“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Harley wrote at the beginning of his novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” Paradoxically, we can understand the foreign ways of the past if we spend enough time with its inhabitants.
What I’ve learned in the adult phase of my life as a novelist is that I have a decided taste for the epic: the large, sweeping view of history that makes alien landscapes real by populating them with living, breathing people. I began with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but closer to home is Margaret Walker, whose Jubilee begins in the last days of American chattel slavery and follows its many characters through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. What makes the story is that Walker knows her characters: how they think, how they feel, how they talk and how they move through the world, from the field workers to the house servants to the lady of the plantation, from the poor white overseer to the free black man who falls in love with a slave woman.
At every turn, she deploys the details of everyday life; one of her many brilliant set-pieces is the grand plantation wedding in the fashion of Gone with the Wind–from the point of view of the plantation cook (and logistical genius) who brings it off behind the scenes. I cherish that scene because it so quietly and thoroughly demolishes the romantic picture of the plantation South presented by Mitchell’s novel and its “revisionist” siblings. And “revisionism” of that kind never dies–witness the recent success of The Help.
I asked the same question of Walker’s novel that I did of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: How does she do it?
Simply, quietly, modestly, which is the manner of the true epic or saga; characters reveal themselves in action, the historical detail is assumed and there’s only a moment or two when we realize that we’re not on home ground at all. (And then there are the far more numerous moments in which we’re very much on home ground, because we are living in the aftermath.) Walker’s epic seized and kept my attention because it focused on the people who did work.
Work has its own drama, but is a neglected subject in “high art,” for all sorts of reasons, not least that an aspiration to high art is frequently mistaken for an aspiration to aristocracy.
Not coincidentally, Walker was also a poet, one of many examples of poet-novelists, poet-playwrights, and poet-memoirists. Among all writers, poets are the most conscious of language as visual medium (invoking pictures) and music (creating mood through rhythms). Truly masterful dialogue isn’t “realistic” at all; it’s a poetic distillation of everyday speech, and as such more real than reality.
The epic and the saga began as poetic forms, and the poet-novelists carry them into prose whose pared-down, athletic simplicity carries all the force of poetry.