Friday, April 15, 2011

Jane Kamensky on Learning from Fiction

Randall Stephens

Writing history is often a topic of discussion on this blog and animates the pages of
Historically Speaking. (See some recent posts on writing here, here, and here.) Have a look at the right hand column on this page. You'll see posts grouped under "How to Write," "Writing History," "Editing," and more.

In that vein, I'm happy to post below a selection from Jane Kamensky's lead essay on writing in the April issue of Historically Speaking. Kamensky provides useful advice on scene setting, prose, and style, drawing on the lessons of fiction. She brings the wisdom of experience. With Jill Lepore, she authored the novel Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2008). Kamensky has also written The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (Viking, 2008), a finalist for the 2009 George Washington Book Prize; and Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Jane Kamensky, "Novelties: A Historian's Field Notes from Fiction,"
Historically Speaking (April 2011)

Here in the twilight of the Enlightenment, academic historians have fallen in love with how little we can know. Over the last fifty years, people, events, even places in the past have grown more obscure to many of us. Compare a work of history written in 1960 to one published in 2010, and you might wonder whether the mists of time have somehow thickened.

Can aspects of the novelist’s imagination help us to cut through the fog? Two years ago, the historian Jill Lepore and I published a novel we wrote together. Set in Boston in 1764, Blindspot started out as a lark, a gift for a friend. It grew into a project that felt important, even urgent, to us as scholars: a different way of knowing and telling the past. What follows are nine lessons learned in that effort to conjure a known and knowable world: a Then as real as Now, in our minds and on our pages.

1. Face It

Most historians suffer from prosopagnosia: face blindness. My co-author and I had written a goodly number of pages when it dawned on us that we had yet to tell our readers what our two first-person narrators looked like. In a novel that is, in large measure, about seeing, such description seemed a matter of duty. Our readers, not to mention our narrators themselves, needed to know how tall Fanny and Jamie stood, the color of their hair, the cut of their proverbial jibs.

How tough could such an accounting be? This was fiction, after all; we answered only to our characters. But confronted with this delectable task, we promptly choked. Their eyes, how they twinkled; their dimples, how merry: it seemed we had naught but rank cliché at our fingertips.

How do you take stock of a human face? Every time you walk in to a bus, a bar, or a classroom, you take people’s mettle visually, instantly, almost without thinking. But the sheer narrative terror of that moment made me realize that, as historians, we seldom confront the embodied nature of past individuals. We’re capable of writing the history of the self, or the history of the body, or even the history of sexuality, without crafting characters capable of staring back at us, as a good portrait does.

Writers of fiction give their characters faces and yea, even bodies, in a variety of ways. Consider this description, so thorough and meticulous that it bends in spots toward inventory:

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. . . . [H]e is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.1

Cromwell, of course, is a character from history and from fiction, in this case Hilary Mantel’s magnificent novel, Wolf Hall. Her description begins with a physical body, and a face, courtesy of Hans Holbein’s 1533 portrait. But then she peers through the eyes to the soul, as if she knows the guy, and her reader should, too.

Can historians do anything quite so wonderful? We don’t know the inner life of our subjects the way a novelist can know her characters. After all, a writer of fiction invents the soul whose windows the eyes become. Mantel’s Cromwell isn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t be history’s Cromwell. Thomas Cromwell merely lived; Mantel’s Cromwell soars. Yet almost every line in her description can be fully sourced: to the portrait, to Cromwell’s letters, to contemporaneous descriptions of the man. At bottom, Mantel’s path to knowing Cromwell isn’t all that different from a scholar’s. The magic comes in the author’s moral confidence in what she’s got—and then, of course, in the telling. Biographers, who live a long time with their subjects, offer readers hard-won, hard-working encapsulations of character all the time. Historians, trained to concentrate on the background at the expense of the figure in the portrait, do so less often than we might.

Of course, those who study remoter pasts and less celebrated people rarely even know what their subjects looked like. Yet no matter how obscure the actors, they had eyes and mouths, expressions and gestures that quickened the pulse of loved ones and triggered the loathing of enemies. Even when we cannot see the people we write about—perhaps especially then—we’d do well to remember that they weren’t made of paper, and didn’t pass their fleeting lives in acid-free boxes within temperature-controlled archives. They lived behind faces and within bodies, in heat and in cold, pleasure and pain, experiencing the present from the inside out. Their present became our past, and we’re stuck working from the outside in, from the page to the person. That’s no excuse for confusing the journey with the destination.

2. Taste It

The challenge of “facing” our subjects represents the merest tip of a vast and complex phenomenological iceberg. As a sometime novelist, I spent a lot of time presumptuously tasting, hearing, smelling, seeing, and feeling on my characters’ behalf. Since Blindspot is set in the sweltering summer of 1764, that wasn’t always pleasant.

The novelist is not alone here. In the last two decades the “history of the senses,” pioneered by scholars including Michael Baxandall and John Berger (sight), Alain Corbin (smell), and Richard Rath and Mark Smith (sound), among others, has become a flourishing subfield.2 I admire this work a great deal. But for all its sophistication, the history of the senses is as remote from sensorily rich history as the history of the body is from embodied history.

Because they create rather than discover a world, writers of fiction constantly index and mobilize the senses. Think of Proust’s madeleine, surely the most famous cookie in literature, whose lime-scented crumbs set off a four-page-long reverie that begins in Swann’s aunt’s kitchen and spreads to encompass “the whole of Combray, and its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid . . . town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”3

In nonfiction writing it can be no coincidence that some of the best sensoryladen storytelling comes from authors not burdened by Ph.D.s. Consider two examples, each describing the day-to-day operations of the print trades in the 18th century. The first comes from a superb work of academic history, Jeffrey L. Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers:

Though printing had its cerebral and prestigious aspects, it was still a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job. One of the first chores that would be delegated to a young apprentice printer was preparing the sheepskin balls used to ink the type. The skins were soaked in urine, stamped on daily for added softness, and finally wrung out by hand. The work got harder from there, and only a little more pleasant. Supplies of ink were often scarce in America, so printers frequently had to make it on site, by boiling lampblack (soot) in varnish (linseed oil and rosin). If the printing-office staff survived the noxious fumes and fire hazards of making ink, their persons and equipment nevertheless spent much of the workday covered in the stuff.4

This is lucid, economical writing, pointed toward a set of important questions about the role of printers in the emergent public sphere of the early United States.

Now compare Pasley’s to this description, by the journalist Adam Hochschild, of James Phillips’s London print shop, hard by the Bank of England, where a crucial meeting of Granville Sharp’s antislavery society took place in May, 1787:

Type would be sitting in slanted wooden trays with compartments for the different letters; the compositors who lined it up into rows, letter by letter, would be working, as the day ended, by the light of tallow candles whose smoke, over the decades, would blacken the ceiling. . . . Around the sides of the room, stacks of dried sheets, the latest antislavery book or Quaker tract, would await folding and binding. And finally, the most distinctive thing about an eighteenth-century print shop was its smell. To ink the type as it sat on the bed of the press, printers used a wool-stuffed leather pad with a wooden handle. Because of its high ammonia content, the most convenient solvent to rinse off the ink residue that built up on these pads was printers’ urine. The pads were soaked in buckets of this, then strewn on the slightly sloping floor, where printers stepped on them as they worked, to wring them out and let the liquid drain away.5

Though the two passages rely on some of the same sources, Hochschild’s version owes as much to Dickens as to Pasley. It is specific and transporting rather than generic and distancing. Key differences reside in the sensory details: one paragraph, three senses. Sight: the blackened ceilings, the smoking tallow candles. Touch: compositors’ fingers flying over cast-iron type, the heft and texture of the wooden-handled pads, the disequilibrium of standing on that sloping floor. And of course smell: the close shop on a warm spring night reeking of piss as well as Enlightenment ideals.

These sensory details give Hochschild’s scene volume. But they do more than that. The sight, feel, and smell of the shop impart a frisson of opposites —these are “unlikely surroundings,” as Hochschild puts it, for a key moment in the transformation of humanitarian thought. Then, quickly, we’re on to the substance of that meeting, an intellectual history drawn from tract literature. Sensory does not mean sensational. read more>>>


LD said...

I tend to agree with Kamensky on these suggestions, though I have some reservations about edging too far over into the realm of fiction.

I am using a baseball metaphor to make sense of Kamensky's advice:

Good Stuff

Randall said...

LD: Thanks for your thoughtful post on the Kamensky essay!

PW said...

If the facts are there to back up the descriptive techniques Jane mentions, combining the two will create insightful history that jumps off the page. McCullough does it to great effect, Rick Atkinson is a master, too. Bravo, Jane, for sharing these practical tips with us.

LD, I agree with your contention if the writer does not have the historical chops to ground the narrative in what actually happened (or, indeed, to put the people mentioned and their actions & motivations into context).


LD said...

Thanks PW.

But I didn't mean to imply that someone who relies on these "fiction techniques" is doing so because he can't get his point across by more "empirical" means.

Even an unhittable hurler enjoys throwing good stuff. To see a fastball pitcher do his high kick and expect him to come with the heat only to see him astonish the batter with a looping knuckleball is a delight like no other. Every historian can benefit from this reminder to write prose that has a quick pulse.

But there is still a strike zone -- I do think that Kamensky stays well within it here. Those of us who are PhD students are like single-A minor league prospects -- we have to show control and precision, and at least the potential to bring the heat, in order to get away with tossing the stuff.

Good lord -- why am I sitting at home and wrestling with my writing today? I should be out at a ballgame!

PW said...

Well put, LD. I love your point about control, particularly.

With regard to the ballgame, I have passed up many a sunny afternoon to get another couple of hundred words on the page, forsaking the fresh air and Vitamin D recharge that'd do me the world of good!

We writers need to get out more...

dan allosso said...

It would be interesting to look at the change over time in the rhetorical techniques that have been used by writers and accepted by readers of history. Oscar Handlin used italicized interior monologues of made-up "representative" characters in the _The Uprooted_ (1951). In the sixties, Perry Miller and Robert Wiebe both used fictional characters (Natty Bumppo and the doctor from Bellamy's _Looking Backward_) as archetypes, in place of real people. Would these techniques be possible now? Does it matter who is trying them?

PW said...

Dan, I'll have to check out the examples you give. Sounds like you've got a great future HS topic on your hands.