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Excerpt from:  “Fictions, Facts, and the Fact(s) in(of) Fictions,” Modern Language Studies XXVIII.3,4 (Spring 1999):  3-40.


And what is so moving about fictions? Briefly put: their similarity to but their acknowledged difference from facts. Fictional representations may not be facts in the sense that Huck is not on the Mississippi the way the cat is on the mat in my study, but this difference, while critically important in some respects, should not lead us to overlook the truth that the details of fictions are apprehended intimately—concretely and viscerally as well as intellectually—and that the concreteness of fictions makes them feel like first-hand facts even though they are second-hand representations. This concreteness also allows us to treat fictions as if they were facts, thus allowing us to construct an educational—an indispensably educational—dialogue between the first-hand reality we live in the body and the second-hand reality we live in the imagination. Moreover, fictions provide us with rich material—richer than we could ever come up with on the basis of first-hand experience alone—for constructing those hypothetical scenarios that allow us to try out various lines of conduct in our mind's eye, and to evaluate their possible consequences imaginatively, before we commit ourselves to one line or other behaviorally.


That Huck's story touches me intimately is the source of its power to teach me: to teach me something about the power of conscience, the loyalty of friendship, and the personal agony of being caught in a battle between the demands of personal conscience and social ideology—and it teaches me these things in a way that this abstract summary cannot capture. Huck's story, but never my summary of it, teaches attentive readers how it feels to undergo such a moral war as Huck's. It makes any attentive reader a participant in the process of Huck's concrete moral deliberation as he attempts to sort out what seems right from what is expected. And because attentive readers learn Huck's story, they also learn about this kind of moral bind all the better when they see it in others or experience it themselves in real life. As Patricia Meyer Spacks said in her 1994 Presidential Address to the Modem Language Association, "poetry and prose are important, indeed necessary, ways of knowing and understanding the world . . . offering readers a vast and various context for locating themselves. . . . Students of literature . . . are likely to become less afraid of the unending need to choose among equivocal alternatives, as well as better equipped to do so." As all good teachers know, the kind of education that leads students to try out different interpretations and to try on different viewpoints directly relevant to their personal choices in life cannot occur from a distance: intimacy is a precondition for its happening at all. And few forms of intimacy touch us so deeply or threaten us as little as the educational intimacies of literary experience.