Strange Hoax

I have a desire to map out exactly where the fort was downtown. It seems like it should be easy enough to find out, but I guess because it was, you know, the large wooden structure in the center of town, very few people were very specific about where it was.

So, I was going through old journal articles trying to find if someone had said where it was and I found an excerpt from the diary of John Cotten, who came to Nashville with the Donelsons, in which he recounted the Battle of the Bluffs, said some snarky things about dogs, and described the fort.

The diary entries I read were extraordinary. If you don’t feel sick to your stomach for the men lured out of the fort, alarmed at the violent ways people were killing each other, and then heartbroken for the dead child, I just don’t even know what to say to you.

I was tweeting some of the best passages and then wondering, why has no one published this diary? But there’s a kind of…not red flag…but light pink flag in the fact that he’s supposedly writing this diary in the midst of battle. Long, elegant passages describing the set-up of the fort that were written just hours after dude almost died.

I remember 9/11 and I remember people’s impulses to write about it. So, I talked myself into believing that it was possible.

But, for me, as a history buff, one of the hardest things about reading primary sources is that once you get back before 1850, the language is really weird and stilted. It’s hard to make sense of what’s going on both because the handwriting can be really hard to make sense of and, just, the idioms are weird. The sentence structure is weird. The word choices they make are weird.

It can be really hard, until you get used to a person’s writing style, to feel any emotional connection to what he’s writing.

Think of it this way. Let’s take Shakespeare. And it’s not quite the same thing, because he’s writing verse, but it’s a good enough illustration.

You read, “To be, or not to be–that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.” for the first time and it’s a rare person among us who’s like “Damn, man, that’s heartbreaking.”

And trust me. In five hundred years, if someone reads “Should I just fucking kill myself? Is there any honor in suffering or should I refuse to suffer and die instead?” they’re also not going to immediately feel that connected to it, because the language, the idioms, aren’t going to make immediate sense to them.

There’s got to be a moment of…I guess translation…not quite translation, but something like that, where you look at these words you know put together in these strange ways and you try to understand the feeling behind them.

It’s doable. And worth your while. Somehow who reads a lot of Shakespeare, who has gotten used to how he writes, I’m sure, even now, when they read “to be or not to be” above there, they got a little hitch in their emotions, because, damn it’s really powerful.

But there was no real gap between what Mr. Cotten wrote and the emotions that I felt about it. I didn’t have to get used to his voice or figure out his stilted language. And my whole drive home that bugged me. (If you read up on jokes, this phenomenon is even more acute. Things that were funny to someone in 1820 are not only not funny to us, it often doesn’t occur to us that they’re supposed to be funny.)

And then I got home and did some research and everyone who knows much about the Cotten diary is convinced it’s fake. I agree. Their arguments are really, really convincing.

But it’s also a deeply moving piece of writing. And I wonder why you’d write it and then try to scam the 50 people in the nation who would give two shits about John Cotten into believing that it’s real instead of writing a novel.

I’m really curious about who might have written it. I wonder if it’s from the same era as Ingram’s Bell Witch book and, if so, I wonder what it means that Tennessee spits out these alternative histories?

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