Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative

Reviewed by Paul

Seamus O’Malley, Making History New:  Modernism and Historical Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 296 pp., $53.

Seamus O’Malley’s Making History New seeks to insert modernism into the story of the historical novel. “Criticism of the postmodern historical novel,” O’Malley argues, “has been eager to cast modernism as averse to the narration of history” while others have tended to view the historical novel as “a nineteenth-century phenomenon” (xvi). O’Malley disagrees, taking up texts by Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West and Ford Maddox Ford to argue for a distinctive modernist vision of historiography that sits between the “epistemological certainty” of nineteenth-century history and the radical skepticism characteristic of contemporary post-structuralist critique (13). In contrast, he describes a modernist historical novel that keeps “the impossibility of depicting history in view while never forgetting the absolute necessity of historical remembering” (146).

It is worth saying, upfront, that there is nothing particularly Marxist about O’Malley’s argument, nor does he claim to be writing from a Marxist perspective. There are a few cursory remarks about reification and a handful of pages devoted to Georg Lukács’s discussion of the historical novel, but the real theoretical heart of the study is the work of Paul Ricoeur. From Ricoeur, O’Malley gets, most importantly, the idea of history’s inevitable ties to narrative. “History,” Ricoeur wrote in Time and Narrative, “is quasi-fictive” while “fictional narrative is quasi-historical” (43). This is not as debilitating as it might initially seem, for if fiction borrows from history, O’Malley argues, then it might be able to find ways of telling the truth that elude standard forms of empirical history. Relying on narrative, that is to say, can become a way to simultaneously acknowledge history’s fictive qualities while also working through them. 

O’Malley’s test case, as it has been for so many other thinkers about historical narrative, is the Nazi Holocaust. Drawing on the famous 1992 edited collection Probing the Limits of Representation, O’Malley describes the by-now familiar argument about the Holocaust’s exceptional resistance to historical narrativization. As important to O’Malley’s argument, however, is the aphoristic claim that we must “never forget.” The modernist historical novel, O’Malley concludes, finds a form to navigate these two seemingly contradictory impulses. “Skeptical of narrative’s abilities to represent historical objects, but simultaneously driven by the need to narrate past human experience,” O’Malley’s authors pursue narrative means to understand history even as they relentlessly depict the various theoretical aporias to which this leads them (ix). Thus Conrad’s Nostromo chooses to elide the seemingly most important events in its narrative, in favor of “the fallout, or the impressions that the event has made on the characters” (17). In contrast, Ford’s The Good Soldier presents us with a narrator who obsessively retraces his own history in order to both reveal and conceal his wife’s infidelities. O’Malley reads this process as symbolic of historiography itself since “certain events – the Fall of Rome, the French Revolution -- are continually revised, reexamined, retold” (86). West, for her part, operates in two modes. In The Return of the Soldier, she stages historical events by their absence. The eponymous hero has amnesia and thus can’t remember the events of the war, and yet, as in Conrad, the impact of the war is everywhere present. In contrast, her 1941 work Black Lamb and Grey Falcon responds to “history’s impossibility” (West’s own phrase) by proliferating a range of discourses, all designed to preserve Yugoslavian culture from the impending Nazi onslaught. Black Lamb is thus a direct use of culture for political ends, a document designed to promote intervention even as it prepares for that intervention’s failure.

Early on O’Malley states “I would like to address this work to historians who are continually looking for new forms with which to write history,” but the book’s main interest will probably be for literary scholars who will value its reading of some of the modernist canon’s less well-trod ground and will see it as part of the current trend towards re-evaluating modernism’s relationship to history (2). More generally, O’Malley’s attention to the way history is presented in the texts – and therefore to his authors’ ideas about the relationship between text and history – is a welcome departure from New Historical scholarship that tends simply to place historical objects next to literary ones and note the similarities and differences. Here, instead, we find a set of meditations on the way literature might be able to alter our understanding of history. This question is most directly thematized in O’Malley’s chapter on Black Lamb, a work, as noted above, that West directly intended to have an impact on the coming war. But it also ties into a buried subtext of the book, one which opens it up for a more properly Marxian analysis: class consciousness.

Class consciousness makes its way into O’Malley’s text at several key moments. He quotes approvingly West’s description of a theme shared by Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End: “the precipitation of a class bred from its beginnings to eschew profundity, into an experience which only the profoundest thinking could render tolerable, with no words to express their agony but the insipid vocabulary of their education, no gods to guide them save the unhelpful gods of Puritan athleticism” (104). This theme appears in both Return of the Soldier and Ford’s Parade’s End, and O’Malley is particularly good in describing the way the hero of Ford’s tetralogy re-learns his place in English society by memorizing the ostensibly neutral, but in fact deeply class-based, Encyclopedia Britannica. In each text, then, there is a consideration of class both in the perspectives of its characters but also in the biases of written documents, a critique that extends to include the novels themselves.

To draw out the implications of this point, let’s return to O’Malley’s analogy between the compulsion to retell the story of the French Revolution and the obsessive re-reading of an infidelity. On a first pass, we might reject this comparison. After all, the narrator of Ford’s text has deeply personal reasons for his evasions, while historians will, we expect, at least try to efface their personal biases in the name of historical objectivity, however tenuously maintained. If histories are biased, we tend to imagine this as operating at an order of remove from the kinds of biases motivating a betrayed husband. And yet to suggest that the personal biases of an interested narrator are tied to his class origins is to insist that what seems individual is, in fact, social. The distinction, between the clear biases of a first-person narrator and the more subtle biases detected in “objective” historical narratives, starts to collapse. What we find, instead, is that all narratives are, in some fundamental sense, interested. Cultural documents, that is to say, are never neutral; they embody specific perspectives on the social orders out of which they emerge.

Rather than reject historical narrative because of its irredeemably subjective nature, then, we are forced to choose between competing interests. This has the salutary effect of laying bare those interests and, in this way, working against neoliberalism’s persistent erasure of its own class investments. Prime among these are the destructive notion that the market is neutral, the idea that the naming of class warfare is more divisive than the actual class warfare going on all around us, and the relentless erosion of any sense of public good. But literature, as Raymond Williams argued, is a form of communication and “since our way of seeing things is literally our way of living, the process of communication is in fact the process of community.”1 What began as the personal bias of individual perspective is here dialectically transformed into its opposite: a socially grounded form of life.

One of the main characters in Nostromo is a would-be-historian, Decoud, who commits suicide. O’Malley finds in this suicide a lesson about community – not “some existential inability to communicate, but rather a specific historical situation in which human speech or writing may have averted this tragedy” (63). To continue to narrate, in the face of all its various theoretical difficulties, is for O’Malley one way to affirm the principle of community. But what matters, of course, is not simply the act of communicating, but the content that is communicated. The narrativization of history ultimately turns on that age-old question: which side are you on? “Some histories,” O’Malley writes, “are just better than others” (64).

Reviewed by Paul Stasi Associate Professor of English SUNY Albany


1. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution  (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 38.