Monday, January 17, 2011

We're All Characters for Someone Else's Fiction

Photo: Grave of Wilkie Collins, from his Wikipedia page.

As I read books of real-life people from the past--both non-fiction and historical fiction--I've been wondering lately how the descendents of these real-life characters feel about how they're being portrayed.  For example:

--In Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis is depicted as a manic-depressive, or, at best, a sometimes-unreliable depressive and melancholic.  This is as of page 300 or so.  I know that later the book will tackle his really violent suicide, and I know that the author, Stephen Ambrose, will go into greater detail about how Thomas Jefferson wrote about Lewis' manic depression; about how his father and other family members suffered from it, and showed characteristics of it; about how Lewis tended to shun socializing, sometimes, but at other times was a manic socializer; and about how his moods, frankly, ran the gamut from A to B in just a few days.  As great an outdoorsman as he was, he is depicted as, honestly, a bit of a nut when he wasn't exploring.  He was uncontrollably impulsive in everything--especially financial and emotional--when he wasn't exploring; when he was exploring, he was as meticulous and reliable and thorough--and brilliant--as one can be.  Very resourceful when in the middle of the Missouri River, or the Rocky Mountains, but he often couldn't function normally in the middle of society.

How could his descendents, if any, be taking this?  Isn't it absurd, in a way, that we must bear a thought not only of how we are to be perceived in our own lifetime, but also hundreds of years afterwards?  His outrageous suicide will be described for all the world to see.  The most personal, in some ways, of all acts, will be the least personal thing about him when the book is fully read.  And before we say that we are not as famous as he, and so don't have to worry, I should point out that his exploring companions are also mentioned by name.  More than one was a deserter (It was considered an army expedition, so they were technically AWOL, brought up on charges and put on trial by Lewis and Clarke, etc.)  They drank too much; got lusty for the female Native Americans; were at times cowardly; at others, gossipy.  You get the idea.  All for the world to see, including their descendents.  And they are important to no one in the literary world outside of Stephen Ambrose.  Yet, on this expedition, we know all about them.

In Dan Simmons' Drood, we learn that Dickens and Wilkie Collins unabashedly cheated on their wives all the time.  Dickens lusted after a girl younger than half his age; Collins is constantly described as piggish, and overweight, and full of himself, and he lusted after everyone, especially widows and prostitutes.  He says he had a light meal, and that meal is described as a feast for five or more--but it was "a light meal" to him.  So he was overweight and didn't seem to know it.  He was unreliable in terms of his own character, and his own weight.  All this took place just 140 years ago; there's surely someone of his lineage alive today.  What could they be thinking?  And who's Wilkie Collins outside of literary enthusiasts today?  The Moonstone, anyone? 

I looked up all of the things these two were said to have done in the real world, and it's all true.  Their characterizations are not made up for the sake of selling copies.  I take a little umbrage against this today because it already seems as if nothing is ever private anymore.  Someone can type something bad about you, and post it, and it's on the internet forever.  Numbers we call, people we email, sites we go on--everything has an electronic trail and is forever if it's electronic.  (Detectives call it our electronic fingerprint, just as we have an environmental fingerprint in terms of the energy we use, and a consumer or economic fingerprint in terms of the goods that we purchase and/or consume.)

We are all characters for someone else's fiction--now, and 140 years from now.  That's always been the case--"All the world's a stage," after all, and Shakespeare said that circa 1600, over 410 years ago--but that has never seemed more the case than it is today.

My gorge rises at it.  Though I myself have never done anything so wrong to worry about it, we're all far from perfect, and it's the point of the thing.  That's my biggest misgiving of historical fiction and nonfiction: Even the best-written of them contain elements of the unforgiveably slanderous "unauthorized" biographies.


  1. This reminds me of a snippet I heard on Fresh Air (NPR) the other day about the autobiography of Mark Twain and how he decided to have it published 100 years after his death so that the people he discussed in the book and the controversial opinions he had in the book wouldn't hurt or damaged anyone.

  2. I'm not going to be so considerate when mine's published! :-)