[note: I’m trying to write this blog post in five minutes. Sorry if it stinks.]
It seems that I need to learn how to write bigger stories. That, at least, is the message from my dissertation committee, the members of which have universally signaled that my chapters are short on long narratives: things like the Rise of the New Right, the Cold War, or the environmentalism movement. It’s taken me a while — three chapters, to be precise — to understand my committee’s advice, because of two things. First, I have been focusing on straightening out my dissertation’s particular story, which is complicated and nuanced enough on its own. I haven’t done justice to the detail of my own story as it is; the thought of stripping out some of that detail in order to make room for bigger connections makes me feel a little dirty. Second, I have, in fact, been making some of those big connections…just not in the right direction, apparently. I’ve been using bigger themes and contexts to explain the origins and causes of the events within my story, but I haven’t flipped that arrow to show how my story explains those bigger historical trajectories. So, I know how the Cold War shaped the events in my narrative. But now I need to explain how my narrative shaped, or at least helps us better understand, the Cold War. Sounds (a) super interesting and (b) super difficult. Whee!
Perhaps the craziest and most wonderful thing about the union activity in Wisconsin (see Harry Brighouse‘s posts at Crooked Timber for some good reporting and analysis) is that it’s happening now. In a moment when nearly 10% of people who want a job can’t get one, the employed are doing things that put their livelihoods in peril. This runs in the face of a general rule of labor history: the labor movement prospers during booms and scatters during busts. When capitalists are desperate for workers (1920s, 1950s), they will bow to union demands; when the pool of reserve labor fills up (Depression, 1970s-1980s), capitalists set workers against each other and destroy solidarity. Unions have made gains during bust-times only when the government has stepped in to assert and protect workers’ rights (like during the New Deal). But here we have a situation in which Wisconsin workers are surrounded by leagues of the unemployed and desperate, but instead of turning on each other and doing whatever the Man says to save their own asses, they have made themselves vulnerable by heading into the streets. It’s a remarkable display of courage.
Whence this courage and strength to not only put your job on the line, but to buck the trends of history? It must in part come from a sense that enough is enough; that workers — public or otherwise — can’t be pushed much farther before they fall into poverty and despair. In this way, the strength of the Wisconsin movement comes from precisely that source which, judging by historical precedent, should be weakening solidarity: the shitty employment situation. But instead of turning on each other, Wisconsin workers are turning to each other. I don’t want to get carried away and say that this represents a watershed moment in the history of the labor movement (okay, I do want to get carried away), but you have to admit that this seems pretty special.
Our friend Elia Peattie had to make some difficult choices when writing The Story of America. Covering 400 years of American history for a young adult audience meant that she couldn’t possibly include every bit of detail, so she had to decide — like all storytellers must — what information the reader needed to follow and understand the narrative. Here are some of the things that made the cut in the chapter “Founding the Old Dominion,” about the origins of Jamestown:
- John Smith was “most disagreeable,” and had been thrown in the stockade while the London Company took the “old route of the West Indies, stopping along the by the way in the pleasant towns of the Spaniards, and wasting both time and food” (63).
- While wading a creek, Smith was stung by a poisonous fish that nearly took his life; his comrades even dug a grave for him (66).
- Powhatan was “very stalwart and well-shaped of limb, and with a sad countenance and thin grey hair” (66)
Meanwhile, things like the economic motivation for Jamestown don’t get much attention. And while that would certainly raise eyebrows in a comprehensive exam, I think Peattie was on to something in terms of narrative and, by extension, analysis. Peattie included (concocted?) details that she thought revealed something about the character and personality of the historical actors in her narrative. John Smith was an asshole, argues Peattie, but that asshole-ish-ness also made him just the right person to pull Jamestown through until England sent more money. I don’t buy the argument, of course; as I’ve noted earlier, I don’t go in for history-made-by-individuals. But I agree with Peattie’s method: include details that are both interesting and integral for your argument. Make your narrative your analysis and your analysis your narrative.
I’ve given up on Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. I had a feeling from the outset that it wouldn’t go well: the book is 800+ pages long and totally unrelated to my dissertation and teaching responsibilities (meaning: I ain’t got time for this shit). Moreover, I’m just not that interested in Che. I’m sure he was a fascinating individual who could stare into someone’s soul and convince her/him that the Revolution is Now, but I don’t really care. It’s not about Che specifically; as a general rule, I don’t care enough about any individual to want to read her/his biography. I detest biographies: on the screen, the stage, or the page. Here’s why:
- Over an extended period of time, any one individual will annoy the hell out of me. I need my space, and biographies don’t give you your own space. You’re supposed to inhabit not just the subject’s world, but the subject’s brain, and there’s just not enough air in there for the both of us.
- Biographers always end up playing psychologist, and they always fail. “So, Che, what makes you tick?” asks Anderson of a man who is dead and who never would have revealed such secrets, anyway, partly because Che himself didn’t know. Just like you and me and everyone else, the subject of any biography is necessarily a mysterious and indecipherable stew of nature and nurture that even the subject herself can’t figure out. And if she says she knows, she’s a liar, a fool, or both. Such a mystery confounds efforts at the totalizing interpretation towards which all biographies tend. In short: biographers do not and can not know what they are ultimately talking about, which is who their subject really is.
- Biographies run against my understanding of how history works (which is to say, how things happen). Individuals are only nominally involved in the course of history. Deeper currents — like economic structures — exercise their power with much more force, consistency, and consequence than the isolated person. People matter, of course, but “people” in the plural sense, as in persons: groups of individuals whose collective energy (not to say deliberate cooperation) make things happen.
And that’s why I haven’t read David McCulough‘s Pulitzer Prize winners; it’s why I don’t like one-man plays; it’s why I don’t usually care for solo acts after the band breaks up. And it’s why my bookshelf sags once more under the weight of Jon Lee Anderson’s Che.
In chapter four (“Across the Dark Water”) of The Story of America, early twentieth century young readers learned the following about the Spanish (or is it “Spaniards”? I’ve never bothered to figure out which…):
- Las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, brought “negro slavery” to America by suggesting that residents of Hispanolia bring African slaves, rather than enslave Indians.
- Ponce de Leon was a “gay and courteous cavalier”–but mostly just crazy. Same thing goes for Balboa, De Soto, and the rest.
- “The white man gave the Indian lessons in treachery, which he was not slow to profit by. A party of gentle St. Dominican Brothers, who had come to America to make a ‘conquest of peace’ among the savages, were captured, upon their landing, and brutally murdered. It was too late for kindness to be understood–too late for the word of the white man to be believed.”
And so we see the endurance of the “Black Legend,” the story that pins on the Spanish much of the blame for Very Bad Things in Early American History. Even the good guy, Las Casas, is at fault, and for one of the greatest evils of American history! It is true, it turns out, that Las Casas suggested the importation of Africans for slavery (and later regretted it). But Peattie’s implying that the Spanish are to blame for the development of slavery throughout the Americas, including what would become the United States; same thing goes with white-on-Indian violence and the foolishness of gold-inspired tours of exploration, discovery, and conquest. The basic idea advanced: the Spanish did it first and did it worst. Those who came after–especially the English–were better people and better Christians, and if they made mistakes, they (a) weren’t as bad as the Spanish and (b) can’t be fully blamed, because, after all, the Spanish started it. In short, the Black Legend lets the English (and, by virtue of heritage, the American colonies, the United States, and you and me) off the hook for what happened to non-whites.* At least, that’s what Peattie’s readers might have been picking up on by chapter four. We’ll see what happens in future chapters.
*For more on the Black Legend, see Weber’s The Spanish Frontier in North America.