Past reality, present fantasy. PRIME-TIME HISTORY
HISTORIANS approach the past with predilections quite different from those of novelists, dramatists, television and motion-picture scriptwriters, and literary, drama, TV, and movie critics. Those in the entertainment industry naturally look for what they think will be entertaining. They pick up and elaborate upon details from any source, regardless of its dependability, and they readily invent details for which there is no source at all. Historians, too, sometimes aspire to entertain or at least to hold the attention of their readers. But academic historians are taught to accept nothing without the testimony of two or more independent and competent witnesses. Thus they are constrained to write what amounts to the lowest common denominator of the widest variety of sources. This accounts for much of the dry-as-dust quality their work is presumed to have.
There is, then, a fundamental difference between the histrionic and the historiographic enterprise. That is not to say there is an irrepressible conflict between historians and novelists or dramatists. Few historians would quarrel with August Derleth, author of a series of novels based on Wisconsin history, who set this standard for himself: ``The serious novelist has a duty to sift the facts of history; he may embroider them; he may imagine historical scenes and recreate them in his fiction, but he may not so distort them that they convey to the reader something other than the truth of history.''
A novelist of that kind presents imaginary characters and events against a historical background. Margaret Mitchell, for one, made the Civil War and Reconstruction the backdrop for ``Gone With the Wind.'' She invented a Scarlett O'Hara and a Rhett Butler; she did not attempt to reinvent Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee.
Another kind of novelist pretends to deal with real people and events, but actually reshapes them in accordance with his or her imagination - and thus rewrites the past. Outstanding examples at the moment are Gore Vidal and William Safire. Vidal in ``Lincoln: A Novel'' and Safire in ``Freedom'' undertake to re-create Abraham Lincoln and many of his contemporaries.
Each of the two authors presents a m'elange of the historical, the pseudo-historical, and the completely fictional. Yet each claims to offer insights that historians have missed. Vidal implies that he is a more perceptive Lincoln authority than most academic writers, whom he dismisses as ``hagiographers.'' Safire says he has at times departed from facts to ``get at truth.''
It is hard to see what ``truth'' Safire gets at when he departs from the facts to present imaginary scenes involving historical figures. In one, Henry Wilson, a senator from Massachusetts, and Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the Confederate spy, engage in a bit of sadomasochistic sport.
Safire excuses this outrageous slander on the basis of his ``underbook,'' a long appendix in which he discusses his sources and purports to distinguish fiction from fact. Thus he puts upon his readers the burden of finding out what he thinks is history and what he admits is his own imagination.
Vidal asserts that Lincoln and the other principal characters said and did in real life ``pretty much'' what he has them saying and doing in the novel. But in the book, and in the TV miniseries based on it, ``Gore Vidal's Lincoln,'' his Lincoln says and does things that the real Lincoln never did.
The real Lincoln never threatened to ``burn Baltimore to the ground,'' nor did he flout the Constitution and its provisions regarding habeas corpus. Neither did he go before a congressional committee to intimidate his fellow Republicans into keeping quiet about Mrs. Lincoln's transgressions. Here and elsewhere, the scriptwriter follows Vidal in Vidal's sure instinct for the dubious, the meretricious, and the preposterous.
This does not seem to bother television critics. One of them (Ed Siegel in the Boston Globe, March 26) commented: ``Whether `Lincoln' has flaws as a biog- raphy or not, historians should rejoice that network television, or at least NBC, may have come of age in treating American history not as mythic propaganda (CBS's `George Washington') or as a soap opera (ABC's `North and South'), but as an attempt to discover truths about our collective roots and consciousness.''
Now, the Vidal miniseries is pure soap opera in the attention it gives to Mary Lincoln and her various troubles, to Kate Chase and her unhappy marriage, and to John Hay and his (imaginary) brothel visits. Moreover, it turns into mythic propaganda of the most egregious sort when it takes on the Edmund Wilson slant.
According to Wilson, the 29-year-old Lincoln, when he warned against dictators in an 1838 speech, was really announcing his own ambition to destroy and then refound the republic. Early in the television show Stephen A. Douglas quotes from that speech and reminds Lincoln of his (supposed) aim to ``re-create the nation.'' Near the end, the widowed Mary soliloquizes: ``He made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.'' Not many Lincoln scholars are likely to rejoice at the presentation of this Wilson-Vidal drivel.
While rejecting that variety of television, academic historians can accept and cooperate in the production of docudramas based more honestly on historical facts. Even in such docudramas, there is a tendency and perhaps a necessity to take some liberties with details.
Care is in order. Television has special credibility for most viewers, because it is for them a bringer of news as well as of entertainment.
As educators of the American people, the writers of historical monographs and textbooks are losing out to the writers of novels and the producers of television shows. In the popular mind, past reality and present fantasy blend more and more into an inseparable mix. The least that historians can do - and perhaps the most they can do - is to enter their earnest protest.
A distinguished historian, Dr. Current has written numerous books including ``Lincoln and the First Shot'' and ``The Lincoln Nobody Knows.''