Is there a moral requirement to historical accuracy, when we create works in historical settings, or is historical accuracy valuable for its aesthetic contribution, or for making the fictional account more compelling to its audience? “Showdown with Rance McGrew” attempts to make the case for the moral requirement. Creators of fictional works ought to portray their subjects in settings and circumstances that represent the settings and circumstances of the historical periods which is represented in those works.
There are a number of puzzles and questions that arise in attempting to formulate this moral prescription. Works of fiction are, by their nature, false accounts. They are not historical works, and they aren’t, and more accurately can’t be constrained to making claims that are true or accurate. Fiction is fully unconstrained. Anything goes! So how could truth be required?
To respond to this challenge, the first thing we have to note is that the prescription, if it applies, applies only to fiction that is set in an historical setting, and to fiction that refers to historical persons, places, or events. The requirement also does not specify that historical settings, persons, and events must only be set out in representations that correspond to historical facts. Historical fiction is not history. It is still fiction, and the fiction writer has license to invent circumstances, events, and narratives that are novel.
So how is the historical accuracy requirement to be met? What counts as a violation of it? “Showdown with Rance McGrew” may not provide a complete answer, but it does provide some guidance. McGrew is an actor in formulaic Westerns – American cowboy movies, set with dusty main streets for shoot-outs, a bar for brawls, and lots of cowboys with attitude. McGrew plays a tough U.S. Marshall, out to get Jesse James. But as we observe the filming of this Western, we can tell that almost everything is wrong. McGrew looks like a cowboy, but he is just a Hollywood pretty boy, and knows little about the culture and values his character is supposed to represent. From his general demeanor, to the way he holsters his gun and the way he drinks whiskey, McGrew is a fraud.
We can only imagine how Jesse James and other real gun-slingers would react if they only knew how they were being represented in these flicks. And guess what, we can imagine this, and we do. Jesse James appears on set, and critiques McGrew’s performance. But he does it in the context of the old West. McGrew is still acting, but his surroundings have suddenly become the authentic old West, and in it, McGrew looks terribly out of place. Jesse James complains not only of McGrew’s character, but about the details of the story line, and the choreography of the action scenes. The original story line has Jesse Jame attempting to shoot McGrew in the back. The real Jesse James complains that this deviation from what he would have done is unacceptable, and he’s there to do something about it.
If we’re not motivated to historical accuracy by the possibility of correction from the returning dead, imagining their disapproval does serve a function. Just as we are obligated to carry out the conditions of a will, and that’s an obligation to someone who is dead, perhaps we are also obligated not to misrepresent the important characteristics and events of deceased individuals or even whole countries or cultures. We still have license to make things up. But we can make things up within the constraints of truth.
Telling the truth within fiction has another, related purpose. Fictional accounts have to be framed within the conceptual and belief structure that the author shares with the audience or reader. “Showdown with Rance McGrew” makes this point at the very start of the episode. Two cowboys emerge from the saloon and look down the dusty main street. One says: “He ain’t here yet.” The other says: “He’ll be along.” The first: “He knows he’s going to get shot.” We expect someone to appear on a horse coming down the street. What appears, is a Ford Thunderbird convertible coupe, with the top down and the radio blaring jazz. We expected a scene from a Western. What we got was a scene from a movie set, of the talent arriving for the filming of a Western. What we see is historically inaccurate for the old West. It is historically accurate for 1960. So a writer of fiction must pay attention to the expectations of the readers or viewers, and align with their beliefs.
David Hume, An Enquiry concerning human understanding, Section 3, “Of the Association of Ideas”, Tom L. Beauchamp, ed., Oxford, 1999. (see paragraphs 4- 18.)