This conflation of fact and fiction is nothing new. The stories he made up of King Arthur were "chronicled" as history by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. A popular (fictional!) mystery series today features the (real!) 19th century author Jane Austen as a solver of murder mysteries. I could go on and on.
Fetherling has published a book about Walt Whitman that the reviewer describes as “a plot-driven potboiler about the Lincoln assassination…”
At the heart of Fetherling’s novel Walt Whitman’s Secret, we learn that Whitman’s friend and lover Peter Doyle was a co-conspirator with [John Wilkes] Booth, the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln, that Whitman knew of the plot beforehand, and that he did nothing to alert the police, merely advising his friend to cut ties with the plotters.
It’s a very terrible, very ugly allegation, because it places Whitman close to being an accomplice, and because it brings into question the moral foundation of Whitman’s being.
Has Fetherling proof? I asked him this at the Vancouver launch of his book, and he said no. He went on to claim that as he is writing fiction, he is not required to prove anything; moreover, the law of defamation no longer applies, given that Whitman died in 1892.
I am not talking law, but ethics.
> Richard Harvey / North Vancouver
Is it fair to Whitman? This is a work of fiction. Not to be taken too seriously, right? But also by Demer's account, a potentially great novel, so one that might be taken very seriously:
But the bulk of the novel is a quiet, deliberate, beautifully wrought meditation on two things: on the one hand, the life devoted to literature and its attendant hustles; on the other, the uneasy relationships between the United States, the Confederacy, and Canada.
As a work of postmodern fiction this is makes an excellent plot device. But there are a number of interesting questions that a work like this raises. What does a writer of fiction owe to the historical truth? Is there any historical truth at work here, anyway? Should we even ask a question like that of a work of fiction? Can this fiction tarnish the truth of Whitman's life? Post mortem does it even matter? How gullible are Americans anyway?
Sadly, it is that last question that worries me the most.
Still, I am looking forward to reading Featherling's book. To be honest I am not that fond of Whitman either, but that is not why. I want to use both Whitman's work and Fetherling's novel side by side in a class I sometimes teach: Classic and Contemporary Literature. Because if this isn't an example of the classic influencing the contemporary I don't know what is.