Friday, February 26, 2010

Projecting Embarrassment into the Future!

It occurred to me almost as soon as I made that last post that it's not the first thing I want an agent or editor who happens to google my name today to see, so while lunch is cooking let's get something less whiny up top. And the first thing that occurs to me, because of the era I'm currently most involved in researching is a question I ask myself periodically:

What opinion or behavior that I am currently squeamish about discussing openly will my theoretical biographer (Um - we all have imaginary biographers following us around, right? Even Virginia Woolf did - I think it's in Jacob's Room.) feel entitled to poke around in, and frustrated that I didn't talk about it more?

Conversely, what opinion or behavior that I currently take for granted will that same biographer feel a need to suppress, excuse, or explore as a pathology?

I first thought of this when I was in high school and Madeleine Stern started digging up and publishing my idol Louisa May Alcott's "Jo" stories, the thrillers she later chastised herself (through Jo) for writing, but loved to write nonetheless. There's drug use in those. There's a major squicky passage in one with the young narrator leaning on her uncle's knee and smoking a cigarette. By modern YA standards it's pretty tame but to those of us raised on Little Women it's a shock. Especially when we learn that the drug passages were based on reality; which is not the thing she herself was uncomfortable about. Opium was an abusable medicine, not a controlled substance. People gave opium to babies. I think laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol!?!) is used by characters in the canonical Alcott YA stories.

These days I read a lot of things that make me remember that. In nineteenth century Texas, no one would fess up to being an abolitionist, any more than a modern Texan would express approval for child molestation or terrorism. Even if you had the guts to be a Unionist, you'd disown abolition. Sam Houston, for one, was a slave-holding Unionist. (I almost went on a long disquistion about it, but I can do that later.) And I get to write sympathetic characters who fit within this mileu, oh joy. Early 20th-century historians from the South have a disturbing tendency to root for the Confederacy in studying the era; and if anyone isn't a racist he tends to be po'faced and apologetic about it.

This creates an ugly problem for later readers, who may be willing to admit that racism existed back then, but hate to accuse any individual of it. So they ignore it, or make excuses, or try to turn blatant and obvious racism into nothing of the sort.

But that's not productive, is it? Because once you do that with blatant and obvious racism you keep doing it to the subtler and more insidious racism of the modern day. It's more productive to face facts, and asking myself that biographer question makes it easier for me. I can easily imagine a biographer gleefully talking about - well, I'm not going to tell you! - and being evasive about my caffeine dependence, or making excuses for my use of internal combustion engines.

So hey - you - whoever you are - You don't have to tell me what your biographer won't be embarrassd about, but won't you think about and maybe say something about what will embarrass him? Or her? Or whatever the pronoun will be in a hundred years? It's a liberating exercise. I promise.

No comments:

Post a Comment