Politics and tale-telling are virtually inseparable activities. Great political events—wars, rebellions, social crusades—do not exert their full measure of influence until they are whittled into legends. More than one British statesman has derived his understanding of the Wars of the Roses from Shakespeare’s Histories, and in the United States the stories of Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln the man of sorrows, and Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill have been told and retold, written down, footnoted, played upon the stage, and filmed so often that we are scarcely aware of them. Our heroes are a part of our experience and define, more than anything else, the aspirations of the American character.

There is, however, another side to this union of politics and myth: powerful plays, novels, and (perhaps) films have a way of becoming political matters. Richard II put Shakespeare in danger, when the Earl of Essex had it performed on the eve of his rebellion. (Elizabeth was understandably uncomfortable with the depiction of usurpation and regicide.) Addison’s Cato was cheered not only by the Whigs, for whom it was written, but also by the Tories who wished to appropriate the message and convert resistance to royal authority into a defense of legitimate government.

But it is not only overtly political works which stir up such controversy. Huckleberry Finn remains a subject of dispute, both for its portrayal of ante-bellum Southern life and for its use of the word n—-r. A bowdlerized version is said to be in the works. The more modern tale of boyhood, A Catcher in the Rye, has also been the target of the censors who did not like the explicitness of its language or the implications of adolescent rebellion. On the other side of the political spectrum, there is some evidence that liberal critics are increasingly disenchanted with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, largely because of their unpleasant Jewish characters (remember Robert Cohn’s big nose? or Gatsby’s sinister partner, Meyer Wolfsheim?).

What is there about the novel—or any fiction, for that matter—to excite such passion? Words are, after all, a weak and slovenly building material. The tritest cliches in a rhetorical handbook—almost all of them—are variations on the theme of “words cannot express . . . ” or “the world will little note what we say here . . . ” Plato banished poets for their deceits, and his most wayward disciple, the classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, condemned all poets as liars. There is little cause for wondering at their impatience. So much of literary art, the novel, the tale, the history, consists of telling palpable lies, of pulling not the wool, but the polyester over the reader’s eyes. No matter what he may have felt in his youth, a grown man tires of most novels. So few of them encapsule the feeblest glimmer of human experience. Ultimately, the fate of a Robert Jordan or an Anna Karenina can scarcely be said to engage the interest of a reflective person. In earlier times, novelists themselves were sensible of their degraded position in the realm of letters. Jane Austen, one of the best of the lot, more than once puts a defense of novel-reading into a character’s mouth. Even so, it is remarkable that a writer should gain a reputation, grow rich on a pack of lies, no matter how artfully arranged.

Few historians these days lay any claim to art. Now, they are all scientists. The main trouble with historical writing is that the reader gradually comes to realize that the historian expects to be taken seriously as a purveyor of truth rather than as a philosopher or (what is more common) a propagandist. Serious historians always have an ax to grind, and the best of them finish the edge with the slickest whetstones. Thucydides, Tacitus, Hume, Macaulay have little in common with moderns like Christopher Hill, Eugene Genovese, or Hans Georg Gadamer except this one thing: They know that tales of time past serve primarily to shape our behavior in the present. Young people, quite properly, accept their creations at face value. An older man believes little, trusts less.

If the principal vanity of historians is to demand credulity, the trouble with novelists is that they ask so little of us. The exercise of reading most fiction requires little more than the belief that human beings are motivated almost exclusively by erotic passion. The same sex-obsession that mars so much of Shakespeare (as opposed to Sophocles, for example) is central to the plots of all but the best novels. How strange that several of the earliest narrative prose fictions in English made so little of sex. It is hard to remember that Christian even has a wife, and modern critics are so puzzled by Robinson Crusoe (or Huckleberry Finn, for that matter) that they are compelled to drag these works through the mire of “suppressed homosexuality.”

Walter Scott, who knew that his readers expected the love-interest to dominate the story, was impatient with plots. In his view, they were nothing more than a peg on which to hang his characters. However, in his best work (in verse as well as prose) Scott was concerned with more than the exploration of character or even moral drama. For him, there was a “matter of Scotland” in the tales and legends of border struggles, highland incursions, and above all in the great uprisings of national self-assertion under Robert Bruce and in The ’45. In Waverly we are less concerned with the fate of the foolish young hero than we are with Scotland’s last great national struggle. In America, a similar effort was made by less-talented writers like the infinitely tedious Cooper and the wooden but far more powerful Gilmore Simms.

There are many kinds of prose fiction, and it would be a vain effort to say one kind is necessarily better than another. However, what is common to the best work of Scott, Hardy, Thackeray (especially Henry Esmond) is a kind of seriousness we do not associate, ordinarily, even with the best “philosophical” novels. Aristotle considered poetry (by which he meant the epic and drama) more philosophical than history, because it dealt with the probable, the natural; but even in that comparison he revealed a typically Greek outlook. For the Iliad and Odyssey and all the tragedies on epic themes constituted a kind of more philosophical history in which generation after generation of Greek storytellers and writers reconsidered and refashioned the stories of their race. When Aeschylus put the story of Agamemnon’s murder (and the revenge that followed) on the stage, he was working in the shadow of the Odyssey and a narrative lyric poem of Stesichorus. When Sophocles and Euripides each had their go at the same tale, it was not because they were hampered by any lack of imagination or even because a familiar story allowed them to concentrate on character, style, and music.

We never grow tired of hearing the stories that really matter to us. In each retelling, they can be held up to a different light. Even the usual mediocre sermon on the prodigal son may strike the right chord with a churchgoer on a drowsy Sunday morning, because the tale is material to his life as a Christian. Imagine the interest if he or his were actors in the piece. What Walter Scott and Hardy share with Homer and Aeschylus is precisely this quality of telling “tales of a grandfather” to an interested family circle.

In America this sort of historical piety is associated primarily with Southern writers, although the current crop of Southern novelists is generally careful to steer clear of its Faulknerian inheritance. Walker Percy and Lee Smith write about the South, but they do not labor under the burden of history. There are, however, several prominent exceptions. Peter Taylor’s best work often has the quality of an extended genealogical research, a feature he shares with a younger and quite different writer, Fred Chappell. Somewhere in between stands the enigmatic George Garrett, who has divided his time between stories set in the fairly recent South and two masterfully researched novels set in Elizabethan England. Death of a Fox and The Succession are, in my view, the best historical novels since Henry Esmond, and I would hazard a guess that for Mr. Garrett the subjects (Walter Raleigh, James VI & I, et al.) were not chosen arbitrarily as representatives of some exotic place and time. If Americans have an experience beyond the recent events of colonization and revolution, then it is the history of Britain that makes all of us (Swedes, Poles, Italians, as well as Scots) an ancient people instead of children without memory.

It is stories that bind us together as a nation: American stories, British stories, Roman history, and even Greek myths. As Donald Horowitz makes plain in his recent book Ethnic Conflict, neighbors who cherish conflicting stories about the past cannot live in harmony. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, Greeks and Turks on Cyprus, Yankees and Southerners have quite different versions of their nation’s histories. If they live together long enough, perhaps the dueling legends will be subsumed into a larger story. The German Kings of Great Britain may look silly dressed up in kilts, but their slender claims to legitimacy and Scots descent are a graceful bow to the people of Scotland.

Other countries try a more direct approach. In Yugoslavia the authorities made a strenuous effort to erase the national histories of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and it is surely part of Mr. Djilas’ offensiveness to the regime that all his best work is written in a celebration of Montenegro. If one can judge from textbooks and political pronouncements, the United States is more likely to follow the example of Yugoslavia than Great Britain. For some time now, textbooks have been carefully concocted to portray a secular and pluralist America owing as much to the Ghost Dance as to Christianity. Despite the palpable fact that our language, social institutions, and literature are mainly an extension of Britain (and, in general. Northern Europe), holidays and history books are strenuous in promoting a picture of a polyglot “nation of immigrants.” The most recent phase of this nationalist ideology flies under the banner of “cultural conservatism” by which is meant a new civil religion of secularized holidays and the celebration of President Lincoln and Dr. King. A fairly large number of Americans who might have reservations about a political leader with certain dubious political connections and a personal life that many regard as scandalous, will all be consigned to the very inmost circle of hell where Satan feeds upon parricides and traitors. (I wouldn’t be in Senator Helms’s shoes for anything.) We probably had to have some sort of formal recognition that black Americans had fought their way into the political mainstream, but a Black Americans Day or—better—a Roy Wilkins Day would have served the purpose.

If cultural conservatism were a gambit likely to succeed, most of us would swallow our pride and say, “Go ahead.” Most Southerners are willing to accept the canonization of Lincoln, and they, along with the rest of Middle America, might, in time, learn to accept Dr. King. But for Lincoln, the warming-up process took about three generations (and there are still, I understand, a few holdouts in Texas). Candidates for sainthood usually struggle (post mortem) for at least two generations and have to face the investigation of a hard-nosed devil’s advocate. In 1964 we were all sure of John Kennedy’s status as “King and Martyr.” We even aped the Soviet practice of renaming places, but now we are back to Cape Canaveral, and the golden legend of the Kennedys is a coinage as debased and despised as the Susan B. Anthony dollar. In a free country, the government only recognizes heroes; it does not create them. The insistence on pushing Dr. King, while a majority of Americans retain some memory of his, let us say, controversial career, is bound to backfire.

Many Americans, especially in the urban North, have a counterstory to tell about the 1960’s, of power-crazed judges who seized control of school systems, of riots that burned down half of downtown Detroit, of a whole generation sacrificed to the vanity of preachers and politicians engaged in yet another crusade for moral uplift.

Which version of events will prevail is hard to predict. Ten years ago, journalists and historians were certain that Richard Nixon was the Antichrist of American history. Now, they are not so sure. The proverbial horse led to water cannot always be made to drink.

Other nations have suffered far worse conflicts and, if left alone, managed to heal their wounds. The emperor Augustus is said to have praised Cicero (whose death sentence he had approved) to a young relative caught with an incriminating book. For some men, the end of hostilities is enough to reconcile them to an enemy. The Puritan Andrew Marvell composed the most moving lines ever written on the martyrdom of Charles I, and Charles Francis Adams spoke a eulogy at the funeral of Robert E. Lee. For most Romans, however, I suspect it took a national epic, the Aeneid to renew their sense of national purpose. On a lower level, Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln hagiography and Gone With the Wind performed the same function for us.

American filmmakers are up to something similar with all the Vietnam films that run the gamut from Rambo II to Platoon. The civil rights movement and the rest of “the 60’s thing” has yet to be translated successfully into an important film, much less an enduring novel, much less an epic poem. If someone from the current generation of novelists were to get off his comfortable professorial chair and take a serious look at the great civil struggle of 20 years ago, he might single-handedly restore the fortunes of the novel, although such an effort may take another 40 or 50 years. Scott’s Waverly has the suggestive subtitle Sixty Years Since and Margaret Mitchell completed her vulgar epic about 70 years after the end of the Civil War.

Time heals all things. The ground upon which battles have raged is gradually cleansed as the rain leaches out defoliants and petroleum, as metal shells rust into the soil, and the bleached bones and rotted flesh yield a rich black humus. There is no good way to hasten the process.