Happy endings and history

The Guardian newspaper has a nice essay on literary and musical endings. This is an important subject to Civil War readers, where narrative structure drives what information will be given, how much, and in what order.

As essayist James Woods points out, the ending has a distorting effect on the whole of any piece of fiction or music. " You could say, as a rule, that the novel, for instance, is a form that doesn't want to end, and that generally contorts itself into unnatural closure."

If that is true for novels, it is doubly true for narrative history. The meme "Lincoln finds a general" is actually an ending in search of a story structure. The more literary minded history writers will trim away the material less relevant to Lincoln finding a general, thus enhancing the ending's effect. They are like novelists in search of the perfect ending.

The less literary followers of this meme - I'm thinking of historians who buy into Lincoln finding a general but will not wrap the whole story in that cloth – those fellows wind up with "one of those endings that reformulates everything that has gone before, giving it a final power it had not possessed before its ending" (Woods). They invite us to re-imagine the madness that has preceded in order to detect the thread of method that they disclose at the end.

The perfect ending is more common in Civil War history than in art." This [perfect ending] is rare in art, surely; unsuccessful endings are the norm." In Unionist histories, Lincoln finds a general, the general perfectly executes Lincoln's wishes, and Lincoln dies a martyr's death at the apex of his satisfaction and fulfillment. In Southern histories, the noble lion lays down his arms after an impossible struggle and is granted honor and a gentleman's ending to his life.

One of the advantages to writing happy endings to a Civil War history is that it produces an improvement in whatever narrative preceded it. Woods describes the effect: "it was a film improved by a beautiful ending, so that as soon as it was over it began to seem a better film than it had seemed while it was running." [Emphasis added.]

If "unsuccessful endings are the norm" let us have the artful form of a Wagnerian opera ("Wagner built massive structures on suspended chords, on the deferral of resolution"), that tries to be true to the material. Let us have unsuccessful endings to our histories.

Woods concludes that "Perfect endings, whether of the open Chekhovian kind, or of the positive and closed kind, are rare and to be cherished."

But not in our histories, Mr. Woods.