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Historians Eric Foner and David Nasaw join fiction writers at a week-long seminar in the Keys

Historians in the News




ONE SEEDY BAR on a side street in Key West advertised its wares on a scrawled sign: LIVE GIRLS UPSTAIRS. Beats the alternative, I suppose.

With its invariable August weather and (usually more discreet) invitations to decadence, this tiny island—the southernmost point of the continental United States—has lured countless writers over the years. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop lived there, and their houses still attract tourists. (Hemingway had the best house, as he would; it’s a museum now, crawling with cats that may be distant relatives of Papa’s own pets.) Novelists, playwrights, and poets continue to hide out from northern winters among the island’s leafy palms and clapboard conch houses, largely ignoring the bawdy revels that take place every night on Duval Street.

And so this year at the Key West Literary Seminar, now well into its third decade, some heavy hitters in the world of historical fiction met for something like pre-spring training. The likes of Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Matthiessen, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, Marilynne Robinson, and Barry Unsworth were joined by historians such as Eric Foner and David Nasaw to sit in the sun for a week or so and talk about making history.

History is, of course, a made thing. It does not exist by itself in anything like a recognizable form. Indeed, we might all forget where we have been, if we didn’t have somebody to assemble and arrange the little blocks called facts from which history is constructed, artfully or less so. As Foner put it in his keynote address, “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination.” And yet, while history itself has attained the status of social science—though not in the mind of Foner, who has campaigned at Columbia to have his department moved to the humanities—historical fiction has, in the past, been snubbed. The term historical novel was slightly derogatory, summoning visions of pageantry, as in the works of Sir Walter Scott or, more recently, Georgette Heyer or Herman Wouk. History served as a kind of brocade curtain, against which ordinary people (for the most part) strutted their stuff....
Read entire article at Jay Parini in the Atlantic

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