Thursday, March 24, 2011

History and Literature

Note: This blog post was originally posted under the date February 17, 2011, which is the day I started writing it. I saved it as a draft that day and didn't finish and publish it until some weeks later. I assumed it would go up as a new post on the day I published it, but I just realized that it didn't -- it was buried among older posts. So I'm putting it up as a new post in case anyone missed it the first time around!

There's a certain kind of person who gets all starry-eyed when you say the name "E.P. Thompson," or utter the title The Making of the English Working Class.

That kind of person would be me (I've met a few others). For those who have not been anointed into this cult, E.P. Thompson was a British historian, and his magnum opus was published in the sixties. When I came across it in 1977 or so, as a sophomore in college, I had never been so bowled over by a book before--at least, a nonfiction book. I suppose it's fair to say the book changed my life: I decided I wanted to BE E.P. Thompson. After I graduated from college, I got a fellowship to study in England, with the intention of stalking my idol and becoming his protege.

I was informed, however, that the university where he taught--Warwick--was in a less than appealing location, and also that he had basically retired from teaching. So I ended up at the University of Sussex, charmingly situated near the seaside resort of Brighton, studying with a disciple of his (a woman who had also made the journey to the U.K. from the U.S. to study at the feet of the master, and who had never left).

What was it about the man, and the book, that I found so captivating? I suppose it was Thompson's marriage of academics and the armchair socialism that I was then prone to: instead of writing a history of the elites, which is what so much of history is inevitably about, Thompson focused on what used to be called the lower orders of society: the mechanics, the artisans, the workers. In a deservedly much-quoted phrase, he said he wrote to rescue these people "from the enormous condescension of posterity."

The difficulty with writing about such people as individuals--as thinking, feeling beings rather than statistics--is that they didn't leave much behind in the way of a paper trail. They didn't keep diaries (or if they did, the diaries generally weren't preserved), they didn't publish memoirs, they didn't make headlines. But Thompson was able to unearth and mine what they did leave behind: broadsides, pamphlets, hymns. As I recall (and I haven't read the book in many years), he used the techniques of literary criticism to penetrate the opacity of these sources, extrapolating from their choice of words and tropes to reconstruct their lives, their hopes and dreams and frustrations. For someone who was majoring in English History and Literature, it was perhaps the perfect textbook.

I didn't end up becoming E.P. Thompson, as it happens. But I never lost my interest in trying to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people who inhabited the past. And somehow, at long last, I'm getting a chance to do it, through the medium of fiction. For the novel I'm currently working on, which is set in early 19th-century Baltimore, I'm in the process of inventing a character who is a member of the working class of that era (if it's not an anachronism to use that phrase to describe a stratum of an essentially pre-industrial society).

My task has been made much easier by the existence of a book that, if it hadn't existed, I would have been tempted to commission: Scraping By, by Seth Rockman. It's an exploration, as the subtitle tells us, of "Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore." A veritable gold mine! And, as Rockman politely implies in his introduction, his task is even harder than Thompson's. Thompson focused on the artisan class--the skilled workers--who were generally educated enough to leave at least some written records behind. But, as Rockman points out, this was really the cream of the working class. The majority of workers were unskilled and largely unschooled. And, generally speaking, too worn down by the arduous process of trying merely to survive--"scraping by" in Rockman's phrase--to even attempt the efforts at self-organization and resistance that Thompson chronicled.

So Rockman has to rely on documents like almshouse rolls and jailhouse records to reconstruct the lives he's writing about. I found the book fascinating, but inevitably, there are huge gaps in the historical record. Occasionally a few tantalizing details of an individual life pop up, but most of it remains submerged, mysterious as the underside of an iceberg. And of course, the actual voices of these long-dead ordinary people, so vital to Thompson's approach, are almost entirely lost.

That's where fiction comes in--or at least I hope it will. In my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, I tried to give voice, through the medium of my imagination, to two obscure women of the 1790's whose lives, as best I could reconstruct them, were fascinating and dramatic. But of course, in that case I had letters--to, from, and about them--to serve as my guide to who these women might have been. And in the novel I'm currently working on, one of my characters (again based on a real, if obscure, historical figure) left behind not only some letters but an entire year of a magazine she edited and largely wrote. Her voice resounds quite clearly across the centuries.

It's the other main character in this novel-in-progress who I intend to draw from the ranks of the working class. Her experiences and her personality will be influenced by what I've read in Rockman and other sources--particularly Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, which focuses to a large extent on the early 19th-century tension between elitism and democracy. This character, who I'm calling Margaret, will exemplify the nascent trend towards what became Jacksonian democracy: a servant who rejects that label in favor of "the help," thought to be less demeaning, and for similar reason chooses to call her employer "boss" instead of master or mistress. She'll have had some experience of the almshouse, and she'll have chosen domestic service because her other alternatives--either "slop work" (low-paying piecework in the garment trade) or prostitution--were so unappealing.

But her voice will be my own invention--and so far I'm having a great time inventing it. Margaret herself never existed, of course, but surely many people like her did. And maybe at last, after two centuries, some of them will be speaking through her-- or rather, through me. I guess I haven't exactly turned into E.P. Thompson, but I feel that I'm trying to do through the medium of fiction part of what he accomplished as a historian. And I like to think that he'd approve.

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