A response to Inga Clendinnen from Lori Askeland, Univeristy of Kansas

© all rights reserved

Read Inga Clendinnen’s essay Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination

I find Inga Clendinnen’s discussion of historical and imaginative discourse to be extraordinarily insightful and thought-provoking. As a student of American Literature, I enter her discussion from the “imaginative” side of the discussion, but would nevertheless like to join in her search for a “mode in which to do” a history that captures “[the] full destructive impact” of historical documents/events, “and of the particular human experiences they encapsulated.” Let me state from the outset that I agree with her forthright conclusion that Rorty’s, or for that matter anyone’s, Utopia, needs historians, cannot do without them. Writing history, with footnotes, is precisely important because the notes do “bind us”–however tenuously–“to the remnants of a past actuality” and can help demonstrate the struggle of the writer to make them “speak.”

In teaching a literature course that I call “(Re)writing History,” in which the students read novels that deliberately attempt to “re-write” some historical event or person, I face precisely these questions, and more. Why re-write history? Why “fictionalize” it? What do the departures in any given work from more “objective” accounts of the same event suggest to us? I have found that no work helps me work through these issues, and the ones Clendinnen touches on, than Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).

In its rewriting of the history of slavery, her work manages to demonstrate, better than the historical sources that I have read, the sense that Clendinnen wants to recover from the Spanish Inquisition materials: “a developing sense of enclosure like a slowly-tightening fist: the slow extinction of human time, of human hope, in a place and situation [and within an institution] constructed precisely to that end.” And, in Morrison, the partial re-emergence from those feelings that the survivors of enslavement had to keep re-building, over and over again, as they struggled to re-create community, trust, love, hope, time and history, without repressing a history that will inevitably come back to haunt them.

Now, I realize, Beloved is not history: but it is a novel that uses historical and literary narratives to meditate on history and the literal and psychic scars that horrific history leaves in its wake. A Beloved with footnotes, a history carefully tied to extant documentary evidence, whose very form and structure recapitulates its meditation on the fragmentary documents from the past (like the brand on Sethe’s mother’s body, the newspaper clipping that details Sethe’s murder of her children, “documents” that the novel creates for its world), would be extraordinary. Indeed, when I teach the novel, that’s what I try to do with my students: find historical instances of the horrors that her novel details, to make them face the fact that the fictionalized story Morrison is writing is fully based on very real instances of human beings enacting horrific cruelty on others. Without our finding those “source” materials, my students–mostly middle class–don’t really “believe” the cruelty described in the book.

So I wonder if imaginative literature like this could help Clendinnen find a way to create a history that remains true to the “record”–a history that can call itself history, and not “novel.” I, for one, would love to read and teach it.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]