Born Too Late

by John J. Miller on May 2, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

Novelist and essayist Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara, a novel about the couple that sat in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns on April 14, 1865:

Why, finally, does one read historical fiction? … George Lukacs, the preeminent Marxist writer on the genre, lamented in The Historical Novel how, a century after Sir Walter Scott, whose historical fiction was prized for its relevance, historical novels were being read because they were so irrelevant, so appealingly strange.

Is this really so terrible? I think the idea of historical fiction as the prototype of current reality is a bit like a planned Marxist economy–something that looks better on paper that it does while waiting in line. Moreover, I think that readers always liked historical fiction not because they wanted to drag history into the present and make it useful, but because they wanted to put themselves back into history, into the past, to wander around it as if in a dream, to ponder themselves as having been born too late–a much more common feeling that the feeling that one has been born too soon.

These lines are from “Writing Historical Fiction,” collected in In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing.

I’ve read six or seven of Mallon’s books. The First Assassin alludes to one of them in chapter fourteen.

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