Thursday, September 28, 2006

Beyond the back door

My talk on The Voice at the Back Door and the Carrollton Massacre yesterday went nicely. I was lucky to have a good crowd of folks who were interested in the subject and eager to talk back! The questions were large and thought-provoking. It's not exactly staircase wit, but a good night's sleep allowed me to think of some better answers to a couple of the most challenging ones.

Lloyd Kramer, noting that my talk was first about a novel, then--using the standard tools of historical research--about a historical event, asked what was the relationship between history and fiction. A large question, for which we could go all the way back to Sidney's Defense of Poetry. For a great latter-day discussion of this question, see E. L. Doctorow's recent essay "Notes on the History of Fiction."

Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. . . .

A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power -- a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn't write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay "The Art of Fiction," describes this empowerment as "an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life ... and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations." What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is "to guess the unseen from the seen."

The Voice at the Back Door is remarkable for the way in which it accurately "guesses the unseen from the seen." It isn't real history, certainly. But historians who sit down to think about it will recognize that history too is a form of narrative, and thus also, in the end, derives from "a personal power." Doctorow continues,

Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn't. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. "There are no facts in themselves," Nietzche says. "For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning." Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. . . . This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

An audience member, Joe Glatthaar, was too quiet in this discussion. His 1985 book on Sherman's march to the sea was an important source for Doctorow's latest novel, The March.

A second good question: Maria Winslow wondered if there was danger in keeping old history too much alive. In an email message to me she clarified the two-part question she was trying to ask:

1. As a 6-year-old child going to the first integrated school in town [Edenton, N.C.] (remember this would have been 1972!), did having no knowledge of segregation and its supporters for the next few years make it easier to break a history of racism?

2. Many of the mean bastards who protested are still alive - who are they (and in a tolerant moment, how has their thinking changed)?

To part one, Elizabeth Spencer referred to Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name, a good choice because in it Tim says things like this:

We cannot address the place we find ourselves because we will not acknowledge the road that brought us here. Our failure to confront the historical truth about how African Americans finally won their freedom presents a major obstacle to genuine racial reconciliation.

It would be nice if we could all wake up in the morning (I've heard Tim say this) and determine to exist in a world in which racism never figured. But in the only world we've got, that's not possible. To "transcend our history and move toward higher ground," as Tim (son of a preacher) urges, we first have to reckon with that history and especially what it has meant to African Americans.

To part two: I can't speak for anyone in Edenton, but it is possible to know what some of the more nortorious of the men of the old order continued to think as they got older. The Alabama state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death sparked the Selma march, spoke on the record for the first time in 2005, and he didn't seem particularly repentant; he seemed indifferent at best to the possibility that the murder case would be reopened, as it has been by now (by Alabama's first elected black district attorney). Byron de la Beckwith, convicted in 1994 in the murder of Medgar Evers, is another example. We can only hope that the thinking of many others has indeed changed.

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