Sunday, December 18, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: What's in Your History?

I don't think I've ever picked up a history book that some situation that screamed for novelistic treatment didn't leap out at me.

For instance, reading Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1820-1870 this week, I read that the secessionist governor of Missouri, Claiborne Jackson, tried to equip secessionist militias out of the Federal arsenal in St. Louis, gathering a bunch of them together in an encampment called Camp Jackson. The feds in turn called on local Unionist militias, primarily consisting of German immigrants. Four regiments of primarily German-born militia took charge of the arsenal, removed the secessionist commander, and after the firing on Ft. Sumter whisked the ordnance away to Illinois by night, surrounded Camp Jackson, and took the inhabitants all prisoner without a shot fired; however, marching these prisoners through St. Louis caused a bloody riot and sparked a mini-civil war within Missouri. Which after all was ripe for it.

Why most Civil War era fiction isn't set in Missouri has always puzzled me. Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas were dull in comparison.

I also feel that there's a lot more that could be done with the Civil War in Texas. Lee's refusal to acknowledge the authority of the secessionists. Neighbor-on-neighbor terrorism in the Hill Country and Red River Valley. The retrenchment of the frontier under Comanche opportunism. The woeful mismanagement of the only hope the Confederacy ever had to be economically viable, the cotton trade through Mexico.

It's all very well to read paragraphs in other people's books and feel the novel hiding inside them; quite another to coax the novel out. Any one of these situations is too huge for a book. Though huge historical novels have been known to do well in the bookstores; it's not the way to bet. War and Peace was written for an audience with far fewer competing entertainments, and James Michener's early books are much slimmer than his later ones. (Which I personally don't find particularly readable.) So you have to do massive amounts of research, figure out which manageable sliver of the past you're up to dealing with, and find the character you aim to build the plot around; or the plot you aim to build your character within, depending on how you work.

Far too many Americans think they live in a boring place with boring history, because of the selective emphasis given to specific points in the broad sweep of history. So we treat the Civil War as a series of bloody Southeastern military encounters, not as a hot economic mess that sprawled all over the nation, and forget the direct and real effect it had on the lives of people in the Midwest, in California, on the Texas frontier, in Mexico - and in England. We ignore everything that went on in the rest of the world during those four years, and most of what went on in our own country. What was Hawaii like in 1861? Who was doing what in Alaska? What was it like to be an Indian in Kansas then? What about the disastrous New Mexico campaign? California appeared in blue in all my school textbook maps of the Civil War, but the text never told me why California adhered to the Union, or what that mean to the people who lived there.

What happened in your town? Don't tell me "nothing."

I know better. There's a story there if you'll only look for it, instead of taking the simplified, predigested history of popular culture as your guide.

1 comment:

  1. In every history, there is always this something to hold and learn. We should not forget it.