Monday, March 15, 2010

“I am almost coming to the conclusion that all histories are bad"

Randall Stephens

What's not to like a about collections of private letters? (Well lots, if you think they are boring, tedious, self-serving, etc.) I almost always enjoy reading the letters of novelists, historians, critics. Collections of letters, like memoirs, make for good reading. You can tell a great deal about an author’s opinions by reading his/her intimate thoughts on all manner of subjects. Often, the more unrestrained the letter writer is, the more interesting the letter.

I recently came across passages on history in the collected letters of two of the most famous authors of the 20th century. Flannery O’Connor makes a passing reference to C. Vann Woodward, while disparaging much of southern historical writing. High praise, indeed, to have O’Connor’s stamp of approval.

Flannery O’Connor to "A," May 25, 1963, Sally Fitzgerald, ed., The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, pp. 521-22.

I have taken up with reading C. Vann Woodward. Have you ever read this gentleman—Burden of Southern History is what I have but I intend to order off after more. Southern history usually gives me pain, but this man knows how to write English.

C. S. Lewis is far more pessimistic about the history trade. A young fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis, at least in this 1927 letter to his brother, has little patience for historians. Historians, he laments, typically fail to capture the truth of experience. Lewis’s meditation on “fact” sounds a little like E. H. Carr on the same. Though Lewis is here writing more than three decades before Carr.

Letters like this, though, often reflect the thoughts of a writer in the moment. They are like a snapshot, not a meticulously painted landscape.

C. S. Lewis to his brother, December 12, 1927, in Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Family Letters, 1905-1931, 741.

I am almost coming to the conclusion that all histories are bad. Whenever one turns from the historian to the writings of the people he deals with there is always such a difference. What is in my mind at present is (on the one hand) Beowulf and Alfred and the Sagas, and (on the other) Gibbon and Oman about 'the barbarians'. What common measure is there between 'Odoacer had alienated the sympathies of his Italian subjects by seizing a third of the land to reward his veterans' and 'Oft Scyld Scefing overthrew the mead benches of many a kindred. The dwellers round had to obey him across the whale's way. That was a good king . . . So shall a young hero do good and give lordly gifts, that his retainers may repay him when war comes.’ The implication (always present) in the first version that Odoacer oughtn't to have given the land to his men, or that any choice in the matter could have occurred to him, as against the perfectly untroubled sincerity with which the other describes the hero as 'doing good' in scattering the 'lordly gifts' (acquired no doubt at the cost of 'alienating the sympathy' of someone) makes one despair. Then 'his veterans’—memories of Chelsea Hospital! Of course one can see in some sense that the two passages refer to the same sort of fact. But what is left of the 'fact' if you take away both its two 'appearances'? And if you plump for one of them, is that historical truth?

See also these collections in full at Google Books:


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I think one of the other fun things about letters is that the historian can indulge a bit in which aspect of the writer's personality or opinions were brought out by the particular recipient of a letter. In that Greenblatt-ian way, we know we all "present" ourselves differently to different audience. But it can be hard to see the way people in the past did that (in our attempt to get at their "real" ideas and actions). Letters provide that little bit of insight sometimes.

And can I indulge in the (perhaps overdone) historian's lament regarding the demise of the skill/investment in letter-writing in the current age? Are our digital voices going to endure as long as those print ones from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Randall said...

Lisa: Great point. The questions you raise about perspective are exactly what I try to get students to think about as they read primary sources, and letters in particular.

I think you're right about the art of letter writing. Seems to be going the way of penmanship.

Bland Whitley said...

I spend all my days poring over letters to and from Jefferson. My favorite opening of recent vintage comes courtesy of Albert Gallatin, writing on 21 Nov. 1802: "I hope your administration will afford but few materials to historians . . ." I think we're going to have to make t-shirts with that line.

Randall said...

Bland: I like that! Does it mean that he hoped that things would run so smoothly that there would be little to note? Or was Gallatin calling on Jefferson to burn his papers?