Reading and Writing our Culture

By December 10, 2007

In her novel A Little Lower than the Angels, Virginia Sorensen writes of a fictional family living in Nauvoo, Illinois. The book includes Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Eliza Snow, as well as many other historical figures. And, most importantly, the story revolves around polygamy. While she gets a surprising amout of historical information correct, she also gets an equally surprising amount of information wrong. This could possibly be because she did not have very many sources to help her (the book was published several years before No Man Knows My History), but it could also be because she organized her history in order to fit her story’s construct. This brings up the question, “What is the relationship between history and literature, especially where they seem to overlap in historical novels?”[1]

In the forward to the book, Mary Lithgoe Bradford gives her view of the relationship as as it pertains to Sorensen’s novel.

A writer can never render a living historical character as he or she really was. The writer must make the character fit the purpose of the story itself. Joseph Smith may have been vastly different from Virginia’s conception of him, but as a character in Angels he is authentic. Mercy Baker was a real person, but she was probably not exactly the woman of Virginia’s story. Indeed, in “real life” she was not a polygamous wife at all. (pg. xiv)

Regardless of her historical errors, I feel that Sorensen does a tremendous job in re-creating the feelings that may have been present during this time period. But, is that worth the risk of perpetuating false perceptions of history? We come upon the same question whenever someone bases their historical knowledge on the Steed family from The Work and the Glory. People often seem willing to see literature as fact rather than fiction. David Cowart once stated,

Every culture expresses itself more definitively through its artists than through its historians…Mark Twain and Walt Whitman capture the American spirit better than does Francis Parkman….Artists provide the myths by which any cultural body define itself, the myths that historians mistakenly seek to unravel. Thus history makes its greatest contribution when it supplies the creative artist with raw material. [2]

He would later caution novelists, however, to not create “a distant mirror of their own fantasy lives…. [to] achieve historical actuality less often than they think.” [3]Another scholar states that when writers create a historical novel, “readers…accept the novelist’s conclusion…as applying to social life outside as well as inside the story.” [4]

So, what are we to do with this? Do we dismiss authors who do not “achieve historical actuality?” What is the author’s role in regards to historical facts? Are they allowed to, as Bradford stated, “make the character fit the purpose of the story itself?”


[1]Jessie Embry, “Overworked Stereotypes or Historical Images: The Images of Polygamy in the Giant Joshua,” Sunstone vol. 13 no. 2 (April 1990), 42.

[2]David Cowart, History and the Contemporary Novel, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 25-26.

[3]Cowart, 31-32.

[4]Morroe Berger, Real and Imagined Worlds: The Novel and Social Science, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 161.

Article filed under Current Events Methodology, Academic Issues Reflective Posts


  1. I take it personally when Mormon history is deliberately or carelessly distorted, even though I know that even the most skillful and caring historian doesn’t get it right, either — somehow it seems as much a slander to misrepresent a dead Saint as a living one. For that reason I just cannot read Mormon historical fiction where real people are significant characters. Besides, real Mormon history is more dramatic than anything that could be invented, so what’s the point?

    I have less trouble reading Mormon historical fiction where real people enter as characters in only a minor, passing way — I love Hughes’s _Children of the Promise_ series, for instance, which seems to recreate a past world with as much accuracy as any historian, but where, say, Heber J. Grant enters the story only as a voice on the radio and not as a character.

    I have no trouble reading historical fiction when I don’t care as much about the individuals — long live Brother Cadfael and his fictionalized world.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 10, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  2. Both history and historical fiction are useful. I don’t think I’d have become as interested as I was at age 12 in the French revolution, for example, without A Tale of Two Cities to read. That said, I think part of the problem with LDS historical fiction is that, whether the tone is friendly or skeptical, some population will not only prefer the made-up parts to what actually occurred, but also adopt the made-up parts as true.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — December 10, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  3. What is the author?s role in regards to historical facts? Are they allowed to, as Bradford stated, ?make the character fit the purpose of the story itself??

    I’d say that depends on the purpose of historical fiction. Is the purpose to present an intimate and fairly real image of the past? Or is it to illustrate a moral to the readership from a historical story? Is it simply to entertain?

    I’ll also add that the same questions should be addressed by every historian.

    Comment by Christopher — December 10, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  4. I used to enjoy historical fiction, but I have to say it has largely lost its charm. There is enough of interpolation in the contemporary sources and the current historical reflections on those sources.

    The fictional accounts tend to promote the agendas of the writers, and people start to confuse myth with reality. We face enough of that in the Church without adding fictionalized families to the mix.

    There must be a place for such writing, people buy it, people enjoy it. Not I, though.

    What is the author?s role in regards to historical facts? Are they allowed to, as Bradford stated, ?make the character fit the purpose of the story itself??

    Check out “That Noble Dream,” which is a great work on objectivity. It might lend some to the conversation of historical fiction.

    Comment by BHodges — December 10, 2007 @ 5:14 pm

  5. Another interesting take is from Richard D. Poll: Myths, Documents, and History:

    Comment by BHodges — December 10, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

  6. The Work and the Glory has inaccuracies? There goes my testimony.

    Comment by Ray — December 10, 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  7. You laugh, Ray, but when I lived in Nauvoo (2000 to 2006), visitors were constantly asking the senior missionary tour guides where the Steed family home was located.

    Comment by Nick Literski — December 11, 2007 @ 11:16 am

  8. ok the steed family home thing… brutal. But honestly to me I found the Work and Glory as a great way to interest people in our history. Certainly my wife is one example of someone who cares little about history but has a better understanding not because she believed every word in a Novel but she understood that it was an idealized work of fiction which made her ask broader questions.

    For myself, historical fiction gives one a better idea of life in the period than say a dry book about the conquest of roman britain. Rome for example is fairly good attempt to do this.

    Are their inadequecies in the approach? Sure, do books like W and G avoid controversy to sell to a larger readership, again yes. But do you think there would be the interest in Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling without the fictional Steed family? This I am unsure of but would argue no.

    It is just like the argument about Popular history which does not take a very well cited approach but does at least teach some level of history to a MTV population.

    Comment by JonW — December 12, 2007 @ 12:52 am

  9. JonW: I for one can say that reading the Work and the Glory in highschool sparked my interest in church history. I had previously been very interested in all things Mormon, but much preferred the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants. After reading the Work and the Glory, I had the necessary to background to take on the D&C. I can say that this fictional introduction to church history influenced my decision to become a historian.

    Comment by David Grua — December 12, 2007 @ 2:01 am

  10. I’ve been pretty hostile to fiction since the mission, especially historical fiction dealing with Mormonism. I think that’s been softened in reading Givens’ “The Viper on the Hearth”. I quote,

    “While distortion of one kind or another is an inevitable consequence of literary representation, caricature is especially revealing of social or political circumstances that the author is motivated to represent. Caricature tends to illuminate what is valued and what is shunned by various social groups at various historical junctures.” (p. 3-4)

    I’ve been turned on to the idea of fiction as a historical document of its own, as a reflection of the values when it is produced. That’s real progress for me. ­čÖé

    Comment by Jared — December 13, 2007 @ 5:26 am


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