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Fudging the truth: a tradition as old as Uncle Tom

This cabin in Maryland was believed to have been the home of Josiah Henson, the slave whose memoir inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, the news came out this week that Mr. Henson never lived in the cabin.


This past week, a large two-storey colonial in North Bethesda, Md., with a small log cabin on the back was revealed to be nothing more than itself. Historians established that the building could not have been the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, as had previously been claimed. The Historic Preservation Commission spent $2-million on the property and all that value vanished into thin air because its basis for fiction turns out to have been based in fiction. The scrupulosity of the historical whistleblowers is charmingly nostalgic. In mainstream culture, we no longer care to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, so long as we get a good story.

Take the monster hit of the moment, The Social Network. Everyone involved with the movie, from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on down, acknowledges that The Social Network has only a tenuous grasp on the reality of its subject, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The film is based on a non-fiction account, consciously written in the mode of a thriller. We're so used to memoirs lying to us, we're so used to the truth being fudged in our non-fiction, that this confession from the screenwriter doesn't seem to bother anybody, even though the character's name is the same as a 26-year-old guy who's still alive.

Along with a declining lack of respect for the truth, we are developing a weirdly pedantic respect for mere facts. The Social Network recreates the atmosphere at Harvard University in fall, 2003, with great attention to detail. Mr. Sorkin told the Harvard Crimsonthat while he was writing about Mr. Zuckerberg, he researched what "kind of beer he was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago." "Poetic licence" isn't at work here; more like its opposite. Poetic licence involves fudging the facts to get at the deeper truth. But Mr. Sorkin is diligent about getting the beer right. He doesn't fudge that fact. What he does fudge is the basic emotional situation of his character - for example, the bizarre, old-fashioned notion that a Jewish geek would feel awkward and out of place at Harvard. As far as I can tell, Jewish geeks are now extremely common at Harvard. Extremely. The striving Jewish kid at the Ivy League school is a story that makes sense to 49-year-old Mr. Sorkin, whether or not it's true. He doesn't skew the facts to get at reality; he makes sure the facts are right so that he can skew the reality.

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Mr. Sorkin is far from alone in this technique of using precision to tell more effective lies. He's emerging from a new brand of hyperrealism that dazzles us with historical detail in the place of a more significant fidelity to accuracy. HBO spent $50-million (U.S.) on the first episode of its new series Boardwalk Empire and every detail is period-appropriate. The newspapers have the right dates. The ads are right. The way women swaddle babies is right. Everything is just so, except that the main character has the wrong name. We meet the young Al Capone, the young Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. But the real Nucky Johnson becomes Nucky Thompson. Terence Winter, the creator of Boardwalk Empire, explained that decision on National Public Radio: "If everybody is real, I can't play. You know, I can't manipulate the story the way I want to. So the other thing, too, is, I don't know if the real Nucky got involved in some of the things I may choose to have our Nucky do. So I said, you know what? He's Nucky, but he's not Nucky." Exactly that distinction - the line between "is" and "is not" - means less and less all the time.

Uncle Tom's Cabin itself was based on a non-fiction account by a runaway slave, Josiah Henson. Even in the 19th century, the fictional cannibalization of non-fiction was under way. Josiah Henson's memoirs of slave life went nowhere, but Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most influential books ever written. It sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year of printing, becoming the greatest pro-abolition document of its time. No less a fan than Abraham Lincoln claimed that it was a direct cause of the U.S. Civil War.

The problem for the owners of what was once the real Uncle Tom's cabin is what to call the place now. "The Josiah Henson Historic House" might be more accurate, but no one would come. People want to feel that they're at Uncle Tom's cabin, not some other guy's. The house is now worthless because our imaginations will not make the leap from fiction back to reality. Now we need to be in a real house to feel like we're part of the fiction.

Stephen Marche is a novelist and the culture columnist for Esquire magazine.

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