Thursday, June 6, 2013

Keeping the Faith

When you're working on a biography, what can you do when facts are sparse about an aspect or a period of your subject’s life? Deborah Heiligman, Susan Kuklin, and I hoped for some answers to this question when we attended a panel called "Dealing with Black Holes in Your Narrative" at the Compleat Biographer’s Conference a few weeks ago in New York. Deb shared some helpful nuggets from this panel in her latest INK column. (Thanks, Deb!)

I keep thinking about what one of the panelists, an award-winning and esteemed biographer, said he won’t do in such a case. He won’t speculate on what someone was thinking or feeling or doing. He eschews phrases such as “may have” or “could have” or “must have felt.” He abstains from “perhaps” and “maybe.” He believes these expressions can reduce a book’s credibility and energy level.

An audience member asked this panelist whether he thought it was ever OK to use them. Surely the spare, occasional use of "she may have thought..." or "perhaps he felt..."—set against a background of facts, of course—was acceptable? she asked hopefully. No, never, not to him. He replied that even this can undermine a reader's faith in a book. Panelist 2 agreed with him. Case closed.

Except that it wasn't. Panelist 3, who is also an award-winning and esteemed biographer, eventually piped up. She pointed out that a writer is, after all, an interpreter of a subject’s life. As long as the facts are firm, she said, then in her view it’s fine for the biographer to wonder occasionally about a person's feelings or thoughts. You can present the evidence you have, she said, and leave it as a question.

Several audience members nodded in agreement with her. I was one of them. But I recently saw a reader review of Master George's People on that made me reexamine my position. The reviewer faulted the book for what she called "no-source opinion statements, like 'the enslaved people no doubt saw the matter differently' and 'they felt.'" I know for sure what I felt when I read this criticism, and it was a brief moment of panic. Panelist number 1's words echoed in my head. My word choice had undermined at least one reader's faith in my book.

But then I reminded myself that I would not have taken an unfounded, no-source leap. I grabbed the book and turned to the example the reviewer quoted. It's from chapter 4, "Resistance and Control." Here's the complete paragraph:

     Most of all Washington deplored the "spirit of thieving and housebreaking...among my people." He believed he fed, clothed, and housed his "people" as well as or better than any other slave owner in the region. As far as he was concerned, they were entitled to nothing more. From the slaves' point of view, however, what they were given by their master was totally inadequate. So they took it upon themselves to make up the difference. Meat disappeared from the meat house and corn vanished from the corn loft, as did cherries from the orchards and nails from construction sites. "I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6000 twelve penny nails could be used in the corn house at River Plantation," Washington fumed. To him, these were acts of theft, pure and simple. Mount Vernon's enslaved people no doubt saw the matter differently. They felt they had earned a share of the goods their labor had produced."

I went back to my annotated copy of the manuscript to check my source notes. To my surprise, the paragraph ended with "...Washington fumed." The last 3 sentences weren't there. Then I realized I must have added them later, at the suggestion of one of the two historians who vetted the manuscript for me. (One is a research historian at Mount Vernon who specializes in slave life, the other, a university professor, is a leading authority on African American colonial history.) I searched through my correspondence, and sure enough, I came across a note from one of them saying that I needed to add something about how the slaves felt about helping themselves to the fruits of their labor. Leaving the last word with Washington left the story one-sided. The other historian agreed.

As far as we know, Washington's slaves left no written accounts. Very few of them could read or write. So it's true that we can't know exactly how they felt about their activities. But there are primary sources revealing how enslaved African Americans on other plantations viewed taking things, food in particular, from their owner, and a common theme was that "the result of labor belongs of right to the laborer."

My framework of facts was firm, so I feel very comfortable with my decision to suggest how Washington's slaves would have felt about snatching chickens or sneaking cherries, to indicate that these activities did not compromise their moral code. Indeed, I think I would have been negligent not to have done so, unfaithful to those whose story I'm telling.

Should biographers absolutely stay away from speculating about a subject's thoughts and feelings? Or is it acceptable to suggest occasionally how a subject might have felt or thought, as long as this is set against a strong background of facts? I'd love to know what other writers and readers think about this.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

I'm with you. When subjects haven't written down their thoughts and feelings we can justifably infer them from their actions.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I think your argument is flawless in this case. You were exactly right to include those lines. The fact that they were suggested by a historian makes me certain. I think that this kind of inclusion of feelings or thought, judicially chosen, is perfectly legitimate. I would not want to make a blanket statement. We have to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. Thanks for this post, Marfé. Gets me on my on-ramp today!--Deb