In one of his remarkable essays from the mid-1930s, the great German Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger wrote: "I admit to loving historical novels with a passion. I do understand the prejudice against this form of literature, but it is a prejudice."
Noting the genre's importance to his own work, Feuchtwanger went on to muse on his inability to "imagine that a serious novelist, when working with historical subject matter, could ever regard historical facts as anything other than a means of achieving distance, as a metaphor, in order to render his own feelings, his era, his own philosophy, and himself as accurately as possible."
As the bestseller lists show, year after year, legions of readers share Feuchtwanger's passion and so, thankfully, do many contemporary serious novelists. Colm Toibin, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Barry, Emily Barton and the late Tom Flanagan are names that come immediately to mind, though that's simply because they're personal favorites.
When problems arise with historical fiction, it's usually because the genre has fallen into the hands of a writer determined to both entertain and instruct, but who doesn't quite bring that difficult synthesis off.
David Liss, the author of three previous historical thrillers that earned admiring notices and better-than-brisk sales, slips in and out of that problematic category with his new novel, "The Whiskey Rebels." That's a pity, because Liss has his hands around a fascinating and consequential bit of American history and approaches it with an obvious measure of ambition.
Set in Pennsylvania in 1792, the story turns on the events that, two years later, would produce the new American republic's first popular insurrection, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. (The earlier Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts had occurred under the old Articles of Confederation and helped solidify elite opinion in favor of a new, more centralizing constitution.) The new national government had agreed to assume the Revolutionary War debts incurred by the individual states and, to finance their repayment, the first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, pushed through an excise tax on whiskey distillers. Now, anybody with a pulse -- let alone a modicum of historical consciousness -- knows that anti-tax sentiment is imprinted on our national DNA, but this levy was particularly onerous because it taxed the product of small family stills at a substantially higher rate than that of larger distillers.
Moreover, in late 18th century America, whiskey played particularly important social and economic roles. America's industrious farmers and fertile lands produced a glut of grain, particularly corn, in the newly settled territories west of the Appalachians. (There's poetry for another occasion in the fact that our mellow bourbon was born there, when ingenuity and natural beneficence conjoined.) There were no markets for such bounty, no way to store it and no roads to transport it elsewhere. So, farmers began converting their surplus into whiskey.
When the British blockade during the Revolution cut the Colonies off from their preferred spirit, rum, the trade in whiskey boomed. On the frontier, where there was little currency, it even became a medium of exchange. Foreign visitors, including De Tocqueville, remarked on how even cultivated Americans consumed whiskey with their meals, which often made after-dinner conversation, if not incoherent, frequently uninspiring. That was one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson sought to promote wine-making and George Washington encouraged the brewing of beer. (When he left office, however, our first president also became his country's biggest commercial distiller.) By 1810, Americans' per capita annual consumption of alcohol reached eight gallons, which is more than four times the current level.
For all these reasons, the small farmers-distillers on Pennsylvania's western frontier were ill-disposed to accept Hamilton's excise tax, and they revolted rather than pay it. Liss has elected to explore the stirrings of this insurrection through two first-person narratives delivered in alternating chapters:
Ethan Saunders is a disgraced ex-spy for Washington's Continental Army, down on his luck and on the sauce in Philadelphia, when he receives a plea for help from his onetime fiancee, Cynthia Pearson. She also is the daughter of Saunders' former partner in espionage; both fell under a cloud when they were falsely accused of treason. Cynthia's husband, a financial trader in the nation's embryonic commercial exchanges, has disappeared. It soon emerges that the missing husband has been caught up in machinations surrounding Hamilton's new Bank of the United States and the speculators whose frontier land swindles are fueling the discontent over the whiskey tax.