24 June 2010

When does Fiction cross the line?

It's a TV series about a doctor, or a bunch of cops and lawyers. You know it's fiction. Yet I can't tell you how many times someone has said, "Oh, I saw that on [insert show of choice here]" and proceeded to tell me some "fact" they now know about medicine or the law.

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.

So when the real and larger-than-life-damn-near-American-institution poet Walt Whitman becomes a fictional character in the breakout novel by Canadian author and poet George Fetherling, no big deal right? Or is it?

From Charles Demers' interview of Fetherling in the Vancouver Straight.com online news we hear that Featherling is not a Whitman fan:

“I don’t like Walt Whitman,” Fetherling explains over lunch on Denman Street, just a few blocks from his beloved Sylvia Hotel. “His ideas have killed more people than malaria.…He was practically one of the fathers of Americanism qua-ism." Later on in our conversation, Fetherling posits that Whitman “would be a Fox [News] commentator if he were alive today”. There aren’t too many gay 19th-century poets you can say that about.

Here's the rub. In Fetherling's novel the Whitman character's gay lover is part of the plot to assassinate Lincoln. So line it up. American poet. Civil War record as a nurse, civil servant. Heroic sounding, no? And he wrote this Leaves of Grass thing, defining America, right? Iconic, right? So does Fetherling's portrayal of Whitman tarnish, as one respondent says, a great man's reputation?

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.

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