Two American authors in the 1920s set out on a common task, without knowing it. William Faulkner and Willa Cather both aspired to write an American Historical Novel.
The Historical Novel was a European phenomenon; the American approach came by way of James Fenimore Cooper, who had been to school at the feet of Scott and maybe the French. In European literatures, the Historical Novel often relies on the common plot of the bildungsroman, though elements of the picaresque are present too.
But in either case, plot is asked to do new and challenging work: to traverse great men and women and small and forgotten men and women; to bring the hero into the midst of events to which his existence is trivial and possibly irrelevant; to record conflicts within a society by way of a conflicts within an individual’s quest for happiness and rest. In these novels, history comes to an end, at least every so often, and periodically, once the hero settles into adulthood; new History might be on the horizon, but there will be a respite around the hearth before it arrives or before he sets out to find it.
There are of course variations on the Historical Novel: Vanity Fair is a novel in which History is itself one plot point, one event, or perhaps a character, in the guise of Waterloo; Germinal is a novel that attempts to feel the pulse and flow of History, without claiming to present History itself; War and Peace could not realistically be taken as a model for any later author, but in it, History is so perfectly continuous with private time, public time, and any other time, that it is indistinct, and the novel might be said to be an apotheosis of the genre wherein it is transformed into something else entirely.
Next to Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne is the brave writer of History in the American nineteenth century, but his renovation of Allegory runs counter to the tidal flow of realism, away from Bunyan, through Fielding, Austen, and Scott; and the success of Hawthorne’s allegorical novels involves his sacrificing a lot of what makes novels so appealing for other authors (and readers).
The picaresque and the bildungsroman. Neither has been abandoned by American authors in the twentieth century. Bellow writes the former; Ellison the latter. Pynchon the former; name-your-contemporary-realist the latter. But Cather and Faulkner were writing when Europeans were done with the latter; when the novel seemed ready for something else. And the former, the picaresque, was not a serious vehicle for Historical Novels without another plot beneath it.
In so far as plot was a concern of the novel, it was also a concern for history and a nation: the European plots coincided with the rise of European nationalism and Empire; the American plot would have to coincide with the rise of a different sort of nation and Empire, one frequently divided against itself as European nations (however many the fractures of ethnie within border) were not: the history of the American nation is the history of internal frontiers—frontiers that were already located within and defined by established boundaries: groups of persons who belonged to, but were excluded from, the nation; expanses of land that were delimited by, but not yet constitutive of, the borders of the nation. American frontiers, perversely, look inwardly.
What’s more, in no European nation do the words “origin” and “original” work in so many conflicting directions (origin and original as a sign of distinction, as a claim to rights, as irrelevant to rights, as erased entirely, as a source of authority, as a point of departure and return, as stigma and solace).
Where to go (frontier) and where it began (origin): these are crucial reference points for the narratives of historians and novelists alike. They are the rungs by which a plot is hung.
Faulkner’s and Cather’s brazen willingness (willfulness at times) to experiment with the the Historical Novel comes when white America was brazenly confident of its nationhood, post-War, booming as it was, even at several conflicts distance from the Civil War.
To write a novel that does not only do justice to but discovers the plot of American history, both will do away with the old plots of European novels; they will threaten to do away with plot entirely.The results are most clearly visible in Absalom! Absalom! and Death Comes for the Archbishop. One is a novel concerned centrally with an original point, and the conflict within and surrounding it; the other a novel concerned centrally with the frontiers (of ethnicity, love, and faith, as well as geography). In Cather’s, the departure from Europe is the starting point—but she does not allow it become the source of a plot, since the novel snaps any plot that might run through it as a thread; the friendship and love between the priests is the ground for what action there is.
I do not know American literature of the twentieth century especially well. But Faulkner’s descendants, McCarthy and Toni Morrison, seem to have learned from his style more than from his attempt at reforging the historical plot; William T. Vollmann, the most committed historian among American novelists, does not seem especially interested in either (his narration sounds more often like Hawthorne, in the “Custom House” chapter of Scarlet Letter: resigned, bemused, and determined, with a degree of willed strangeness and monomaniacal insistence, to remain on good terms with a pretty bad world); and Cather—it might be that the potential in what she discovered has yet to be carried ahead.