Thursday, January 13, 2011

Democracy and Its Discontents

One of the problems with writing fiction based on real historical figures is that you have to deal with reality--their reality, which often doesn't come neatly packaged to correspond to our own. In other words, real people, especially real people who lived a long time ago, don't always come equipped with opinions and sentiments that we in the 21st century can easily relate to.

With my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, one of the problems I had to grapple with was slavery. It was clear from the historical record that one of my two main characters owned slaves. I felt it was important that readers be able to identify with this character, Hannah Iredell. They didn't have to love her (although that would be nice), but at the same time, they couldn't recoil from her in disgust. They had to be able to see the world--her world--through her eyes. Would they be able to do that if they knew she owned slaves, and if that master-slave relationship was portrayed in the book?

I think I managed to deal with that issue by stretching my imagination to encompass a world where slavery was viewed by most Americans as a regrettable fact of life, and those who owned slaves were able to see themselves as decent, even kind and generous, people. That doesn't mean, of course, that I came to see slavery as acceptable myself. I was simply able to understand how Hannah Iredell might have seen it, and how she might have justified it to herself. And it seems, from what I've been told, that readers were able to understand that too. While a few readers have told me that they couldn't warm up to Hannah Iredell, no one has cited her ownership of slaves as the reason.

Now that I'm contemplating another historical novel, I have a different problem. I had thought, when I first started researching the life of Eliza Anderson, that I had found a protagonist that 21st-century readers would be more likely to find sympathetic. Unlike the two main characters in A More Obedient Wife--both of whom, as the title suggests, essentially accepted the prevailing 18th-century assumption that wives should be subservient to their husbands--Eliza was spunky and feisty, challenging the limits placed on her by early 19th-century society. Abandoned by a feckless husband at the age of 20, she picked herself up and got to work, first as a teacher and shortly afterwards as the first woman in America to edit a magazine (at the age of 26). When she found the man who proved to be her true love, she managed to secure a divorce from her first husband in order to marry him. (This was no easy feat at the time: she had to travel alone from Baltimore to Albany on a new-fangled steamship to track him down, then secure proof of adultery--"not an affair," as she drily remarked, "to which Men usually call witnesses"--and then get the legislature to pass a private bill.)

Alas, I soon discovered that Eliza wasn't a complete paragon of progressive proto-feminism. Yes, in her magazine (the Baltimore Observer), she staunchly advocated a woman's right to education and to express her opinions on any subject she chose. But she also criticized an exhibition of student accomplishments at a local girls' school, warning that "a public acknowledgment of [girls'] merits" might lead them to become "insolent, forward, and presuming." Would she have leveled the same criticism at an exhibition at a boy's school? Not to mention that people in Baltimore were leveling exactly these same charges at her for presuming, as a female, to edit a magazine.

Worse, Eliza was something of an elitist. Her columns for the Observer and her letters to friends are peppered with disparaging remarks about democracy and the state of culture in America. She was dismissive of the artistic endeavors of amateurs and self-taught painters, and opined that "the Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit workmen to their levees."

Great, I thought: an anti-democratic snob. Readers are really going to respond to that. Not to mention that, for all my admiration of Eliza, this aspect of her personality didn't even sound particularly appealing to me. Yes, I'd managed to make a slave-holder palatable to readers, but I didn't actually have documentary evidence of how Hannah Iredell had felt about slavery: I was able to make that up. Here I had to deal with Eliza's own words.

But I've tried, as I did before, to cast myself back to the era my characters lived in--an era when "democracy" was still an uncertain experiment, not the sacrosanct ideal it's become today. And as I've learned more about the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of early 19th-century America--largely through reading Gordon Wood's terrific book, Empire of Liberty--I've begun to see things through Eliza's eyes. I've learned, for example, that eye-gouging matches were common in the South, with the combatants becoming local heroes, and that throughout the country political disputes often devolved into violence. Consider that public education was virtually non-existent, and that whiskey was being consumed at mind-boggling rates--men, women, children, and sometimes even babies "drank whiskey all day long," according to Wood. Under these circumstances, doubts about democracy don't seem quite so reactionary.

And frankly, I confess to occasionally having doubts about democracy myself, even in this relatively enlightened day and age--especially in recent days, as I've shed tears over the victims of the shooting in Tucson and contemplated the sad fact that gun control is politically impossible in this country. (Some will argue that the Supreme Court has elevated gun rights to the level of a constitutional rather than a political issue, but the fact is that the Court has left the legislative branch with quite a few options, and the legislators are simply too scared of the NRA to exercise them. And although the Court doesn't always break down on political lines, I suspect that if there were nine Democratic appointees to the Court, the decision on the Second Amendment would have come out quite differently.) So I can draw on those feelings when I'm looking for common ground with Eliza.

In the final analysis, though, I have to agree with Winston Churchill's oft-quoted line about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. And somehow, if I'm going to write a successful novel about Eliza Anderson, I know I'm going to have to lead her to at least the beginnings of that realization as well.

As for how I might do that ... well, I'll save that for another blog post.

No comments:

Post a Comment