"History as Narrative"

Harry put a piece up, "History as Narrative," about the time I got writer's block on a post exploring Shelby Foote's novel Shiloh. The point of Harry's piece is how to convey truth in narrative and this is the problem Foote tried to solve in Shiloh.

It's long past time for the Shiloh post.

We should start with a quote from Foote that appears in many interviews and letters: “The point I would make is this – and I would have you bear in mind that I am speaking of the honest novelist along with the honest historian. Both are seeking the same thing: the truth – not a different truth: the same truth–only they reach it, or try to reach it by different routes.”

The rub here, BTW, is "honest historian." More on that another time.

Foote tested his truth idea in his second novel, Follow Me Down. The historical event, fictionalized, was a murder. His way of deriving truth was through story fragments unfolding in multiple perspectives. The murderer's jailer has his story and tells it in his voice in his own chapter. Ditto a key witness. There is the reporter covering the story. The killer's wife has a say; so, too his lawyer. At the core of the book, the murderer speaks and his victim remembers events leading to her death. There is no narrator presenting these separate pieces to the reader on a platter of introductions and surmises.

One of the fine artistic touches in Follow Me Down is that these stories do not follow an event driven sequence or a timeline. A hack might have strung the stories on a temporal string like this: prisoner received at jail (jailer's story); lawyer interviews his client (attorney's story); murderer testifies in court (killer's story); etc. Instead the most significant narratives (the killer's and the victim's) lie in the center of the book, with peripheral characters surrounding them, graded by in intensity with the least intense going into the novel and coming out of it. In later interviews, Foote would explain that this is a compositional or structural bias he has in reading and writing.

An additional feature, very sophisticated, is that the many narrators could care less about the reader or the structure of a "crime story." They are telling a personal story from their own perspective and concerned with topics or elements that interest only themselves, told in a sequence natural to themselves, leading to a point that is personal to themselves, not leading to the "climax" of some external, objectified "story."

In Shiloh, Foote's fourth novel (and the one that did best commercially), Foote revives the truth experiment in the form first deployed in Follow Me Down. The battle is seen from multiple perspectives, on different sides, different times of day, on different days, on different points of the battlefield by observers of widely varying circumstance. You could call the effect "pointillist" in building up a composite image except that the points are rather few (seven short narratives in total). On a superficial level, you might think he is reprising Tolstoy's memes of war-as-chaos and generals-as-actors-pretending-to-control-chaos. Such a generalization would be less interesting to Foote than the real work of conveying novelistic + historic truth in one package, to convey the day as history experienced.

This speaks straight to Kenneth Noe's musings, in Harry's post:

(1) "Does the omniscient narrative voice actually obscure the reality of the battle experience?"

Foote says, Try this instead. He has eliminated that voice.

(2) "In short, can we ever grasp, much less communicate, the truth of what it was like to be there?"

Foote says, I am trying here.

Did he succeed? The critics thought so. Why didn't he try it again?

One of the disturbing things about Shiloh is that Foote did set the personal narratives on a timeline. This is a regression, a backsliding from Follow Me Down. Battle can be experienced as disorienting and discontinuous, veterans have difficulty establishing time sequences for the happenings they remember. By using the "Day One," "Day Two" canned history framework on which to hang his stories, Foote generates a counter-noise to that generated by his characters, who each experience an entirley different start and finish to the battle.

There is a larger point here as well. On the personal level, recollections will include incidents at odds with "approved and certified events"; also apparent event sequence errors; also rumors that make no sense; and finally any number of observations that are impossible, improbable, or inconvenient to the master narrative. We have explored some in this very blog, McClellan "commanding" at Gettysburg, for instance. This kind of reality through falsity is missing from Shiloh.

I think Foote went wrong trying to build a "true" mosaic of personal experience inside a "false" structure of artificial periodization painting a picture of the battle that would fit in nicely with any number of "approved" (streamlined and sanitized) histories.

Years later, by the time he was deep into his conventional nonfiction, Foote gave interviews in which he said narrative is the only way to convey history. Did he mean the big, ethically compromised narratives of Civil War history or did he mean the small narratives of personal experience?

Why did he never try a nonfiction experiment in truth? Why did his novel projects collapse after September, September once he emerged from his journey through historical nonfiction?

Who knows. Foote appeared to have bagged it. The point now is to take up new experiments.