal with our day-to-day lives. How much more so the distant past, which cannot even shout for our attention! Adding further to these difficulties, these artifacts are housed within art museums where visitors are predisposed and preconditioned to engage with the objects for their aesthetic qualities than their historical qualities. Continue reading “Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath”

Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

 Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era.

It is no coincidence that the forest shrine of Meiji-jingu was planned on the outskirts of the most populated city in the world. While the historian David Owen lamented the analogous Central Park because he believed that it constituted an inaccessible border zone where human activity was generally absent, Patricia Garside has argued that sustainable, urban parks serve necessary functions in relation to their respective cities. In examining the Green Belt on the outskirts of London, Garside has claimed that the parks were “above all a strategic planning instrument to limit, or where necessary shape, the expansion of London at a regional scale.” In this sense, urban parks recreated the natural restraints that geography once placed upon island and coastal cities like Venice, Boston, Manhattan, or Miami. As the American historian Michael Rawson contends, scholars cannot understand the development of Boston without first understanding these initial, geographic limitations.

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Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

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Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future.

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Preservation and Ephemerality in Public History: Reflecting on NCPH 2014 from a Mile High

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I am currently sitting in the Denver airport on my layover to Chicago after a fantastic annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  I was reluctant to leave sunny Monterey for the snowy Midwest, but as always I feel invigorated the conversations with other historians committed to engaging and serving the public.  Two panels in particular remain fresh in my mind as dynamic counterpoints that framed the conference’s theme of sustainability: one on preservation, the other on ephemerality.

People > Things

It occurs to me that the title of the panel on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement” should’ve be swapped around to read, “Sustaining Community Engagement through Historic Preservation,” as it became clear through the course of the panel that preservation should be used in the interest of community engagement and not vice versa.  In other words, people are more important than buildings.  This theme was echoed by Sheila Brennan in the “Ephemerality in Public History” panel, who suggested that public historians should resist hoarding objects for prosperity and instead focus on digitizing objects for greater access or allowing the public to touch and use objects for a full transformative tactile experience. (Check out the notes and slides from her presentation here.)

Rethinking Sustainability

Another recurring question in the panels: how should—or shouldn’t—a project be sustained after the public historian has concluded their involvement? Approaching the end of her dissertation work, Abby Gateau is currently mentoring a successor, while also having successfully aroused a strong and energetic community base who can carry forward the public history work she instigated.  Mark Tebeau reinforced the value of thinking about the end from the beginning, suggesting that recognizing ephemerality of products and projects can lead to better best practices. Finally, Thomas Cauvin, from the audience, reminded us that archives are not the only repositories for saving the past and documenting public history projects—people preserve memory.

The panels on preservation and ephemerality, and the NCPH Annual Meeting as a whole, served as a refreshing reminder to base our public history work in the contemporary community.

Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.
Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. 

Continue reading “Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT”