Historians, Hear My Plea

So, I’m working on the third chapter, which is now called “In Which Quite a Few People Get Sliced along the Belly, Stuffed with Rocks, and Thrown in Creeks.” And the point I want to make is that, while Indians did attack Nashville and while the Harpes were really evil and really did bad things, we also can’t ignore that their stories all start to have a certain shape–and not just the Harpes, but on into John Murrell and Isaac Franklin and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I’m trying to trace a narrative trope across historical (and, in John Murrell’s case, semi-historical) events in order to make the argument that there’s this kind of “ur story” that Nashville loves, which goes something like this:

Out there in the woods are some scary-ass people. You could be just minding your business in your own home or walking along the road or out on vacation and you’re going to run into a small band of them. They’ll seem fine, if very different than you, but you go a little further and you’re in deep shit. More of them are going to appear. They’re going to attack you and your group. People are going to get raped, killed, and, likely, you’re going to be assaulted with a blade, stuffed with rocks, and tossed in a river (hence the title). If you luck out, you may escape and may have some sort of revenge.

How powerful is this story? Ask yourself this–how closely does the plot to Deliverance hew to it?

But is it cool? I feel like it is–that you can say, “Yes, these things really happened” and acknowledge that the way they got told, what elements were played up and which were played down, is to give the incident the right shape so that it fits a preferred and expected narrative structure. And that I can then trace that narrative structure a hundred years or so.

But some part nags at me that maybe it’s unfair to facts to do this to them.

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2 thoughts on “Historians, Hear My Plea

  1. Facts are free range things, existing uselessly in a gaseous state until a historian uses an argument to rope and bottle them and turn them into something worth knowing. When we trace the relationship between interpretations, how some facts get foregrounded and others neglected only to be brought back onstage for the third act, we call it historiography…but it’s really not in practice different than saying “here’s the story we as a society have agreed to believe about this event or set of processes and here’s how the telling has changed over time.” So I say go for it.

  2. By the way, it’s a story that people of English descent have been telling about people in the woods since at least Elizabeth I’s day…the Wild Irish…

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