Publication Year



History, Sherley Anne Williams, historical fiction, literature, historical voice


Comparative Literature | Fiction | History | United States History


When Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose was published in 1986 it joined many other works of historical fiction that focused on individual experiences of slavery in the United States. Williams' novel was written, in part, as a response to William Styron's Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel which, according to Williams, and a great many others, "travestied the as-told-to memoir of slave revolt leader Nat Turner." Thus, Williams' text, as those by Styron and numerous other authors, represents only the most recent chapter in the age old debate about the relationship between literature and history. Aristotle defined the terms for the argument as early as 300 B.C., when he distinguished the difference between history and fiction in the following way: history defined 'what happened' while fiction included 'what could happen.' Since then, historians and authors alike have tried to clearly identify the distinction between the two forms of literary expression, which are now defined as distinct academic fields. One of the major challenges to Aristotle's definitions occurred in the last phase of neoclassicism, when the relationship between history and literature began to change. According to Lionel Gossman, "The term 'literature' gradually became more closely associated with poetry...[and] took on the meaning of a corpus of privileged or sacred texts, a treasury in which value, truth, and beauty had been piously stored, and which could be opposed to the empirical work of historical reality..." Thus, in the 18th century, literature's 'truth' became privileged over the empirical grounding of historical reality. This relationship has continued to influence contemporary debates about the relationship between history and literature. As Suzanne Gearhart explains, "What was for the eighteenth century a distinction between history as a category of literature on the one hand and fable, fiction, or the irrational on the other has been transformed into a modern opposition between history and literature." This distinction varies in definition according to the theorist, yet many of the issue[s] raised Aristotle continue to create lively discourse.

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status