On Narrative History, Smith, Foote, Cushman, Proust, Faulkner, and Percy
Thanks to George Santayana, it is said that those who don’t learn from history are failed to repeat it, a quote historians are quick to remind their history students (perhaps implying that they are possessors of some of the most important information anyone can learn, which is to say that if only historians ruled the world, the world would stop spinning in circles). Yet, as undeniable as this claim seems to be, I’m not sure if it captures the whole of the case; rather, those who don’t feel history are doomed to repeat it, for I’m of the opinion that people don’t fully learn anything they don’t feel. As discussed in “Probable Cause” by O.G. Rose, Adam Smith taught us in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments that cutting our own ‘little finger’ causes us more turmoil than the knowledge that a million strangers have died on the other side of the world.¹ Likewise, knowing the facts of history is unlikely to impact us as much as current events are, and if current events emotionally primed to repeat the mistakes of history, knowing the facts of history will have little power to stop us. What we feel is what we live out, not merely what we know.
It is better to know history than not know it, but while those who feel history also know it, those who know it don’t necessarily feel it. But how we do we come to “feel history?” Shelby Foote believed that history was best learned through narrative, because a good story was one in which we forgot we were reading a story and suddenly and mysteriously were “in it.” Stephen Cushman in his book Bloody Promenade discussed Civil War reenactors and a strange moment when, during a performance, the reenactors forgot they were not actually in the Civil War, and I believe a similar phenomenon is what great writers accomplish with their readers. Cushman wrote that reenactors ‘reenact[ed] in order to lose track of time, to fool themselves, to experience a mystical moment when the seemingly impermeable boundary between the present and the past suddenly dissolve[d].’² According to Cushman, there was a moment when ‘[s]uddenly the reenactor […] [was] but a participant in an event unfolding in the present’; similarly, I think great history books are ones in which readers are suddenly ‘a participate.’³ For Foote, history books only accomplished this by being narratives, because only stories possessed the power to make people forget they were only reading: when reading a list of facts, there could be no collapse of ‘the conditions that determine[d] what [was] or [wasn’t] truly authentic.’⁴
Narrative history is a form of history that students have a chance to feel, but only if that narrative history is crafted like the stories of the greatest of writers. Foote hoped to emulate Chekov, Homer, and Proust in his work, and his goal was to make the Civil War not something that people pulled off the shelf and studied, but something that they suddenly found themselves “in” (like a memory they forgot but, when it came back, it was as vivid as the table at which they sat). Foote admired Marcel Proust, and Proust was most famous for how he incorporated “involuntary memory” into his masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator in Proust will bite into a cookie and suddenly be years in the past, not merely remember them analytically. Memories appear suddenly and all at once, as if they never left, like a dream that the dreamer doesn’t know is a dream, and thus the dream is (for all practical purposes) the real world.
In Proust, the narrator experienced the “mystical moment” described by Cushman — a breakdown between past and present — and I think a similar experience is what Foote hoped to achieve in The Civil War, an experience not unlike that described by Faulkner of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Benjy is a mentally handicapped character that doesn’t experience time according to cause and effect but by association. In the Sound and the Fury, when Benjy crawled through a fence with Luster and gets snagged on a nail, he’s instantly “(back) with Caddy” as if she’s right there in the present. ‘Cant you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail,’ Luster asked, and suddenly ‘Caddy uncaught me [Benjy] and we crawled through.’⁵ When Benjy hears Roskus say at the barn ‘Taint no luck on this place,’ Benjy is suddenly being put to bed by Versh in a different time when Roskus said the same thing.⁶ Benjy doesn’t just remember the past: he is suddenly “in” the past — the past is present.
Generally, dreams start in the middle, without beginning or end, and unless a lucid dream, dreamers go along with the dream as if did have a start and a middle and just “was how things were.” Dreams are associational, but for Benjy, the logic of dreams is the logic of life. The past doesn’t lead to the present, but rather, by a logic of association, the past leads to the present and the present leads back to the past and the past leads back to the further past which leads back to the present — time is singular and only present (“the past isn’t even past,” to paragraph Faulkner from Requiem for a Nun).
Faulkner claimed that he opened The Sound and the Fury with a section told by Benjy because ‘it approached nearer the dream [by having its] ground laid by an idiot,’ and that dream was to show the world why Caddy ‘was brave enough to climb the tree and look in the window.’⁷ Similarly, Foote wrote his Civil War history as a narrative because it better “approached the dream” of making the Civil War something readers were not just reading but “in.” Faulkner said that Caddy ‘was too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on […] It would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes.’⁸ Similarly, wanting the Civil War to be felt more than just known, Foote thought the Civil War was too important to reduce to telling and needed to be seen through the eyes of the people who lived it, not through the eyes of historians studying it, a goal only narrative could even hope to accomplish.
It is perhaps with the death of Stonewall Jackson in Foote that we see the methods of Faulkner and Proust best at work. How Foote describes Jackson’s death is believable (nothing is “poured in from the top,” as Dr. William Wilson would say), yet at the same time, at the center of Foote’s trilogy, we see depicted Foote’s method. His arm cut off, shot by his own men, Jackson is slipping in and out of consciousness, ‘back in delirium, alternately praying and giving commands,’ and then dies with the command, ‘Let us cross over the river […] and rest under the shade of the trees.’⁹ Space and time have collapsed for Jackson: he is not “acting like he is in battle”; rather, he “is in battle.” Similarly, Foote hopes readers of his book are not merely “reading about the Civil War” but “in it,” slipping between worlds, closing the divide between “ideas and experiences,” until they don’t realize they’re slipping into anything at all.
‘A fact is not a truth until you love it’ was one of Foote’s favorite lines that he attributed to Keates and that John Middleton Murry echoed about Endymion.¹⁰ Believing this, Foote aimed to depict the Civil War in a manner that made readers feel like they were “in it” and thus felt actual emotions about it. Foote wanted to make the Civil War a “truth” to people, not just facts. Only truth could stop history from repeating and make it something with which people could live.
Foote was good friends with Walker Percy, and Percy famously wrote about the danger of “preset complexes” in his book The Message in the Bottle. Percy asked readers to imagine that they never heard of the Grand Canyon, and that one day they walked through ‘miles of desert, [broke] through the mesquite, and there it [was]’ — the Grand Canyon.¹¹ Percy asked readers to imagine what kind of experience that would be like — utter surprise — and noted that today it was nearly impossible to imagine such an event, because, like everything, the Canyon ‘has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.’¹² In other words, what García López de Cárdenas experienced in discovering the Canyon is lost to us even though the subject has gone nowhere: ‘[t]he thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated — by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon’.¹³
Percy warned that people now visited the Grand Canyon more so to confirm pictures they’d seen than to see it; in many ways, it was now impossible to fully experience the awesomeness and sublimity of the Grand Canyon, the “original experience” increasingly lost. Arguably, similar changes are happening to everything: something like Deleuzian and Heidegger “capture” are omnipresent. On Shakespeare, sounding like Neil Postman, Percy noted that ‘[t]he sonnet [was] obscured by the symbolic package which [was] formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet [was] transmitted, the media which the educators believe[d] for some reason to be transparent.’¹⁴ ‘To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented.’¹⁵
To really “get” Shakespeare, there was needed something like a “mystic moment” when the reader seemingly forgot that he or she was “reading Shakespeare,” per se, and was rather consumed by it; for people to “get” the Grand Canyon, it must “catch them with their brains off.” Because of “preset complexes,” Percy feared it was increasingly difficult for people to “get life” in general, to experience it “originally,” and Shelby Foote worried something similar about history. For too long, history had stopped changing people (in fact, people had come to change history): people were taught historical facts about the Civil War, but this just added to the “educational package” and “present complex” that people held about the Civil War, making it harder to “get it.” But how was Foote to solve this problem and make possible again an “original experience” of the Civil War? By presenting more and better facts? That would simply add to “the sound and fury,” the “educational package”: history had to be done differently. And who Foote turned to for inspiration was Homer, who combined art, poetry, and history in The Iliad. Thus, with Proust’s blessing, Foote’s “narrative history” was born.
“Narrative history” aims to change how people act through immersive experience, and if society is to be changed for the better by history, historians must be writers. Yes, to allude to Adam Smith, a minority of people can be moved by the knowledge that millions are suffering in China in the same way that they are moved by a blister on their little finger, but not the majority. Likewise, a minority can be moved by a list of historical facts the same way they are moved by a historical account that manages to draw them “in,” but only a minority.
Historians generally attempt to ‘communicat[e] facts, whereas the novelist [generally] communicate[s] sensation,’ and though of course the two attempt to do both, it is the historian Foote feels that is more in need of learning how to write novels than the novelist is in need of learning to write histories, ‘especially in matters of technique.’¹⁶ ‘[F]or if a modern historian ever managed to produce a single page that had the clarity and beauty of a single page of Hemingway, that page would live forever — just as pager after page of Gibbon and Tacitus has done.’¹⁷ History fails to change readers unless historians ‘make [history] live again in the world around them,’ and Foote didn’t believe this was possible unless historians wrote narratives and mastered writing.¹⁸ Unfortunately, what was more common was writing that made “mystical moments” impossible, ‘jogtrot prose […] which und[id] the story in the telling; a prose so wretched that the footnotes with which it [was] cluttered [were] more a relief than an interruption.’¹⁹ If people were going to learn history, which required them to feel it, Foote understood the quality of writing had to improve, but the only way to change it was with a writer’s touch.
Foote noted “unliterary” errors in historical writing that robbed history of its power to change: he warned that ‘[t]here must be sympathy or there will be nothing — as Shakespeare demonstrated superbly in his handling of the villains in his later plays,’ that ‘[t]he proper and effective way to accomplish the destruction of a man is [not through smearing, but] to show him sympathy […] permit[ting] the man himself to show that it is undeserved.’²⁰ Foote admonished that ‘[i]f the author won’t show sympathy, the reader will — and with a vengeance,’ and for those who fear sympathy will hide sin, Foote noted that ‘in the clear light of truth, all things [came] clear; the only thing that [could] muddy its depths [was] muddy writing.’²¹ ²² Literature was not moralization, and if history moralized — told instead of showed — it would have no power to cause its readers a “mystic moment” in which the past become present, powerful, and meaningful.
Foote suggested that if historians failed to consciously become writers, they would still engage in the trade of writing and ‘revert to the mechanics of light fiction.’²³ Historians couldn’t not be writers, so the question was if they would be good ones, and if they were to be, they needed to consciously choose to submit themselves to the great labor of earning literary talent. Aristotle in mind, Foote claimed that ‘history at its best [could] be included in the category of dramatic composition,’ and that ‘[t]here [was] no reason why the historian should not be an artist, too.’²⁴ ²⁵ And artists historians must be if history is to change people, ‘[f]or the truth is that facts are not enough’ — there must also be art, “mystical moments,” and escape from our “preset complexes.”²⁶ Otherwise, even when we know history, we will only feel it repeat.
¹Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1976: 233–234.
²Cushman, Stephen. Bloody Promenade. The University Press of Virginia, 1999: 62.
³Cushman, Stephen. Bloody Promenade. The University Press of Virginia, 1999: 64.
⁴Cushman, Stephen. Bloody Promenade. The University Press of Virginia, 1999: 64.
⁵Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage Books, 1956: 3.
⁶Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage Books, 1956: 33.
⁷References to answers Faulkner gave to questions about The Sound and the Fury at the University of Virginia, recorded below:
Question1: What is your purpose in writing into the first section of The Sound and the Fury passages that seem disjointed in themselves if the idea is not connected with one another?
Faulkner: There was part of the failure. It seemed to me the book approached nearer the dream if the ground work was laid by the idiot…the one incapable of relevancy. I shifted those sections to see where they worked best, but I decided that was the best to do it. He didn’t know what he was seeing. The only thing that held him into any sort of reality was his trust for his sister…that he knew she loved him and would defend him. She was the whole world to him…and these things were flashes that were reflected on her as a mirror…he didn’t know what they meant.
Question2: You have said previously that — that The Sound and the Fury came from an impression of a little girl up in a tree, and I wondered how you built it from that, and whether you just, as you said, let it — let the story develop itself.
Faulkner: Well, impression is the wrong world, it’s more of image. I was touched by a moving image of children…There were the three boys, and only the girl was brave enough to climb that tree and look in the forbidden window to see what was going on. It took the rest of the 400 pages to explain why she was brave enough to climb the tree and look in the window. It was, an image, a picture to me which symbolized by the muddy bottom of her drawers as her brothers looked up in the apple tree …symbolism of the muddy draws became the “lost caddy”…caused one brother to commit suicide…the other to misuse money she sent back to her child…I thought it was a short story, one that could be told in two pages…I found out it couldn’t. I wrote it the first time and that wasn’t right, then I wrote it the second time and that was Quentin, then I wrote it again and that was Jason, then again as Faulkner and that still was wrong…
⁸Reference to Faulkner at the University of Virginia, recorded below:
Question: Mr. Faulkner, in The Sound and the Fury the first three sections of that book are narrated by one of the four Compson children, and in view of the fact that Caddy figures so prominently, is there any particular reason why you didn’t have a section with — giving her views or impressions of what went on?
Faulkner: That’s a good question. The whole book is an explanation of that. It began with the picture of the little with muddy drawers climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers who didn’t have the courage to climb the tree, waiting to see what she saw. And I tried to tell it first with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was section one. I tried with another brother. That was section two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still, to me, too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on. It would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed. And I tried myself to tell what happened and that was the fourth section. And I still failed…
⁹Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 2. Vintage Books. A Division of Random House. New York. First Vintage Books, Edition, September 1986: 319.
¹⁰Murry, John Middleton. Studies in Keats, New and Old. New York, NY: Haskell House Publishers, 1972: 61.
¹¹Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 46.
¹²Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 47.
¹³Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 47.
¹⁴Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 57.
¹⁵Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 57.
¹⁶Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 440.
¹⁷Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 440.
¹⁸Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 439.
¹⁹Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 441.
²⁰Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 441.
²¹Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 442.
²²Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 441.
²³Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 443.
²⁴Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 443.
²⁵Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 444.
²⁶Foote, Shelby. “The Novelist’s View of History”. The Sewanee Review. Vol. 99. №3 (1991): 444.