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''History'sHeavy Attrition": Literature, Historical Consciousness andthe Impact of Vietnam 1 Robert A. Wright InAmerica's bicentennial year, Friendly Fire author C.D.B. Bryan lamented that"there just haven't been many books written by Vietnam vets about their experiencesover there. I suspect this might have less to do with their inability toachievethe objectivity necessary to come to grips with experiences in that warthan it does with the fact that the Norman Mailers and Thomas Heggers whowere capable of writing the Vietnam era's equivalent to a Naked and the Deador a Mister Rogers were also capable of avoiding the draft." 2 Apart fromBryan's exaggeration of the mediocrity of Vietnam literature a decade ago,for which he was rebuked by more than one indignant vet-turned-author, both the quantity and the quality of published novels, poetry, personal narrativesand oral histories have lately elevated fictional and quasi-fictional writing on the American war in Vietnam to the level of a genre. 3 The literature inspired bya generation of involvement in Indochina has spawned a significant, thoughnot overwhelming, number of academic specialists and university courses;moreover, scholarly attention to this body of writing has begun to transcendthe confines of literary criticism, branching off into the sophisticated realmof cultural, political and historical analysis. With more than 300 novels nowin print, a steadily widening audience for this kind of writing, and the majorAmerican publishing houses reporting expanded printing schedules for Vietnam-related paperbacks, this awakening interest shows no sign ofabating. CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 301-316 302 Robert A. Wright Contrary to the "puzzle" thesis popular among some Vietnam historiansin which fiction and conventional historical analysis are believed to complement each other and facilitate a multi-level cognition of the war, an extensive reading of Vietnam literature reveals that all isnot harmonious between literary artists and historians. 4 On the contrary, a great many fiction writers reveal decidedly anti-historicist leanings in their treatment of Vietnam; often their aim isnot to enhance our historical understanding of the war but to undermine it. The central purpose of this study is to undertake an intensive and much-needed examination of literary artists' attitudes toward the historical study of the war. As many fiction writers and even some historians themselves have recognized, history issuffering its own unique brand of post-Vietnam syndrome. That literary artists of such diverse backgrounds and dispositions as are writing about Vietnam should agree upon the failure of conventional history to comprehend the war, and that in so doing they should appeal to more or less the same "metahistorical" critique, suggests their collective conviction that historians need to be reminded, however unmercifully, of some of the inherent limitations of their discipline. A century and a half has passed since British historical philosopher T.B. Macaulay asserted that absolute truth is not merely elusive for the historian but unattainable, bound as it is to the vicissitudes of the literary imagination. Unlike the scientist or the poet, Macaulay believed, the historian iscondemned to inadequacy by the very nature of his task. He must aspire to meet an objective which is in the end unattainable, that of combining in a single forum the fundamentally hostile powers of creativity and analysis, imagination and control. "Perfectly and absolutely true," he wrote bluntly, "history cannot be.... "5 Yet notwithstanding the recurrent and often brilliant extrapolation of this principle since Macaulay's day, as in Hayden White's thesis that the meaning of historical analysis is prefigured by its basic narrative structure, professional historiography has had no small measure of difficulty resisting the alluring pull of the social sciences, their positivistic raison d'etre and their methodology. 6 To be sure, few historians today can be accused of perpetuating Henry Adams' enthusiasm at the turn of the century for the dawning age in which man might "study his own history in the same spirit and by the same methods with which he studied the formation of crystal." 7 It is obvious, however, that since the heyday of "literary" historians like Macaulay historical scholarship has been influenced dramatically by all of the cultural and technological forces which are commonly subsumed under the...


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