Fictional Almost-Factual Encounters
February 5, 2009 2:39 AM   Subscribe

Seeking relatively well-known, canon-caliber fictional accounts of imaginary encounters between actual, historically significant figures -- especially encounters that could well have taken place, but which we know did not or remain undocumented. Philip Levine's poem "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane" typifies what I'm looking for. Mark Twain's _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ does not (respectable evidence out there of a historical Arthur notwithstanding). The literary field is rife with examples, I know -- say, some novel casting Charles Lindbergh and Adolf Hitler into a tete-a-tete. But, ack, I'm drawing a blank.

Two addenda:

1) I'm not really looking for contemporary sci-fi, especially as possible encounters wouldn't have required time travel....

2) I confess disapproval of AskMeFi users who amass answers as shortcuts to journalistic brainstorming or dissertation research. Your answers will purely be helping me to compile a personal reading list around a curious subgenre.

posted by taramosalata to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is built around the conceit of Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about all the places he's been. (Sort of.)
posted by Su at 2:53 AM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson is about Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Carl Jung all hanging out together in, IIRC, Zurich. It includes a cameo by Aleister Crowley. Mind you, though, that while Wilson does do credit to those historical figures, it's weird.
posted by Netzapper at 2:55 AM on February 5, 2009

I seem to remember that some of the scenes in Virginia Woolf's Orlando where various writers and/or poets were conversing involved people who were either not contemporaneous or never known to have met. But they're just short bits; I'm guessing you want the meetings to be a significant part of the stories.
posted by Su at 2:59 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Tom Stoppard's Travesties deals with the actual presence and imagined meeting in Zurich in 1917 of Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:03 AM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is full of part-fictionalised encounters between dozens of famous people, from Newton to Charles II to Louis XIV. Cracking stuff.

In fact, a great deal of it is so convincing (to me at least) that I have to work pretty hard to stop myself internalising it as historical fact.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:22 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Pale Blue Eye has Edgar Allen Poe as a soldier caught up in a murder investigation. Not a bad read.
posted by greatgefilte at 4:49 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

John L. Casti's Cambridge Quintet has CP Snow hosting a dinner party for geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, physicist Erwin Schrödinger, mathematician Alan Turing, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
posted by Tapioca at 4:51 AM on February 5, 2009

Seconding Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I'm reading book 2 at the moment and the encounters between historical figures are both absorbing and realistic :)
posted by cardamine at 5:17 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Picasso at the Lapin Agile
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:20 AM on February 5, 2009

I forget what the film is called but there's an 80s (I think) movie that has Marilyn Monroe and Einstein spending time together in a hotel.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:39 AM on February 5, 2009

I forget what the film is called but there's an 80s (I think) movie that has Marilyn Monroe and Einstein spending time together in a hotel.

. But while the characters bear a very distinct resemblance to actual figures, they were never identified as such.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:46 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

With the knowledge that you're leery of sci-fi:

There is a celebrated short story called "Enter a Soldier. Later, Enter Another", by Robert Silverberg. It takes as its premise a very powerful AI creating personalities for disparate historical figures (based on what is known of them) and having them interact. Silverberg's story concerns a meeting of Pizarro and Socrates. It kicked off an entire subgenre, and it seems to me that an anthology was published with other authors picking up, and mostly fumbling, the ball. Silverberg's story is highly enjoyable, though, if only for the great Socratic dialogue.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:04 AM on February 5, 2009

Not well-known, and I dunno if you'd call it "historically significant," but what the hey -- My own story, The Rockets of Greenwood Lake, concerns the successful (if brief) launch of the first interstate liquid-fueled mail rocket in February 1936 from Greenwood Lake New York, into New Jersey. There is archival Pathe newreel footage of the launch, which was the brainchild of Willy Ley, real-life science writer and NASA consultant, and probably known to older MeFites through Disney "Tomorrowland" TV shows back in the 1950s, his column in Galaxy magazine, and the old Revel plastic rocketship models. But he was a contemporary of Werner von Braun and they were in a rocket club in Germany in the 1920s. (Ley fled the Nazis; von Braun stayed and worked for them.)

I interviewed some surviving onlookers and Ley's widow (he died just prior to the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 -- talk about irony) before I wrote the tale. Among other real-life personalities who interact with Ley are Robert Trout, the WCBS broadcaster. I also posited a hypothetical encounter betwen Ley (who wrote a bit of science fiction) and the teenage Isaac Asimov. Lordy, that story was fun to write, and it fired my taste for historical fiction.

If you are bound and determined to buy the collection of which Rockets is a part, it's titled The Beginnings of Forever and is available on Amazon - here.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:14 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Not exactly what you're looking for, but you may be interested in Meeting of Minds, a show hosted by Steve Allen where historical figures appear on a talk show and interact with each other.
posted by mikesch at 7:51 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart (or Maria Stuart) features an imaginary encounter between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:00 AM on February 5, 2009

Tim Powers' novel The Stress of Her Regard has as its protagonists Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, John Keats etc. More of a horror tale, it does involve supernatural creatures. Good read too, if a trifle weird and depressing.
posted by elendil71 at 8:02 AM on February 5, 2009

In John Kessel's "The Franchise", a meeting between Babe Ruth and Yale baseball player George H.W. Bush (really happened) inspired the latter to pursue professional baseball, which career led to him facing Fidel Castro in the World Series. (Castro really played college baseball, and reportedly was scouted by American major league teams.)

(May not fit your criteria, what with involving a real historic meeting, and substantial changed history before the fictitious meeting.)
posted by Zed at 8:03 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy of novels? They involve encounters among some WWI notables like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
posted by cadge at 8:14 AM on February 5, 2009

Umberto Eco wrote a fantastic historical mystery novel called The Name of the Rose featuring several real-world figures from 14th century Europe.
posted by xbonesgt at 8:36 AM on February 5, 2009

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a short play by Steve Martin involving a meeting between Einstein and Picasso. It's an interesting little read, and comes with a couple of his other short plays.
posted by Etrigan at 8:54 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Ragtime, featuring Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbitt, unnamed creator of Little Rascals, Harry Houdini, Freud, Booker T. Washington, many others.

One of my favorite books.
posted by marsha56 at 9:57 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

More examples: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr. Both novels include Theodore Roosevelt and a number of real-life figures from New York in the 1890's.
posted by cadge at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Walter Savage Landor's Imaginary Conversations was hugely influential in its day, and was the inspiration for the Steve Allen program cited above. Some of the conversations were between historical figures who did know each other, but others were not.

The recent novel Mademoiselle Boleyn casts Leonardo da Vinci as a mentor figure to the youthful Anne Boleyn. Although this is almost certainly a load of rubbish, historically, the author makes it work as a fictional arc.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:25 AM on February 5, 2009

Huh, greatgefilte, I hadn't heard of that one. But I just read Nevermore by Harold Schechter where Poe and Davy Crockett (!) team up to solve a series of murders. It was a fun, fast read.
posted by JoanArkham at 12:11 PM on February 5, 2009

Another vote for Neal Stephenson's work, with the addition of Cryptonomicon.

Clive Cussler's Sahara has Lincoln kidnapped by a (real?) Confederate officer.
posted by attercoppe at 12:13 PM on February 5, 2009

I knew I'd think of something else as soon as I posted. In the Stephenson vein, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's collaboration The Difference Engine. Alternate history in Victorian Britain with Babbage, Byron, Darwin, Ada Lovelace, etc etc.
posted by attercoppe at 12:18 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Copenhagen by Michael Frayn is a play imagining what was said at the meeting of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941, discussing The Bomb and all sorts of things. Is really good.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:58 AM on February 6, 2009

J. Edgar Hoover, JFK, Howard Hughes, Mickey Cohen, Jack Dragna, and many other mob/government/police figures from the 1940s through the 1960s show up in James Ellroy's American Underworld series, as well as his famous L.A. Quartet
posted by tylerfulltilt at 7:00 AM on February 6, 2009

There's also The Prestige by Christopher Priest. One character interacts with the real-life Nikola Tesla
posted by tylerfulltilt at 10:37 AM on February 6, 2009

Q, by a quartet of Italian anarchists writing under the pseudonym Luther Blissett, is set during the Protestant Reformation and features a number of historical figures, including Martin Luther himself. The back-cover text and several of the reviewers' blurbs make explicit comparisons to the aforementioned Name of the Rose.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 6:15 PM on February 7, 2009

Response by poster: These responses are fabulous. I knew Stoppard would be in there somewhere! Some of these cited I'd actually read but forgotten about (Name of the Rose, The Difference Engine, Invisible Cities, Orlando) -- so it's great to have those gathered here, too, as reminder.

What especially intrigues me is the older stuff -- e.g., the Schiller, and Landor's Imaginary Conversations. Does this subgenre goes back any earlier?

And I cannot wait to find and watch the entire "The Meeting of Minds," which sounds both brilliant and hilarious.

Many thanks for ALL contributions!
posted by taramosalata at 10:52 AM on February 10, 2009

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