When we make the past woke we cut ourselves off from history and silence voices that cannot speak for themselves.
“The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened,” wrote sociologist Peter L. Berger. Though certainly true, it’s also often not so much our recollection of the past as it is what we would prefer to believe about it, regardless of the veracity of such memories, whether they be ours or others’. And there may be no place that this is more true now than in contemporary historical fiction.
The blatant disregard for any veracity in historical fiction, and the media’s fawning celebration and normalization of woke “alt-history,” becomes more absurd by the day. One might object that to complain about the facts of historical fiction is inappropriate and unfair—it is fiction after all. But the descriptor prior to the word “fiction” suggests authors aim for their imagined tales to have some basis in the historical record. Readers, in turn, expect the characters in such books to manifest qualities and inhabit roles that are appropriate to their historical age, and for that age to be described in ways that more-or-less correspond to how things actually were.
Vox reporter Anna North’s new novel Outlawed—glowingly praised in a January Washington Post review and an instant New York Times bestseller—is a reimagined Wild West defined by “feminist consciousness,” cross-dressing religious rites, and a messianic hero who “rejects male and female pronouns.” It features a feminist commune of “brave” people who live nonconformist, queer, and gender-fluid lives. That doesn’t sound anything like the actual 19th-century American West…but it sure does sound a lot like the woke world progressivists hope to fashion in 2021.
Or consider The Prophets, the debut novel of Robert Jones, Jr., also lately lauded by WaPo. This one “reimagines a past in the antebellum American South and pre-colonial Africa in which Black queer lives are foregrounded.” The Prophets is both a love story between two enslaved men and a presentation of a “queered vision of Black history,” that includes a “mythical African kingdom ruled by a female king where same-sex desire is honored.” I think “female kings” are typically called “queens,” but maybe such titles are too beholden to cisgender norms. Either way, we are once again far beyond the bounds of anything remotely resembling the real antebellum South. But the intersectionality of this story is just too delicious not to imagine!
Outlawed and The Prophets are not outliers. In 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates—who demonstrated his own historical amnesia in naming his son after a powerful West African chieftain who enslaved thousands of Africans—published his debut novel The Water Dancer, which stars a slave in antebellum Virginia with the power of “conduction.” This is a magical ability to transport oneself and others from one place to another—pretty helpful when you’re working on the Underground Railroad! One might also note the insanely popular Thomas Cromwell trilogy of Hilary Mantel, beginning with Wolf Hall, which are more fictionalized history than historical fiction. Mantel, among other things, seeks to discredit the legacy of Thomas More by portraying him as a sex-obsessed religious fanatic. Yet, as Cambridge historian Richard Rex has noted, “there is more talk of sex in the Wolf Hall trilogy than in More’s complete works.”
These stories seem to write themselves. Step one: decide on an age in human history defined by patriarchal, cisgender, racist norms and power structures (this is not hard, as basically all historical periods fit this description). Step two: craft a heroic character who bucks all the aforementioned oppressive hierarchies via his, her, or zir’s intersectional personality. Step three: write your story of self-actualization and realization, and eagerly await the accolades.
The mythic reimagining of our history is entirely unnecessary, and I write as a former high-school history teacher. The actual history of the American West, the antebellum South, Reformation England, and any other historical period are wonderfully and ceaselessly interesting. Moreover, as great fiction writers like Patrick O’Brian, Sigrid Undset, and C.J. Sansom have proven, the closer one actually adheres to the complexities and curiosities of the past, the more enthralling the story becomes. An intelligent, well-researched historical novel can bring an earlier epoch alive like almost nothing else (and certainly more than my old AP European History lesson plans).
Would that the problem of treating the past like ideological Play-Doh were limited only to historical fiction. The person of Christopher Columbus is now so reviled by the left that one doubts whether the federal holiday in his honor will survive this presidential administration. The Genoan explorer, as scholar Robert Royal notes in his recent book Columbus and the Crisis of the West, has become whatever bogeyman serves the purposes of our outrage culture. There is Columbus the white supremacist, Columbus the misogynistic oppressor, Columbus the imperialist, Columbus the exploitative capitalist, and even Columbus the ecoterrorist. These are gross oversimplifications, if not anachronistic canards, but they do present a useful weapon for enterprising activists selling a victim narrative. “Christopher Columbus and those like him were no different than Hitler,” asserted an undergraduate Nikole Hannah-Jones, who would go on to found the NYT’s 1619 Project.
It’s not just that reinterpreting the past to suit our pet ideological fetishes results in an erroneous understanding of human history. In its cynicism and chronological snobbery, it also evinces its own unique form of oppression and subjugation, enacted upon our ancestors, whom we effectively silence and coerce to articulate our own words. What they actually believed—say, about family, power, race, gender, or sex—is subordinated to whatever we reimagine them saying, either as forerunners of our woke world (e.g. Samori Touré) or villains worthy of censure and cancellation (e.g. Columbus). As much as book publishers and media outlets celebrate such silliness, perhaps obliged to pay what Kyle Smith at New Criterion calls the “woke tax,” the quality of both our nonfiction and fiction, reduced to so much self-worship, can only decline.
History serves many important functions. One of them is to serve as a mirror, helping us see ourselves as we are and can be: supremely flawed, but capable of heroic virtue and remarkable accomplishments whose legacy may far outlast our few years on earth. The closer we peer into that mirror, and appreciate the profound complexities of every human person, the more we develop both empathy and much-needed perspective. Unfortunately, in both our fiction and non-fiction, many writers and historians choose instead to violently paint over the glass in ways that validate their own vanities and prejudices. “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there,” declared philosopher George Santayana. I never much liked that quote, but given our blinkered view of the past, I can see his point.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.