What Is Non-Fiction Narration? April 23 2014

by James Thompson

What is a non-fiction narrative? When I use the term, I am referring to a method of storytelling in which an author recreates a real event or a series of real events. In Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment, for example, I illuminate an episode in history that began in the spring and continued into the fall of 1785. I tell the story in the present tense. I incorporate the conversations of the individuals who are involved, most of whom are real people who did meet and converse. I describe where they are, how they look, what they see, what they say, and how they say it. I have them reveal their silent purposes and what they are thinking while they are communing.

I use this method because I want my readers to appreciate that the history I am recounting is dynamic and that it was created by individuals who were like me and them. 

When I began reading about events in the past, they looked flat like words on a printed page. The more I studied them, the more dimensions they took on. Colors—sounds—smells. They became like explosions with rippling effects. Settings—places—proximities. What happened at each moment of reality flowed off the tongues and fingertips of complex, designing agents. Motives—sentiments—relationships. Creators of history did not act out scripts on printed pages. They were threads in fabrics. They were bits and pieces of other things. What they were finally, they did not know. What they triggered as they went along, they did not foresee. We come closer to understanding them and the things they did as we incorporate more of these dimensions into our accounts. I want my readers to come away with this impression. What I am recreating for them is all of this.

Non-fiction narration is the antithesis of historical reporting, which is recounting sets of tangible, verifiable facts. Professional historians—Dumas Malone, for example—once produced historical reports. This method is so restrictive that professional historians are rapidly abandoning it. Fawn Brodie was a seminal figure in this historiographic revolution. She ignited a famous controversy in 1974 by suggesting that Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson – An Intimate History). Annette Gordon Reed, drawing on her legal training “to apply context and reasonable interpretation to the sparse documentation”, has become famous (in part) by fleshing in details about the relationship between this intriguing mixed-race couple (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997)). 

Prize-winning author Professor Joseph Ellis tested the genre in his 1998 National Book Award winner, American Sphinx, in which he “unravels the contradictions in the Jefferson character.” I am not aware that Professor Maurizio Valsania won an award for The Limits of Optimism (2011), but it is also a work of this new kind. In it, Valsania laments that Thomas Jefferson's “enlightenment” was “dualistic” and explains how "a fundamental tension thwarted Jefferson's peace of mind." Hannah Spahn’s recent book, Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History (2011) is another interpretative history. Ms. Spahn discerns that the Sage of Monticello suffered from a heretofore-unknown neurosis—he could not “come to terms with the decisive problem of historical change.” 

I dare say that most historians now speak in some form of this new historiographical style. I expect they do because it helps them implant their impressions of the past in the minds of their readers. They cannot do this in historical reports.

In the old days, if a professional historian could not confirm that Jefferson met Jones, he avoided the subject. In reality, most of the past consists of Jefferson-Jones-like meetings for which there are no records. In reality, the past is a mass of unconnected dots produced by individuals with quirks and purposes, which are themselves intangible. When the undocumented, intangible elements of the past are excluded from a report about it, that report cannot possibly be complete or accurate. Nor is it appealing to the vast majority of people today.

There is another unsatisfactory characteristic of histories produced by historical reporters: the reports they produce invariably reflect the ideologies of their authors and/or the dominant ideology of their era. Ideological advocates have misrepresented what happened, why it happened, and what it means to whole generations of Americans. Little wonder that young people today do not find History interesting!

These issues in mind, I commend the mode of non-fiction narration I use to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson’s enlightenment for being an important new step away from the old school method. In addition to being more colorful and engaging, non-fiction narration makes the past multi-dimensional, and creates a more accurate impression of what was once reality.