In the Future, I am Going to Write Only About History

Wow, I’ve gotten some really nice feedback on the Finnelson piece. I mean, really nice. I’m kind of stunned, because I never did find out why Finnelson did what he did. But I tell you what, the longer I blog for The Scene, the more I’m convinced that people, especially in Nashville, are hungry for stories about the past–even messy stories that don’t really have a resolution.

I might not be the best writer on these things, but I love those stories, so I am glad to get to tell them. And I really love that era of about 1770-1815 or so. The people there are just full of interesting crap.

Still, man, sometimes you read nonfiction about the past and it’s so good. You feel like you really have gained some insight into how people were. I don’t have that talent, yet. But I want it.

Another thing I want is to read more books in which Native Americans are treated more as individuals. One of the biggest problems I had understanding what was going on here is that, for instance, it’s obvious that the Cherokees have big differences of opinions on things and different loyalties to each other–and those loyalties can be based on family relations, clan relations, and where one lives, along with personal opinion and preference–you know, how it works for people in general–and yet, so many of the texts I consulted just treated them like a monolith, even in the face of the rise of the Chickamaugas (which should be a huge clue that people within groups associate with subgroups within those groups) that it’s hard to understand what’s really going on.

It would be nice to read works in which everyone is recognized to have mixed motives. I want to see it done well, because I’d like to learn to do it well.

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10 thoughts on “In the Future, I am Going to Write Only About History

  1. Well, the history that we are taught in school often doesn’t have time to go into the complexity of individual detail that you’d like. I mean, it could be more complicated than it is: you could learn “the Cherokees were divided on this question” rather than “the [sole] Cherokee opinion in this situation was” — but you still wouldn’t get the individual in there. This doesn’t happen with bad intentions, but to save time. You get the same elision of differences of opinion and individual experience with reference to every group’s experience. We are told that “the white settlers in TN at that time …” or “the Spanish authorities thought …” or “the US gov’t said …” in just the same way. The problem is that when this flattening of the picture is done to groups who are already marginalized in the main narrative, it makes them disappear as subjects (rather than objects) almost completely.

    This ought not to be the case with more scholarly works. But when the overall narrative has made these actors disappear, it can be hard to remember to turn scholarly focus back towards them. It may require a more creative idea of where to look for sources, too, and familiarity with a wider variety of languages than just English. All too many Americanists (grumbles the Europeanist) are allowed to get by without more than English and computer languages these days.

  2. Yes, there’s the languages problem, but not as much as you’d think among the last couple of generations of colonial historians and ethnohistorians. For my dissertation, I came in with French and then picked up reading competence in Spanish and German. That was fairly typical for the time and place I went to school; as the questions take us farther into the interiors of America and into contested imperial zones, that’s going to be standard. However, that still doesn’t remedy the deficiencies in indigenous languages. Even if the sources are not written in the language, still, languages are systems of thought and not having access to the conceptual world makes it difficult to really understand some of the speeches that are recorded by European diplomats.

    There’s also just a source problem. The records we’ve got make it hard to talk about individuals in a narrative way; it’s a rare indigenous person that keeps making appearances, doing stuff (even at the edge of the document, using the source to get at activities that were beyond its original purpose), to allow one to recover the kind of subject-story that would satisfy.

  3. You’d probably like the collections edited by Nancy Rhoden and Ian Steele — series name is The Human Tradition (and titles are some variation of The Human Tradition in Colonial America, The Human Tradition in The American Revolution). These offer capsule biographies of little-known people of the time whose lives shed light on some of the important themes or events of their time. Ian Steele on his own is an excellent narrative writer; his *Betrayals*, a work teasing out what probably really happened — as well as anyone will tell — at Fort William Henry is worth a look. I think you’d probably also like John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive because it explicitly tries to grapple with how to tell an indigenous-centered story with a lot of source-holes so that the entirety isn’t lost and forgotten. Historians either love or hate his attempt to “bridge” with stuff of his own hunchwork, but I think that it’s an interesting piece of writing.

  4. I found a few translated Spanish letters, but it’s clear that, if someone were really going to look at this incident, they’d need to read Spanish and to get into the archives.

    I’m also noting sadly that Bloody Fellow, who ran around signing treaty after treaty, does not have a Wikipedia page. What does a man have to do, other than maybe not have a gross name?

  5. You should also give Kathleen Duval’s The Native Ground a whirl. If you don’t have time for the full book (which was my favorite work of ethnohistory in the year it came out…and it was a pretty good year for the field), the article that might give you the most insight into the process of choosing sides as the Americans come in would be “Choosing Enemies: The Prospects for an Anti-American Alliance in the Louisiana Territory,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Autumn 2003), pp. 233-252.

    Did you wind up looking at the papers of the War Department? They have a shit-ton of stuff about Bloody Fellow and the diplomatic maneuvering of the early 1790s…

  6. Yes, I did! That’s why I was so surprised at how little there is for the lay person about Bloody Fellow. You spend any time looking at the materials from the time, and it’s obvious he’s an important player. But trying to get even the incomplete overview a Wikipedia article gives you is… well, impossible, because no one’s done it.

    Which is frustrating and yet, I bet, if you’re a history grad student, kind of exciting. I mean, if a guy this major can somehow be totally well-known and yet no one’s pulled his life story together and looked at him in context, you know there’s always a lot more work to do, no matter what you specialize in.

  7. Check in Stanley Hoig, The Cherokee and their Chiefs — that would be the most likely place to find something lengthy. Other than that, I know he’s got a small write-up in a Facts on File biographical dictionary, but those entries can be hit or miss on the scholarship, so it might be great or it might be repetition of really old hearsay.

  8. Betsy,

    I just got a chance to read your article.

    I didn’t think I could admire and respect your writing, research and storytelling ability any more than I already do, but … my word, ma’am. This is jaw-droppingly fascinating. Thank you for it.

    You have inspired me to get back up off my carcass and discover the truth behind our big family “secret” — that our last name is a complete and utter lie. Woo-hoo!

    Thank you, thank you. And congratulations on this fine piece of work.

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