It would be frightening to know how many people in the world can sing the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Whether they learned it in the 1960s, when the television show originally appeared or whether they learned it in reruns and syndication in the decades since, millions of people, world-wide, are familiar with the basic outline of one family’s story. The strange thing is this family never really existed.
Come, let me tell you a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer where he kept his family fed,
And then one day he was shooting at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubbling crude
Oil, that is, black gold, Texas Tea
Well, the first thing you know, Old Jed’s a millionaire.
And the kin folks said, “Jed, move away from there.”
Said, “California is the place you ought to be.”
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly
Hills, that is, swimming pools, movie stars.
At one time in the United States, there were families like the Clampets who lived in the backwoods, growing up poor and unsophisticated. Still Jed, Granny, Jethro, and Daisy Mae are obviously characters imagined by writers, actors and directors, and finally by us viewers. The fact that this family isn’t real and that they never experienced any of the events we see them experience does not change, however, the other equally valid fact that we viewers enjoy watching them. Somehow all of us who live our lives in a very real world of jobs, taxes, families, traffic, etc., find pleasure and even a little enlightenment in the story of these people who never lived. The pleasure we receive from their story is an example of the magic of fiction.
The Truth of Fiction
What is fiction? Well, the answer to that can be a bit hard to pin down. On one hand, fiction is simply made-up stories. On the other, fiction a kind of artistic enterprise that answers the question “What if?” What if a family of hillbillies struck it rich and moved to Beverly Hills? John Steinbeck asks what if a lonely woman lived on an isolated farm and a traveler visited the farm and produces the story “The Chrysanthemums.” James Baldwin asks what if an Algebra teacher in Harlem learned his brother, a Jazz Pianist, was an addict to Heroin (“Sonny’s Blues”). Part of this “fiction” can be truthful, and come from the writers’ experience or education and part of it can be made up.
Other forms of writing depend on the veracity and veracity of the writer–tax codes, menus, magazine articles, business letters. Certainly these documents would lose their usefulness for th reader if the writer treated the writing of these as experiences in imagination. But there is another kind of truth that fiction attempts to capture and portray.
Two stories can guide us. Toward the end of “Storyteller,” Leslie Marmon Silko writes, “The old man would not change the story even when he knew the end was approaching. Lies could not stop what was coming.” With such statements as this one, Silko enriches her story about a young Native American woman in a snow-covered land, the dying man she lives with, and the lies and injustices of the Anglo-Americans there to exploit the people and the land. The man is weaving a story, half-deliriously, about a bear stalking a hunter. We know that somehow, this story is the story of the old man’s life, his life being stalked by death. It is also the story of the young woman, who is also stalked.
But their tale is also the story of all storytellers, of all writers, who have a story to tell and will tell it until the story ends where it must end. The best storytellers know that within each tale there is a logic and inevitability that must be honored. In Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father,” the father tells his daughter, who is writing a story for him, “As a writer that’s your main trouble. You don’t want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy!” Then he adds later, “Truth first.”
“Truth first!” In fiction, this truth isn’t necessarily the factual truth we strive for in balancing our checkbooks; it isn’t the ontological or metaphysical truths we search for in philosophy and theology. Instead, it is the kind of truth we say is “truth to life.” This kind of truth says, “This is the way life is. This is the truth about human beings. This is the truth of what it feels like to be human.” It is a kind of truth that is experienced, not known. It is a kind of truth very different from “The meeting starts at 10:00 tomorrow morning.”
From Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary, 5th ed, Lyman Grant (Prentice Hall, 2002).