“This I fabricated. This I lived.”

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.

10 thoughts on ““This I fabricated. This I lived.””

  1. Ginny:

    Thanks so much for your exceptionally kind comments.

    It’s too bad Bellesiles never admitted what he had done in 2000. It would have made a better platform for a true new start.

    Jim Lindgren

  2. Is it possible that Lindgren is wrong only because the subject might not be from Connecticut?

  3. Government employees should be held to a much higher standard than anyone else. They are paid more than us. They shape our lives. They owe us excellence in everything they do.

    “Good enough for government work” is no longer good enough.

  4. Jim Lindgren – that is an interesting insight (one Hawthorne would have understood).

    Overload: I don’t think you meant what you said, but I’m not sure what you did mean. Lindgren began with CT casualties but spread his net to cover all casualties over a longer period of time and from both Iraq and Afghanistan. None fit the pattern of the essay; indeed, few came close.

  5. The real scandal of Bellesiles, Arming America, and the Bancroft Award was its quality among people who knew better (those who had looked at the original sources–graduate students and the professoriate in colonial and early american history/studies) of “hiding in plain sight.” When I (at the time having finished my graduate degrees and working in publishing and doing more work on early american records) heard about the book I knew it was a fraud; the idea that firearms did not have a prominent place in early america was and is ludicrous. That a book can be published with such a misrepresentation is one thing, to be feted by the professoriate without a whisper of doubt until people like Jim Lingren questioned Bellesiles sources made me wonder what records of early america the leading lights of the professoriate had been reading all those years.

    Now, Bellesiles has gotten another job after Emory, so at least he’s no longer a tragic figure–having served up what people apparently wanted only to get run out of the profession. Having returned he’s serving up another politically charged topic and getting space in a top flight publication. I have no idea what he’s done, true or not, but it’s troubling that it seems to be designed to please and artfully crafted. But for Bellesiles’ sake I hope it’s not a fraud, so he can continue to teach–that is, after all, what he apparently wants to do, and what the long term churn has been about. Hasn’t it?

  6. I know this is beside the point, but there is a lot more to Hawthorne than most people realize who studied “The Scarlet Letter” in high school and haven’t read him since. To call him the spokesman of Puritanism is to trivialize him, especially considering the fact that Puritanism means many things to different people. As for “not noticing revolutions in thought,” I suggest you read “The Blithedale Romance.” Among other things, it includes one of the most perfect portrayals of what we now recognize as the modern leftist “progressive” that I have ever seen, penned in 1852. Hawthorne was a brilliant and complex writer. He doesn’t deserve to be pigeon holed as a “Puritan.”

  7. I sure must not be writing clearly. My point was that Hawthorne used the Puritan setting to say something in and about the nineteenth century. Because that was his purpose, his picture of the Puritans is his own – artistic, yes; historical, yes. But we wouldn’t go to that work to understand the Puritans. A fiction writer has the right to use such a setting. Because of his power, he has defined that period in a way that has made a powerful (and accurate but not rounded) impression of the earlier period on modern minds. The Scarlet Letter (less obviously perhaps than The Blithedale Romance) is as (indeed, probably more) usefully read as a critique of the Transcendentalists than of the Puritans. But that wasn’t my point. It was the latitude we should, it seems to me, give to a work of fiction and its distinction from that we give to a work asserted to be non-fiction.

    I will say that sometimes people of a certain political persuasion seem to feel that the personal narrative is not a genre of non-fiction, but a genre of fiction in which the author’s name is little more than a “frame” author – that is a created narrative voice not unlike, say, the old “Mr. Surveyor Pue.” And those of us who think it is not a fiction, as did so many who commented on Bellesilles’ sensitivity as a teacher, are just so many rubes. Such cynicism does, however, undermine the argument Bellesilles makes. And it certainly undermines any sense that Bellesilles has come to terms with what was wrong in his earlier betrayal of that relationship between author and audience.

  8. Remember the 3 Stooges short where Curly goes crazy when he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel?” I’m like that when I hear the name “Hawthorne.”

  9. Helian, that was a really charming way of responding. Thank you.

    I, too, love Hawthorne – he’s got flaws but his sense of how we define ourselves is profound; the importance of Dimmesdale’s public acknowledgement of Pearl and its effect on her has become one of my favorite moments in fiction. I think that is largely because it demonstrates a truth that seems to have been lost in our modern, too often fatherless, society.

  10. Hawthorne was way over my head in high school, and I didn’t read him again until many years thereafter. Then I noticed the amazing insight into the human condition, encapsulated in a sentence here or a phrase there, like the bit about Dimmesdale and Pearl you mention. That’s what I love about my favorite authors; not broad themes or symbolism, but those scattered bits that let me know they’ve noticed the same things in other human beings that I have, but with a power of analyzing the motives and passions behind them way beyond my own. I put Stendhal above all others because I recognize myself so often. He puts me on a pin like a butterfly and lets me gaze at myself. When it comes to the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, I would almost put his novels in the latter category. He was one of the great psychologists of all time.

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