In 2014 we lost some great writers — two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium:
Incendiary poet and playwright — or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised — or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79.
Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off — his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music — he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot — which he called a rebellion — completed his radicalization.
The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part:
Who knew the World Trade Center
Was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark.
Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction.
His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege — which made him uneasy — Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s.
Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty — a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world.
Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was — those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood — I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death.
Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality.
Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life.
After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
“Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.”
Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.”
Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist.
Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle — joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border — and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter.
On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.”
In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry.
In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”
Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker:
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May.
Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt — the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue — and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains.
This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are:
Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor.
Through your words you will all live on.
Drawings by Bill Morris
A quarter century ago, when Canadian author Brian Fawcett wrote Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World, much of the novel was set in Fawcett’s hometown of Prince George, British Columbia, a remote working-class city 300 miles north of Vancouver. But when he sold the book to an American publisher, the editors insisted he change the setting to Akron, Ohio, which would be more familiar to American readers. He did and the book was published by Grove Press in 1990.
Fawcett’s tale, told with considerable good humor from the stage at panel discussion at the Vancouver International Writers Festival last week, helps explain what Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize means to Canadian writers, especially older ones who remember the cold shoulder that Canadian authors writing about Canada sometimes received from American publishers and readers. For many Canadians, Munro’s Nobel — the first for a Canadian writer if one doesn’t count Saul Bellow, who was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. when he was nine — is a sign that the world is finally catching on to the quality of Canadian literature, which has long labored under the shadow of the cultural hegemon to the south.
“Canada has been producing fine writing by a number of very fine writers, many of whom have achieved international recognition, whether it’s Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for quite some time,” says Hal Wake, who runs the week-long Vancouver Writers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday. “In my view, there have been a number of Canadian writers along the way who might have been considered before.”
“I see it more as just, ‘We were due,’” he adds with a laugh.
Munro, who began publishing in the 1960s, was among the first wave of Canadian writers to find a wide audience for stories about Canada both within and outside the country. But half a century later, as the nation has grown both economically and culturally, Canadian literature has matured to a degree that it is no longer possible to point to any one particular “Canadian literature.” This is partly because homegrown Canadian publishing firms, while facing the same systemic problems as their American counterparts, have grown more robust and adventurous in the last 50 years. But Canadian literature has grown and changed mostly because Canada itself has grown and changed. The Canada Alice Munro grew up in, largely rural and agrarian, and, outside Francophone Quebec, mostly of Scottish and English ancestry, has given way to a polyglot nation of immigrants with thriving metropolitan hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Twenty years ago, when I first started visiting Vancouver, I used to call Canada “the whitest place on Earth.” But when I moved to Vancouver with my Canadian wife last year, I was startled to find that our son’s kindergarten class in the local elementary school was in some ways more ethnically diverse than his class at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, where we had been living. Children’s birthday parties here are a miniature United Nations of Scots, Irish, British, French, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Serbs, Poles, New Zealand Maori, along with several children of First Nations tribal ancestry, and many, many children whose parentage is some mixture of the above.
So for Americans who have plowed through Munro’s Selected Stories and are looking for a broader taste of Canadian literature — or CanLit, as it is called here — I offer a partial and admittedly idiosyncratic “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Literature.” To avoid stating the obvious, I will skip some of the more famous living writers, like Martell, Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood, whose work is already well known outside Canada. Institutional modesty also prevents me from touting my talented Millions colleague, Emily St. John Mandel, a native of British Columbia (though I will not refrain from mentioning that her most recent book is The Lola Quartet and that she has a new book, Station Eleven, due out from Knopf in 2015).
I cannot pretend to be an authority on the eternally fraught subject of CanLit, having only lived in the country a year, so readers should feel free to chime in with other Canadian faves in the comments section.
Joseph Boyden: Let me put this as bluntly and unequivocally as I can: It is a crime that Boyden’s work is not better known outside Canada, especially in the United States. With his latest novel, The Orenda, he has set himself the breathtakingly audacious task of rewriting the creation story of Canada to put Native people, in this case the Huron and Iroquois Indians, at the center of the story where they belong. This alone would make it worth a look, but the novel also happens to be a terrific read, if not always an easy one. Set in the mid-1600s, The Orenda recounts the blood-soaked history of the early French exploration into what is today the Canadian province of Ontario through the eyes of three central characters: a brave Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl he has adopted after killing her family, and French Jesuit missionary come to bring the heathen Natives to Christ.
The novel is 500 pages long and contains some of the most vicious scenes of violence I have ever read, but Boyden has a fascinating story to tell and he tells it with extraordinary delicacy and even-handedness. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, for Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, to have made Christophe, his Jesuit missionary, who is based on a historical figure, St. Jean de Brébeuf, into the bad guy. In the book, Christophe and his fellow Frenchmen lay waste to a rich and complex Native society, but by telling so much of the story through Christophe’s eyes, Boyden renders the priest’s actions both comprehensible and in some ways even noble, despite the destruction he wreaks on the very people whose souls he is trying to save.
The Orenda has been out since September in Canada, where it is already a #1 bestseller, but won’t be available in the U.S. until May 2014. No matter. It’s worth a trip to Amazon.ca to buy it now. Boyden, who is just 47, plans to write a companion novel to The Orenda, as well as a final novel to complete a trilogy he started with his first two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. Many things could stop him. He could run out of gas. He could get spooked by the magnitude of his own talent and ambition. But if he does not, if he is able to carry out the work he has cut out for himself, I think I already know who will be Canada’s next Nobel laureate.
Mavis Gallant: Think of Gallant as the Francophone Alice Munro. Born in Montreal in 1922 — she is, incredibly, now 91 — Gallant worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1940s before leaving journalism to become a fiction writer in Paris, where she has lived most of her adult life. As with Munro, many of Gallant’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker, and like Munro, Gallant has a gift for capturing the inner lives of young, spirited women raised in provincial, cloistered worlds.
Gallant wrote two novels, but she is best known for her short fiction, the best of which can found in her doorstop-sized Selected Stories. Her fiction can be decorous to a fault, but when she is on, there is no one smarter or more observant about the human heart. I have never forgotten the first story of hers I ever read, “Across the Bridge,” published in The New Yorker in 1991, about a young French girl engaged by her parents to the son of a business partner who rebels by becoming infatuated with another boy. The world of the story is petty and narrow, and the stakes tiny, but in her quiet way Gallant makes you feel as if the future of love itself hung in the balance.
Alistair MacLeod: Now 77, MacLeod is best known for his short stories collected in Island, most of which are set on the remote Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia off Canada’s east coast, where MacLeod spent much of his early life. Seven years younger than Munro, he is, like her, of primarily Scottish ancestry, and the world of his stories, like that of some of her early work, is provincial, economically straitened, and emotionally austere. But unlike Munro, who grew up in Ontario near placid Lake Huron, MacLeod is haunted by the sea, and in the best of his stories, like “The Boat,” the first of the stories collected in Island, the sea is almost a character in the story.
MacLeod’s stories tend toward the bleak, and after a while one begins to hanker for some coloring beyond shades of gray. For this reason, Island, for all its mentions of the sea, is anything but a beach read. I recall finishing the collection with two central conclusions: first, that MacLeod is a marvelous craftsman of short stories, and, second, that I was very, very glad I wasn’t raised the child of fishermen on Cape Breton in the 1940s. Together, these two thoughts spurred me to rush out and buy MacLeod’s acclaimed 1999 novel, No Great Mischief, but not so far to actually read it.
Robertson Davies: For those who prefer their slices of small-town Canadian life a bit less brooding, there’s Robertson Davies, that white-bearded font of plays, critical essays, reportage, and fiction, including his three trilogies, The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy. His best-known book is probably The Fifth Business, the first installment of The Deptford Trilogy, a busy tale told in the form of a long letter by its central character, retiring teacher Dunstan Ramsay, who lays out the story of his life as a World War I soldier, teacher, and lifelong frenemy of businessman Percy Boyd (“Boy”) Staunton.
Davies, who died in 1995 at age 82, was an actor and the editor of a small-town newspaper before his writing brought him to prominence, and some of his best work, like his early novels Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice, touch on the worlds of amateur theater troupes and newspapers.
Esi Edugyan: Even as Canada’s population becomes less Anglo-Saxon and pale, it is still rare to see black people — or Hispanics, for that matter — in most Canadian cities, so it was with deep curiosity that I recently picked up Half-Blood Blues, by Edugyun, a child of Ghanaian immigrant parents born and raised in the central Canadian city of Calgary. A detective story of sorts, Half-Blood Blues centers on the disappearance of Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant jazz trumpeter born to a white German mother and a black African soldier, who is arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris.
Narrated by one of Hiero’s fellow musicians who sets out 50 years later to learn what happened to his friend, much of the book is written in an odd slangy patois, and like a lot of novels written in slang, it can take some getting used to. But once Edugyun immerses you in the world of these black jazz musicians living amid the intrigue and dangers of wartime Europe, your ear adjusts to the dialect and you succumb to the pleasures of a tale well told.
The only footnotes worth reading these days are the ones written by David Foster Wallace. Wallace made the marginalized fine print purr with energy. The typical Wallace footnote is something of a trick. It begins with what appear to be functional intentions before morphing into a linguistic stunt delivered with a sweet mixture of wit and tenderness. When it’s over (and that
can take a while — sometimes pages in 7-pt font), a single Wallace footnote creates shockwaves that reduce the dominant text, no matter how brilliant, to an afterthought.
I’m speculating here, but I’m fairly certain those footnotes probably got Wallace laid. A lot. D.T. Max’s recent (and wonderful) biography is littered with anecdotes documenting the writer’s opportunistic carnality. We learn, for one, that on a fall afternoon, making his way across the
quadrangle of Amherst College, Wallace turned to a friend and noted how “the smell of cunt was in the air.” Seriously. Cunt. Here was this off-the-charts brilliant man, a charming wordsmith who used words such as priapic and supperate as if they were the stuff of bathroom graffiti, reducing garden-variety lust to a word so juvenile in its offensiveness that most decent folk just refer to it, under duress, as “the c-word.”
Say what you will about propriety, but such language bespeaks drive. My introductory claim here is thus that Wallace’s success with women — however fleeting and detached and cold — had something to do with those footnotes. Again, I’m aware that this sounds sort of ridiculous. But think about, as a reader, how a truly good footnote can rivet you to the page and transport you to an exotic fantasyland. It’s the verbal equivalent of wink and a nod, a secret invitation to look under the hood. Wallace footnotes are an exclusive invitation to connect over something more exciting than whatever’s happening above, at that moment, in the conventional living room of common text where words make small talk. It is, alas, an aphrodisiac.
I’m a professional historian. I’m indoctrinated, not to mention professionally obligated, to wonk out on footnotes. But, after two years of studying Wallace’s trail of gems, I’ve stopped reading historical footnotes. Comparatively speaking, they’re beyond painful, about as sexy as grandma jeans, and — as a direct result — a collective foreshadowing of my profession’s slow demise. I don’t mean to sound dramatic here. But I do mean to be clear and confessional and might as well get to it:
I’ve not only stopped reading historical footnotes but, due to Wallace’s footnotes, I’ve stopped reading all academic history. Having been seduced by a real writer’s footnotes, I just can’t do it anymore. I’m well aware that there are very sensible and sober reasons for including historical footnotes, especially when you are writing about, as they are in the current issue of The American Historical Review, “the contingencies of postcolonial history-writing.” I get it. But the critical if reductive fact of the matter is that no historian in the history of writing history was writing history in order to get laid. And that’s ultimately why, I’m afraid, we’re history. Our time has come.
For me, an inveterate novel reader, this conclusion has been marinating for a while. Many novels that I’ve been reading over the past few years — Hilary Mantel notwithstanding — generally express a lingering hostility toward my profession, or at least hostility to what the profession
refuses to aspire to: telling accurate and relevant and entertaining stories about the past with such skill that readers want to sleep with you.
My reading journal alone brims with novelistic expressions of scorn for my trade. There’s Bud’s plea to Lit to cease talking about the past in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. He says, “Come on, fuck this shit. What do you care about history? I thought we were friends.” Or there’s Don DeLillo’s time-obsessed narrator in Point Omega, declaring, “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture.” Or consider Julian Barnes’s character Finn, the precocious kid in The Sense of an Ending who, to further stoke the awe of his peers, utters oracular portents such as, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (And then he gets laid.) Add to the mix Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, in which Macaulay, the great historian of England, is casually dismissed as a guy “who just made it up after the event.” Such is the novelistic respect for historical thought and writing.
The disparagement of my profession in the pages of modern fiction doesn’t bother me at all. It shouldn’t. It can’t. It’s pretty accurate, for one. For another, it’s ultimately a kids’ gloves treatment. It doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the remarkable depth of the historian’s unmatched capacity to ask questions that evoke drool and then answer them with coma-inducing prose. I’m not exaggerating here. A professional historian (not like those successful amateurs who we simply hate for actually getting people to read history) can drag you into verbal ennui faster than an instruction manual for an Ikea bunk bed. The sad thing is that we were trained to do this. Indeed, we’re creative people dulled by the arbitrary and pinheaded imperatives of professional achievement. The sexy stimulus of storytelling has been leached out of us by comp exams and dissertation writing and Turabian. Wallace, who was smart enough to drop out of a PhD program in philosophy to keep his literary voice untainted, can write a footnote that makes you want to have sex. The historian can write about sex in a way that makes you want to read the footnotes. Who are you banking on for the future?
Thing is, we’re all — historians and novelists and essayists and poets — just weaving yarns. This is our common quest. Still, there’s something about the radically different conventions of narration and permissible flexibility of voice between professional historical writing and other forms of storytelling that turns out to be fatal for the future of history. Good novels make you want to seduce and frolic and celebrate and indulge. Good works of academic history to make you want to drink a vial of hemlock. Which is another way of saying that if novelists wanted to really go after professional historians they could mock us even higher up the ivory tower than we’ve already situated ourselves. Frankly, they should. We’ve earned our marginalization. We’ve practically begged for it: mock us.
Chances are we’ll be too far up to hear you. In fact, it’s almost as if we’ve purposely gone against the grain of what works narratively, detaching ourselves from hoi polloi while posing as their champions. In the nineteenth-century you had historians like Frances Parkman telling heroic and tragic tales about explorers and adventures and nation building and Indian fighting. It was exceptional stuff (even if it was exceptionalism at its worst). If a professional historian wrote like Parkman today he’d be vilified for his attention to simple-minded storytelling and failure to analyze, to deconstruct, to complicate, to . . . ugh! . . .contextualize. Today, all the drive to be sexy has been neutralized by context. F. Scott wrote to win over Zelda. Historians write for tenure. It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” lamented how “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly.” He complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” He must have had historians in mind.
Here’s what I would suggest that every young PhD student in history currently begin doing (besides preparing yourself for not getting a job): a) skim works of history but study novels; b) never use the words complicate, contexualize, limn, framework, or rich (as in “The driving analytic motivation is to alternately complicate and contextualize the prevalent effort to limn the rich territory between fiction and fact.”); and c) read Wallace’s footnotes, paying attention to how beautifully he’s trying to seduce you. In essence, no matter what your topic is, no matter how obscure or geeky or peripheral, write as if you were telling a story to win over a romantic interest. To be blunt: write as if you were trying to get laid. You most likely won’t, but at least you will have left behind something useful.
Image via Nick Douglass/Flickr