(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The debate over the proper relationship between history and fiction in revealing or recasting the past has occupied both historians and literary critics since Sir Walter Scott published Waverley: Or, Tis Sixty Years Since in 1814. However, while the question of what constitutes a “historical novel” has long been the subject of discussion among critics, readers have shown consistent affinity for fictional works that recreate the past in order to entertain and educate. Most historical novels follow a simple formula: A series of fictional characters form the main interest in a work set in a particular period of history, and the lives of these fictional characters often intersect with, or are heavily influenced by, the actions of historical personages, often of notable significance. When the fictional characters are given too much credit for influencing history—as they are, for example, in Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (1971) andWar and Remembrance (1978)—the work is often called “historical romance,” indicating the implausibility of the tale. While that has not stopped millions of readers from buying and enjoying such novels, literary purists have insisted that proper historical fiction should stick close to the documentary record of the past.

If one uses this approach in judging the quality of historical fiction, William Safire’s Scandalmonger will easily rise near the top of any ranked listing. In this tour de force, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist uses only historical persons to weave an intriguing tale of political backbiting, innuendo, half-truths, and scandals set in the first decades of the new American republic. What many readers will find most surprising is that, like the characters in the novels, all of the stories about them are in some sense true. Each of the scandals Safire reports through his characters is part of a historical record that belies the idyllic vision many Americans have grown to accept as factual. InScandalmonger, Safire informs readers that he is “trying to use a dramatic form to simulate past events and to bring long-ago lives to life.” His use of fictional techniques is aimed at presenting “a close look at what I conjecture was actually going on among those real people.”

At the center of this story is the Scottish immigrant James Thomson Callender, a journalist with a flair for gathering private information and using it to discredit the opponents of whatever political faction happened to be providing him support. The novel opens in the waning years of George Washington’s administration. The Republicans in Congress, seeking to gain political advantage over the Federalists led by Washington, discover that the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, may be engaging in financial speculation using inside information. They turn to Callender for assistance, with surprising results; though he cannot prove the charges of financial misconduct, he uncovers an affair between Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, estranged wife of a political functionary. Hamilton’s hopes of succeeding Washington are dealt a fatal blow.

Buoyed by the notoriety he receives in uncovering the scandal, Callender goes on to produce scurrilous accounts about others. He is equally harsh on John Adams, whose uncomfortable term as the nation’s leader was a period of particularly vicious behind-the-scenes political maneuvering in both political parties. Callender is not even above publishing jibes about Washington, whose imperial demeanor makes him repugnant to many of the Jeffersonian Republicans.

For a time, Callender enjoys the favor of the Republicans, as they use him to discredit one after another of the Federalists who might challenge Jefferson for the presidency. Aided by John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, and Maria Reynolds, Callender weaves stories of immoral behavior and political chicanery that lead ultimately to Jefferson’s election. The tide of fortune turns when the Republicans are in office, however, as Jefferson tries to distance himself from the scandalmonger. Hurt by the rejection, Callender then strikes out at his former patron, bringing to light a number of personal foibles that discredit the new president in the eyes of foe and friend alike.

As a result, Callender becomes a man hated by both Republicans and Federalists, shunned from proper society. Ironically, he is befriended only by...

(The entire section is 1811 words.)