“Bring Up the Bodies”

Like Ben earlier this week, I’m coming back to some of the questions we raised when The Appendix launched. His were on the web and cabinets of curiosity and mine were on the narrative choices that historians make.

I’m inspired to return to the subject by the wonderful address that William Cronon, the president of the American Historical Association, gave two weeks ago at the organization’s annual meeting in New Orleans. It’s been posted on Youtube and I think it’s interesting and urgent enough to include in this post:

In case you don’t have the time to watch, what it says is this: our society’s ability to concentrate on longform reading is waning, and public support and funding for history and other forms of humanistic are in decline. Faced with those challenges, historians have a duty, in Cronon’s words, to “defend the public to the public and in public [defend] the continuing importance of history both in the United States and the wider world.” The best way to do so is by not being boring “alien professionals” but by remembering that the roots of the historical discipline lie in one key word: ‘storytelling.’

“Our core business is resurrection,” Cronon intones, at my favorite moment. “to make the past—the dead past—live again. We forget this most basic task at our peril, for there is no deeper betrayal of the historical imagination than to leave the past inertly, boringly forgettable.”

Again, the whole speech is worth watching. It’s inspiring, sensitive, and moving—especially when Cronon, an environmental historian who got fairly famous a few years ago while standing up for academics’ rights and freedoms, talks about the English professor who inspired him to go on to academia when he was in college.

But what really got me excited was this: in the course of praising the narrative work of journalists like Michael Pollan and makers of historical fiction like the filmmaker John Sayles, Cronon laments that historians’ narrative choices remained constrained “in part because of our discipline’s long-standing and—I might say—too long unquestioned commitment to the omniscient third person narrator,” the narrative voice that was adopted when historians began their professionalized journey in the late nineteenth century.

Cronon defends historians’ loyalty to their epistemological foundation—documents— but he notes that the rhetorical moves historians make to defend that evidence often sap their work of “narrative momentum.” It also builds a “very high wall between us and the inner emotional lives of the human beings about whom we write.”

By contrast, those inner emotional lives are precisely what practitioners of historical fiction can access, following the narrative streams of consciousness initially mapped by the great twentieth century novelists: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, etc. To that end, Cronon suggests that historians view the work of historical fiction-makers with more sympathy and respect.

But then he says something I’m not so sure about. Before making his excellent call to arms—that historians nonetheless have access to a “literally infinite” number of narratives that can energize our audiences—he states, fairly definitively, that historians cannot emulate the examples of Joyce, Woolf, and the historical fiction-makers who seek to explore their subjects’ inner lives. That’s the other, speculative, novelistic side of the fence, which historians should love, but not encroach upon, lest they lose touch with what makes them historians (fidelity to the limits of the documentary record).

I found it a particularly interesting given that a good friend, a fellow historian, wrote to me the other day to say just how excited she was that I’m writing a serialized novel. It surprised me, given that I didn’t know that I was writing a novel.

I had to stop for a moment and think. And then I realized that she was referring to Death of a Sailor, the first chapter of which ran on The Appendix last week. It’s about one sailor who kills another over a woman in New York City in 1835, and the hidden narrative of slavery, love, and the early nineteenth century that the murder unspools. Structurally inspired in part by Dickens, it’s certainly an experiment in serialized storytelling, but—and this is what tripped me up by friend’s email—I thought had managed to walk the line and write it as a history.

I understood the confusion, though. I even enjoyed it. I had invited being misread by making a very specific narrative choice. If you haven’t read the piece yet, what it does is this: it chops historians’ traditional third person omniscient narrator in two.

This is how it begins:

The pistol fired. A woman screamed. The end of his story began.

Was attention paid? By whom? Begin again.
It was September 4, 1835, just before midnight on a Friday in New York, and a night watchman named Richard Hockman was patrolling the seam between two of Manhattan’s rougher neighborhoods. It was a thankless job: it had been a hot summer, and the streets stank of sweating trash and human waste.

Who was Richard Hockman? Why was he a night watchman?

And so on, a series of questions and answers. Now, all of the details—the pistol firing, the woman screaming, the night watchman named Hockman patrolling, the hot summer, the stench—come from historical documents and secondary sources, and I back them up in our version of footnotes, ‘supernotes.’

The voice, however, is something else. Who says our narrators need to be omniscient if they are nonetheless delivering the facts? For Death of a Sailor’s first chapter, I divided the narrator in two, a questioner, and a respondent, and as the piece progresses they begin to poke at each other’s authority. This is the conversation that goes on every historian or writers’ head as they begin to explore the limits of what they can write, but it gets mostly subsumed when we begin to write as third person narrators. But if we recognize that as a narrative convention—we essentially become a character named ‘historical narrator’—why not become two historical narrators? And why not—in the interest of moving the narrative along—put them in conflict?

Were times bad that September?
It depends on who you were.

At first, Death of a Sailor’s respondent is more confident, more romantic, but as the italicized questioner begins to take liberties with his questions, trying to plumb the emotional lives of the historical figures, the respondent sticks more to the facts—an action that I hope begins to feel more inadequate, and makes the reader begin to feel the tension between questions that we ask as people—what did that feel like?—and the questions we must ask as historians: how do we know that?

So what was Jackson to Shoults? Why did Jackson kill Roberts?
“Roberts had taken away his comfort,” explained another newspaper, “and he had now taken him out of the way.”

An answer which explains nothing. Or perhaps everything. Doubt is hopefully conveyed without sacrificing the reader’s trust or interest. The facts are there, but between unanswerable questions and historians’ questioning answers emerges an uncertainty that, I hope, gets at what is often off-limits to academic historians: the lost emotions and inner consciousness of the dead.

What comfort had Roberts taken? What comfort had Jackson lost?

And—confession time—in doing so I was inspired by one of Cronon’s historical unfollowables, James Joyce’s Ulysses. The novel is justly famous for its dissertation-ready, annotation-necessary modernist experimentation with form, culminating in the final chapter, in which Joyce portrays Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness. But—and I’m not alone in thinking soUlysses rises above its word games in the second to last chapter, when Joyce drops the literary pretense to unite his two most important characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. In the form of a catechism, Joyce finally gives straight answers. Sort of.

Of what did the duumvirate deliberate during their itinerary?

Music, literature, Ireland, Dublin, Paris, friendship, woman, prostitution, diet, the influence of gaslight or the light of arc and glowlamps on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees, exposed corporation emergency dustbuckets, the Roman catholic church, ecclesiastical celibacy, the Irish nation, jesuit education, careers, the study of medicine, the past day, the maleficent influence of the presabbath, Stephen’s collapse.

In its alternating romance and formality; in the way its questions reach for more powerful possibilities than what the text, the real, the documents can ever answer; in the way those answers get more spiritual, and hint at the emotion behind the facts (“Stephen’s collapse”)—the chapter elevates the entire book. It moves past the novelist’s prior cant and self-referentiality to do something more direct, in effect liberating the book from the literature that came before.

In this way, Ulysses is a lot more like academic history in than we’d like to admit. Like Ulysses, academic history has gotten progressively denser, more aware of itself, more beautifully complicated—but less legible beyond the historian’s boundaries. Joyce was aware of that within Ulysses, I think, and added this almost-end, where he seemed to leave behind what had come before, in literature, and in his own novel, to clear the decks for his perhaps overrated but certainly beautiful and momentous final chapter, the inner stream of consciousness of Molly Bloom that made the book famous, and banned.

Can academic historians achieve something similar? I know that ‘he who invokes Ulysses in relation to his own writing’ is already on thin ice. And perhaps my friend’s reaction to Death of a Sailor suggests that I’ve played a little too loose with my narrative. Perhaps I became a writer of historical fiction, without intending to.

But I don’t think I did, and I think that we can do better. We can play with our forms, without sacrificing our rigor and respect for the sources. We must. It’s a funny thing being in the resurrection business, but Cronon is right. With the right stories, and voices, we can bring back the dead.