Shakespeare wrote to please the Tudors. Hawthorne saw a great metaphor for the rule of law & of the mind over the heart in the Puritans. The Romantic depiction of a world two centuries gone is accurate in many ways, but The Scarlet Letter also obscures the extraordinary revolutions in thought that would lead from the Puritans to the Enlightenment. We cut his fiction slack. It describes some truths – the folly of pride and passion, the power of love. We welcome this understanding and in that it rings true. It is fiction.
Few see Shakespeare as gatekeeper of British history nor Hawthorne as definer of Puritan theology. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a different role. It reports, offers opinion, includes want ads. As newspaper to the academy, it bridges disciplines. A few years ago, Arts & Letters Daily became sponsored by the Chronicle. I daily reckon A&L a great service. The editor is one of the most able and generative of evolutionary scholars, Denis Dutton. He makes the net accessible; I gratefully & often link to him here. Recently A&L noted a Chronicle essay in its pithy, aggregator, fashion:
Michael Bellesiles, who teaches military history, knows his job is easier in peace time. When the brother of one of his students was killed in Iraq,
That a small college taught military history was surprising. More surprising was the author. Had he come to terms with the cause of his fall from grace? That this ex-Bancroft winner was an adjunct was less surprising. The problems with Arming America reached far beyond Emory and that particular award.
Following the link, I first skimmed comments. There, Clayton Cramer summarizes criticism of Bellesiles book. Others believe Emory and the Bancroft committee were unduly influenced by the NRA. Then I read the narrative. The neatness had the slickness we associate with certain salesmen. But, the paradox of personal narratives means they deserve slack: the personal implied to be both representative and unique.
Then Jim Lindgren at Volokh set to work. Carefully, thoughtfully, and sensitively, he tracked down background First he threw doubt, in a moderate and tempered fashion. Then Lindgren dug deeper and mounted a stronger critique. While the genre of personal narrative relies on subjectivity of interpretation, we do expect accurate rendering. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient, but has a certain power. So its conventions of honesty are different but not unlike those of scholarship. Part of its power comes from its truth. We expect the writer to be accurate factually (as nearly as can be ascertained) and record a personal response as honestly and clearly as possible. The power comes in part from a convention: not that the writer’s feelings created the narrative but that the narrative inspired the feelings. The climax of this narrative structure is often the writer’s epiphany – ah, this is the truth, given body here in this instance. The proportionate nature of that response to that experience, the acuity and wisdom of that response are where its value lies. Thus, Lindgren’s research is devastating in its own way, as were the critics of Arming America in theirs. The source of both is the author’s dishonesty, one that dishonors the implicit contract between author and audience.
Lindgren’s research doesn’t surprise: past actions are the best predictor of future ones. But we hoped. We are a nation of second chances. Maturing usually comes from humility: the chastening experience of experience. One of the great pleasures of teaching at a junior college is noting how fully lived lives can build character. Last weekend, at my husband’s forty-fifth high school reunion, I was heartened again by that fact. One whose first, loving & dutiful, marriage had ended in pained years of care, was rewarded with a second chance as widower; one unsure of himself many years ago, became a recognized scholar proud to encourage masculine independence in his grandson; an old friend I’d thought of as immature found depths caring for an invalid son & beginning a second marriage; another enthusiastically described the joys of Florentine art in his first trip to Europe this summer. That rural VFW hall reunion might not be the habitat of a Bancroft winner; still, there is our universal nature. Belliselles’ intelligence and training might have led to shame, guilt, rebirth – a gut understanding of the importance of discipline to his discipline. But, clearly, it hadn’t.
I’ve written earlier (here and here) of the betrayal a reader feels when a writer “uses” our natural sympathy for a participant to blur distinctions between fact and fiction; the academic pretense that autobiographies are not a separate genre from fiction ignores the importance of audience expectations. A writer’s implied contract with us is: “This I fabricated. This I lived.” Both genres are not just useful – they are art. But we admire different qualities and cut the writers different kinds of “slack.” The Chronicle’s editors may not value that contract, having drunk post-modernist kool aid. Perhaps they sympathized with Belliselles’ positions sufficiently to muffle the warning bells his work should naturally set off. Perhaps they see Belliselles as victim rather than con-man. Perhaps they see us as rubes. Whatever the reason surely appropriate (dare I say scholarly) stanards were not applied, even if adolescent cynicism was. These editors betrayed their mission as Belliselles has both of his. This blog is often critical of the academic perspective – this incident demonstrates why.