Dimitri Rotov on the late Gore Vidal’s historical fiction:
Characters were not integral to the plot but were inventory items on an historical checklist; they had to be present, kept busy somehow. They had to be there in the fiction because they had been there in history.
For Gore Vidal, the historical novel was a meander that touched on past events in the correct order leaving most in, regardless of story value. If you were a buff, I suppose the appeal might be to make a list of all the people and events included. Maybe that was the challenge for him – how much history he could pile into a fictional format.
Rotov’s analysis sums up more clearly than I could the reason why I rarely read novels about prominent historical figures. All too often, they’re nothing but historical narratives with dialogue added, which makes for a rather uninspiring read.
This was my main problem with the only Jeff Shaara book I’ve read, Rise to Rebellion. His father’s masterpiece, The Killer Angels, was as much a work of artistic imagination as historical reconstruction. Michael Shaara crawled into his characters’ skins, using the Battle of Gettysburg as a venue to meditate on universal themes—war, freedom, equality, country. I found Rise to Rebellion to be a completely different animal, a pageant in which prominent historical figures waited for their cues, stepped onstage, played whatever parts they played in the historical record, and then sauntered back to the wings. If you’re going to be so careful to color inside the lines, why not just write narrative non-fiction?
At the end of the day, of course, this comes down to personal taste, so your mileage may vary. Judging by the popularity of Jeff Shaara’s books, a lot of readers’ mileage varies quite a bit from mine. Fair enough.
Anyway, while we’re on the subject of Vidal’s Lincoln, I did enjoy the adaptation with Sam Waterston. Contrast his portrayal with that of Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln. Waterston gives us the gregarious, folksy Lincoln, whereas Fonda gives us the moody, melancholy one. Two very different performances, but they’re both right on the money.