Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Review: "Blindspot"

Celebrated historians Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and Jill Lepore (Harvard) have written a novel. Blindspot, published by Doubleday's Spiegel and Grau imprint, is, the authors write, "A revolution - a turn away from our work as historians, that took us back to it. A different kind of history. Only when we read it did we discover: Blindspot was our own declaration of independence." The duo, whose non-fiction works I have read and found much favor with, clearly had great fun writing this book, and of course no one can begrudge them a bit of amusement. Writing fiction can be an enjoyable exercise, and it is clear that they took much delight in the process. But there is much about this book and the way it was written (and by whom), which must give any reader, perhaps most of all those of us who take history seriously, reason to reflect.

Its authors maintain that Blindspot is "a twenty-first century novel in eighteenth-century garb." By which I guess they mean it's a book modeled on earlier works, but written explicitly enough that modern readers don't have to read between the lines quite so much as our predecessors did to grasp the bawdy references. The narration alternates between the first-person perspectives of Stewart Jameson, a debt-fleeing Scots portrait painter who's taken refuge in 1760s Boston, and Fanny Easton, a fallen-from-grace girl from the top echelons of Boston's society who, having disguised herself as the boy Francis Weston, takes up as Jameson's alluring and sensible apprentice. Her perspective we get through her letters to a female friend in New York (although as they get more explicit, and thus entirely unsuitable for sending through the mail, we learn that we're reading letterbook copies, most of which are never sent).

Lepore and Kamensky's training and historical sensibilities suit them well in outlining the social contexts of Boston during the years following the end of the French and Indian War through the passage of the first of the revenue acts which would lead to the Revolution. Their depiction of the city and its major figures is generally well-drawn and detailed. Jameson and Easton, eventually joined by Jameson's friend the Anglo-African scholar Ignatius Alexander, find themselves caught up in the web of contradictions that was mid-1760s Boston, embroiled as it was in arguments over tyranny and slavery, taxes and politics, &c. They must solve a murder in order to free an innocent woman from prison, and of course they must fall in love (this is a novel, after all, and the conventions run their course, the fact that Jameson thinks Easton is a boy being of little matter for the first three-quarters of the book).

The novel is at its best when playfully pulling in the conventions of the 18th century's best creations, including some ingenious wordplays and riddle. The language could have been tempered a bit, it being flowery and overwritten (particularly in the beginning) even by the most grandiloquent standards. It is particularly unlike most early American fictional works, which tend to be much less ornate than their English brethren (The Power of Sympathy, The Coquette, Wieland, for example).

What made me twitchy about this book was the authors' surprisingly cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy. As they write in the introduction to their online historical notes (not printed in the book, a galling omission, since it could not possibly have taken many pages to add), Lepore and Kamensky write "We quoted, we borrowed, we took liberties. Above all, we invented." They also changed things around, and that is where their effort foundered with me. The book includes many extracts from the Boston Gazette, a real newspaper. When I started reading I wondered if the authors had taken the extracts directly, or if they'd made them up. So I checked the original newspapers, and found that the novel's snippets were dated on the paper's off-days (it was printed once a week, on days other than the dates found in the book). The snippets weren't real, the dates weren't real, but the paper was. Why not just create a fictional paper and remove the confusion?

The online notes are a must-read, since they are the only place where Lepore and Kamensky announce their self-appointed changes (and mostly superfluous) to the historical chronology. They have a garrison of British troops arrive in Boston in 1764, rather than 1768. They move the governor's residence to Cambridge, and they switch the date of implementation of the Sugar and Currency Acts to 8 October 1764 (they both took effect in September, but neither, let alone both, on 24 September as Lepore and Kamensky maintain). None of these have any material effect on the story, so why make such changes? They turn Samuel Bradstreet (a real person) into a different character inspired by James Otis Jr., and they create a fictional murder trial of slaves by twisting the facts of an earlier trial around to suit their purposes.

Quibbles, some might say, and perhaps that's so. Perhaps I'm letting the facts get in the way of their story. But professional historians, no matter what they're writing, have a responsibility to scholarship and to the historical profession at large. If one wants to write fiction, that's fine, but do so without muddying the historical record by making unwarranted changes to the facts. Create a fictional newspaper, rather than confusing people by being unclear about your sources. Don't use real people's names unless you're going to tell their stories accurately (or, at the very least, plausibly).

Lepore and Kamensky have, in several interviews about their book and in their website, used the phrase "a different kind of truth" to describe Blindspot. Kamensky told the Boston Globe's Samuel Jacobs "I don't think fiction is more true than history, but I don't think the novel is fake. I think it is differently true. It is like asking whether a poem is more true than a wall." I shuddered when I read that, and of course the first thing that came to mind was Samuel Johnson's famous retort to Boswell's about Bishop Berkeley's ideas about the non-reality of matter. Boswell: "I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'" I don't recommend Ms. Kamensky try that with the nearest wall, but I suspect the result would be much the same.

I'm sorry, Ms. Kamensky, but your novel is fake. Some lines, some characters, some conventions may be drawn from reality, but what you have created is a story. Not an awful one, mind you, but a fictional story just the same. It is different from history, and yes, it is less true. Indeed, historians create a narrative, but it is their responsibility to do so while staying faithful to the facts they can uncover. This "blurring of fact and fiction," as Gordon Wood called the trend in a 1991 review of another leading historian's dip into the languid waters of storytelling*, deserves our notice, and our vigilance (witness the alarming frequency of the discoveries of fake memoirs). A sentence from Wood's review is impossible to avoid including here: "If we cannot recover the truth about the past with finality and completeness, then must we resort to the techniques of fiction in order to fill in the shadows and embody the ghosts? Are those the alternatives?"

I enjoy historical fiction, very much. And there were elements of Blindspot that were historical fiction at its best. But there were also elements which were historical fiction at its very worst, and overall, I have to say that both history and fiction deserve better treatment than they've received here.

I'll look forward to the next historical works from both Lepore and Kamensky, but I sincerely hope that this will be their last foray into fiction. Their talents are sorely needed on the other side of the fence.

* Wood, Gordon S. "History as Fiction," chapter 7 in The Purpose of the Past. NY: Penguin Press, 2008. Review of Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, first published NYRB, 27 June 1991. As I said in my review of Purpose of the Past, I disagree with some of Wood's comments about Schama's book, but on this point we are in complete agreement.

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