Thursday, June 12, 2008


If I were a high school history teacher, I’d assign my students the project of selecting one year from before they were born and to find a library with newspapers from that year, then to read the entire year of at least one of the newspapers. Two or three would be better, of course. They wouldn’t have to read each one all the way through, of course, but they would have to select at least one or two news articles from each paper to read in its entirety.

I once did pretty much exactly this for two New York newspapers for 1911, Hearst’s New York American and The Morning Telegraph (not a Hearst paper), because Damon Runyon wrote for the former and Bat Masterson wrote for the latter. I had a story in mind, and I managed 20,000 words of it, though I’d need to get back to the source material to do any more of it. It took a particular mindset, and that mindset came only with full immersion.

That’s more or less my first point here, that history looks a lot different when it’s happening, and primary sources are essential. Otherwise, you’re just taking sides in what amounts to literary criticism, comparing the narratives assembled by different historians, each with their own notions of what parts are important. That’s true with the newspaper accounts also, of course, but the narrative tissue is often easier to unwrap when it’s been hastily conjured in an ephemeral publication.

My experience also left me with a certain unease about historical fiction generally, including alternate history. Part of that comes from a realization that I had that it’s impossible to do historical figures justice in a modern narrative. Their actions made sense to them, embedded as they were in their own times, but modern audiences will not abide a true re-creation of those times (how many previous years’ bestsellers are even in print nowadays?), and translation to modern sensibilities smothers the real individuals.

I don’t have that sort of problem with out-and-out historical fantasies; it’s understood (at least by me) that the Edison or Coleridge that you encounter in a Tim Powers novel isn’t meant to be the real guy, and anyone who confuses them has trouble telling fact from fiction in the first place.

The problem is hardly limited to history, is it? Amy sometimes does transcription work, and seems to have found a small niche amongst a certain sort of documentary filmmaker. As a result, we have videotapes of various people talking about Sam Wagstaff, who was Robert Maplethorpe’s lover, patron, and promoter, and who was, as much as anyone, responsible for the shift in the consideration of photography as fine art. One of the interviews is with Patti Smith, who lived with Maplethorpe for a time in the 1970s, and whose presence, judging by the video, is absolutely riveting. That may be just the fan in me talking, since I consider Patti Smith as one of the artists in the 20th Century who kept the word “poet” from becoming something risible. But however you figure it, I’ll bet that the eventual documentary doesn’t feel the same as the original source material, because there will be someone else’s notion of the narrative in between.

Another one of the transcription projects concerned the movement to ban military recruitment from high schools and colleges. There we got to see an interview with Cindy Sheehan, talking about her son Casey. This was several months before Sheehan became famous, and the raw emotion and the severity of the injury to her soul was just nakedly displayed. This is one of those cases where the competing pro and anti-war narratives have done a substantial job of smothering the original truth of the matter. But the original source material destroys all subsequent storylines, starkly projecting the central image of a woman shattered at the loss of her child.

Real history doesn't play into narrative that well. It often misses the good tricks. I had certain reasons for reading newspapers from 1911, reasons that didn't include the occurance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A novelist would have had some foreshadowing, but with newspapers, you just turn the crank on the microfilm reader and suddenly you are staring at one of the most famous tragedies of the early 20th Century. No good storyteller would just hit you in the face like that, but history is a story made up after the fact, while original events are facts on the wing.

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