December 31, 2009
Matthew E. MacFarland '10

Good historical fiction is hard to come by. The difficulty lies in merging fiction and nonfiction. They share common elements - no fiction is successful without a degree of realism and no nonfiction succeeds without some creative spark - but finding the balance is the true task of a historical novelist. Elizabeth Gaffney has tried her hand at this test, and her novel, Metropolis, is in many ways a successful synthesis of the two genres. Gaffney recently read from her novel at the Bortz Library at Hampden-Sydney College and gave a talk on the writing of historical fiction, its status as a legitimate form of writing, and its relationship to other genres.

Gaffney began by quoting historian John Demes, who maintained that the historical novel bridges and smudges the boundary between history and fiction. This notion of blurring the line between historical truth and storytelling led Gaffney to ask, “Is it possible to recreate the past in a meaningful way which constitutes historical truth?” When she began to tackle the idea of writing her novel, she found herself asking, "Why make it a historical novel at all; why not place it in contemporary times?" She wanted New York City to be the geographical location regardless of century and to use the construction of landmark buildings in the city as a framework, but as she researched, she found herself drawn to the history of the city. New York’s tumultuous past, it seemed, held much more narrative bite than its modern history.

Metropolis recreates the New York of the 19th century, “a city in adolescence,” as Gaffney called it, a city struggling with class consciousness, a city in flux due to the massive immigration from Europe, particularly from Germany and Ireland. Many of the characters in her novel, including the protagonist, are immigrants seeking that nebulous American dream that attracted so many from across the Atlantic.

Gaffney spent seven years gathering information and conducting her research to recreate the city, its people, and atmosphere, but the idea of writing historical fiction was one that Gaffney struggled with. In her talk she spoke of a kind of “anxiety” that plagued her early thinking on the project, of struggling with how to define historical fiction at all compared to literary fiction. She was faced with a fundamental question: Why write fiction at all? If historicism and accuracy are the pillars upon which historical fiction grounds itself, why not write nonfiction, eliminate the narrative that requires the creation of people and dialogue that never happened, and create an infinitely more accurate story? “Literature,” Gaffney explained, “has almost a religious power” for her. It gives her, more so than any other form of art or cultural creation, the ability to “understand humanity.” This connection with creative writing - with fictional literature - sparked her imagination in a way that nonfiction could not have, and thus, the long project of Metropolis was under way.