Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blame it on the Record

I’ve been thinking recently about how annoying it is to write history. All of our understanding of the past is based on whatever happens to have survived on paper or fabric, or on the walls -- and it’s amazing what has not survived. We have to piece a lot together from little scraps and made a picture. “And that’s the fun of history!” we say bravely. But it’s also a really good way to get a situation completely wrong.

Let’s take Thomas Jefferson, who lived relatively recently (from the perspective of thousands of years of recorded history) and who was a literate man living in a literate culture. He wrote about his times, and people who knew him wrote about him. We should know everything there is to know about him, yes? Well, ole Tom was a little reticent on the subject of his love life. An oral tradition survived that Jefferson had taken a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, and had several children with her. Some of Jefferson’s political enemies made the same charges during elections.

For years his historians denied that he had kanoodled in Sally, and not simply because they wanted to protect their hero (though there was that). Jefferson had written on the subject of blacks and whites copulating, and his opinion was – don’t do it. It is against nature for the two races to mingle. It was disgusting. So historians have had to decide who to believe: Jefferson’s dispassionate written opinion, or a family story and some political mudslinging? Most chose the former.

You know the story: along comes DNA evidence, and we learn Sally’s children had a Jefferson father. We were led astray by the historical record. We got lucky this time; science was able to give a definitive answer (though theoretically Sally could have been kanoodling with someone else with a Jefferson Y chromosome, and not Tom, though that is less likely).

Most of the time, we’re not so lucky. We have to extrapolate. Maybe we know that John Smith from New Hampshire fought in the Civil War. Did he fight for the North or the South? Maybe we don’t have a record that tells us for sure. But since we know that the vast majority of New Hampshire men fought for the North, we make an educated guess (a syllogism, actually) and say that John Smith did, too. C’mon, what are the odds of a New Hampshire boy fighting for the South?

C’mon, what are the odds of Jefferson overcoming his disgust of black women and having a long-term affair with one? Welllll – when the black woman in question was the half-sister of Jefferson’s much loved, dead wife . . . “it’s complicated,” as we say over on Facebook. Maybe Sally (who was only one-quarter black and very light skinned) looked like Jefferson’s late wife. Maybe she talked like her. And the children of that union passed for white to such a degree that Jefferson apparently helped them leave slavery and to blend into white society. They married white and never told a soul the truth about themselves – not to their spouses, not to their children. It’s complicated. Isn’t that the human experience – complication? Maybe it’s complicated for our hypothetical New Hampshire soldier, too. We just don’t know.

The historical writer stands on that shore where solid evidence ends and inference begins. The things that drive professional historians crazy are truly the fun parts for the writer. I am writing about a seventeenth-century woman. We have a better understanding of her life than we do for almost all other seventeenth-century women yet I do not know her birthday for sure. I have committed myself to be true to the historical record and even (mostly) to the historical syllogisms of “the best guess.” But you see how much wiggle room that gives me, for surely it was complicated at times for Anne Bradstreet, too.

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