Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Scott Herring on the Role of Literature in Recreating the Past


I think that Scott Herring's point about the role literature plays in bringing the past to life is well-taken: it's one of the points I wanted to make yesterday, when I wrote about Kathryn Stockett's book The Help.  Because we Americans have a short historical memory, we lose the significant check and balance that history can provide us if we pay close attention to it.  We lose its significant checks and balances as a culture, to the extent that our culture lacks knowledge or understanding of history.


We lose, in other words, the sense that there were other ways of doing and thinking about matters in the past, which might enrich, correct, and provide alternatives for the ways of organizing things that we deem official today.  As a culture, we Americans deal with the alterity of the past by domesticating history, by making it a slightly ludicrous extension of the present, one that does not so much stand against us in any critical corrective way, as it adds a bit of exotic spice to the taken-for-granted present.

I've been thinking through some of these issues as I correspond with a friend who has written a novel about the interaction of French, native American, and Anglo cultures in Canada and the northern part of the U.S. during the late 18th century.  As I told my friend after reading his fascinating text, it seems to me one of the tricks of writing effective historical fiction is to isolate words or phrases that might be dead giveaways of the retrospective focus of the novel, and to avoid those words and phrases whenever possible.

A case in point: at several junctures in his text, my friend has one of his characters speak about his "mom."  When I hear the word "mom" coming from the mouth of an 18th-century M├ętis character, I'm jolted rudely into a present that I had hoped to escape precisely by immersing myself in the text I'm reading.  

To the best of my knowledge, the word "mom" has a 20th-century American middle-class provenance.  I can't remember ever having heard the word growing up, in fact.  No one in my extended family or in the culture in which I grew up ever used that word to address or describe a mother.  My brothers and I used the juvenile form "mommy" up to adolescence, and then, as our mother and her siblings did, we referred to or addressed our mother as "Mother."

(We continued, on the other hand, speaking of and addressing our father as "Daddy," and as I think about that, I wonder if the need to separate oneself from one's childhood mother is stronger than is the need to put distance between oneself and one's father.  Or if, in the case of my own culture, fathers were already so impossibly distant that there was little need for such semantic separation . . . . Or if we were merely mimicking both of our parents, who referred to their fathers as "Daddy."  The word "dad" was as unknown and foreign to us as the word "mom.")

My father and his siblings called their mother "Mama," and I can recall my paternal grandparents speaking of their parents as mama and papa.  My maternal grandmother used the venerable old English forms ma and pa when she told us stories about her parents.  "Mom" was just not on my radar screen as I grew up, and when I first encountered it on television and among friends raised in other parts of the country, it struck me as culturally alien, as a quite specifically modern (and middle-class) American term--albeit one that has now, by virtue of the mass media, become standard American parlance among all classes and in all regions of the nation.

And it's for all those reasons that I find myself jarred when I find the word in the mouth of an 18th-century Canadian man of mixed native and French ancestry . . . . As I have pointed out to my friend during our back-and-forth discussion of his novel, it's impossible to write any historical novel in the dialect of those of the period the novel seeks to recreate.  The result would be stilted.  It would be, well, Johnsonian in the worst sense of that word.

At the same time, it seems to me that it's important for good historical fiction to avoid shibboleth words that blare the historical story's contemporary composition.  It's important to pepper the text as dexterously as possible with turns of phrase and terms that move the reader into an historical setting entirely different from her or his own setting.

As Herring puts the point,

The past is not another country; it is another life. The texture of daily living is different now than in the past, more different the further back we look, until we find people whose experiences created a psychology we might find baffling or rude. Many details that once made up the daily round are lost to us because people considered them too trivial to write down.

Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept. Those details may seem unimportant, but what they convey is not. My bit of junk from the Montana sage taught me why millions of otherwise-modern people in 20th-century America feared the desert as much as the ox-drawn pioneers had.

To my mind, that's what historical fiction at its best always does.   And it's what literature of the past read in the present does, when it's effective literature.  And cultures that stop reading carefully the significant texts of their cultural history and of the history of other cultures inevitably decline, because, lacking checks and balances to the tyranny of the present, they become incapable of imagining anything other than the imprisoning now in which they find themselves, when they haven't taken the trouble to educate themselves.

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