Word By Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing
(Harvard University Press)
US: Feb 2013
“You and me
What does that mean
What does that mean
What does that mean
It means we’ll manage
I’ll master your language
And in the meantime
I’ll create my own”
January 2013 will be remembered for, among other portentous events, the bashing of the genre known as memoir.
It began promptly on the 2nd, with Hamilton Nolan’s takedown in Gawker. “Journalism Is Not Narcissism” railled against advising aspiring journalists to make too much of a habit of mining their young lives for meaty stories as a way to start gaining career traction (so much, I guess, for the old bromide “write about something you know”). After getting the requisite Gawker-esque snark out of his system, Nolan offers some common-sense correctives, based upon this simple premise:
“Left unsaid in most discussions of this sort of writing is the fact that most people’s lives are not that interesting. Certainly, simple math will tell you that a 20 year-old has only a limited store of really compelling personal stories to tell. Most people who decide to base their writing careers on stories about themselves end up like bands that used their entire lifetime’s worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up.
Sure, you can extract some thoughtful stories of humiliation from a college class. And sure, you can get some of them published. But that is not a career plan. Writing about yourself can be part of a balanced journalism diet, but it sure ain’t a whole fucking meal. By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you’re spending the principal. Soon, it will all be used up. There is nothing more painful to watch than a writer desperately grasping at ever less-important aspects of their own lives in order to make word counts, until they must simultaneously eat lunch and be writing about eating that lunch at the same time. It is the most small-minded interpretation of “journalism” there is. It is sad.”
As if on cue, New York magazine published several hundred stylishly rendered but barely coherent and astonishingly irrelevant words four days later, under the headline “Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts her One-Night Stand of a Life”. If you think my characterization was a bit much: 1. the rest of the Internet wasn’t much nicer and; 2. read this paragraph and come to your own conclusions:
“For a while after my first book came out, I went home with a different man every night and did heroin every day—which showed my good sense, because the rest of the time I was completely out of control. Even now, I am always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one. But I worry about growing old this way. Because of divorce, dating never ends for anybody: Men I was involved with long ago—more than one of them—have turned up after a whole marriage and kids and being so sure they knew what life was for to tell me they were wrong to let me go. Which is funny. But I don’t think I really want to be going to the new P. T. Anderson movie and Mission Chinese with someone new when I’m 85. And I don’t think anyone will want to be doing that with me.
I am lucky: I run, and Gyrotonic sessions three times a week have kept me in the same shape I have always been in. But age scares me. I look at Kathryn Bigelow at 61 and feel greatly relieved. I consider how much I do that has nothing to do with how I look and realize that if aging bothers me at all, it must be a primeval pain. Because it is not just about the lines around your eyes or the loss of that glow of expectancy. It is also a feeling of enough.”
Apparently feeling enough (or “Enough!”) herself, Katie Roiphe sprang to the aid of would-be memoirists, laying down some basic rules of the road in “This Is How You Write a Memoir” for Slateon 9 January. Her advice was nothing all that far out of the box: strive for authenticity, be entertaining, respect the craft of writing. The very next day, J. Nicole Jones took a broader view in the Los Angeles Review of Books, considering both the disparaged reputation of the genre and some of its more exemplary examples in “Becoming Story: The State of the Memoir”.
None of this discourse is going to discourage anyone hell-bent on committing some or all of her/his life story to written posterity. And there will surely be more hand wringing about the preponderance of self-absorbed “and then Mommy did this” treacle clogging up bookshelves. But instead of that, it might be a more refreshing corrective to think about a moment in American history when writing of one’s condition was anything but self-indulgent. Perhaps we should consider writing that, while considerably less polished and fluid than your basic memoir circa 2013, lingers longer within the reader. As opposed to someone writing about her/his life, here is an example of someone writing, in essence, for it:
“Dear Husband I write a letter to let you
know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader
onmonday court day and myself and other child is for sale also
and I want you to let hear from you very soon before
next cort if you can I don’t know when I dont want you to
wait till chrismas I want you to tell dr Hamelton or
your master if either will buy me they can attend to it
know and then I can go after wards I don’t wa_t a trader to
get me they asked me if I had got and person to buy me
and I told then no they told me to the court houste too they
never put me up a man buy the name of brady bought albe
rt and is gone I dont kow whare they say he lives in scott
esville my things is in several places some is in staun
ton and if I sould be sold I dont kow what will be
come of them I dont expect to meet with the luck to get
that way till I am quite heart sick nothing more I
am and ever will be your kind Wife Maria Perkins”
Maria Perkins wrote that letter 8 October 1852, from Charlottesville, Virgina. It was addressed to her husband, Richard Perkins, who was on another plantation in the state. The letter is presented with the same line breaks as on the original document, and with all the misspellings and grammatical errors intact. And it may have been difficult for you to follow her thoughts, especially without punctuation marks to guide you through it. But despite the lack of learnedness on display, the urgency of her message is palpable.
Their son just got sold, and she has no idea where he ended up. She herself and another child almost got sold themselves, and still might. Her possessions, as well as her family, are all over the State – Scottsville, Staunton, and who knows where else. She’s asking her husband to see if some white man with a measure of authority – his owner, or whoever Dr. Hamilton is – can do something to reunite them. Historians for years have puzzled over the phrase “I am quite heart sick” – does Maria mean she’ll be at her breaking point if/when she finally catches a break? Or is she already heartsick, and the juxtaposition of that declaration with the previous sentence simply reflective of her lack of polish as a writer?
Her plea is an example of a field of American writing few literary scholars have considered: letters written from the pit of slavery. Even casual students of black American history know of slave narratives; indeed, much of what we know about slave life was shaped by the stories of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and others. But those narratives were written after the author was no longer a slave. The letters are different. They come from a different voice and perspective, while the author was still a slave. And their concerns are not to recap the horrors of that most peculiar institution, but to directly address them, or at least find a way to make them a little less horrible.
They are also different in that, as Maria Perkins’ letter indicates, the letter writers were not yet fluent with the written word. Few slaves received formal education, with many being taught to read just well enough to understand the Bible. But many more slaves picked up at least the rudiments of literacy, either from white teachers or other blacks, and used that basic level of communicative agency to express their thoughts to someone they hoped would do some good.
It’s safe to say no one has any idea how many letters there ever were; we’re fortunate that some of them found their way into historical collections. Christopher Hager does a fascinating job of sifting through these letters, fleshing out as much as possible the stories of their authors, and casting it all as black America’s first attempts at forging a voice in this strange land, in Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing.
Hager, a professor of English and American studies at Trinity College, toggles between historical research and literary criticism in examining slave writings. As it happened, slaves wrote more than entreaties to their owners. They wrote manifestos, such as that “A Colored Man” authored in New Orleans in 1863: although his grammar and spelling weren’t good, his argument bouncing the US Constitution off the realities of slave life remains compelling. There was also Dave the Potter, who embedded pearls of rhyme (“Horses mules and hogs / all our cows is in the bogs/there they shall ever stay/till the buzzards take them away”) in the massive pots and vases he made in South Carolina.
Some of the people we meet in Word by Word have been examined elsewhere. Other historians and scholars have taken a whack at Perkins’ letter; somewhere along the line some people referred to her as Marie, and “I am quite heart sick” became the unofficial title of it in some journals. As for Dave the Potter, some of his pieces have survived the years and have become quite collectible, and he’s even been the subject of a children’s book.
But others fell through the cracks of capitol-H history, even though their lives were quite remarkable. Hager devotes the better part of a chapter to Garland H. White, who wrote prolifically during and after the Civil War in a variety of contexts. He wrote letters to the Christian Recorder, a black newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. He wrote letters to politicians in high places, seeking help in forming a black regiment to help the Union win the war. He sought appointment as a chaplain, the only officer rank a black man was allowed to hold then. Once he received it, he wrote reports from the front, often one version for his higher-ups and another for the Recorder.
As Hager portrays it, Write literally wrote himself out of slavery (he had escaped and was living in Canada when the war broke out) and into a position with some level of influence. As he became a better writer, he used his soapbox to address broader concerns, such as the general lack of fitness for duty freed slaves exhibited for combat compared to already-free blacks from the North (the former, Write wrote in 1864, “did not stand up to the work like those from the Free States”). But others were writing too, and a bit of a dialogue emerged in the Recorder over the treatment of blacks in the Army, with other voices taking positions contrary to White’s.
It’s here that one of Hager’s main points becomes clearest. While slaves were not universally thought to have much capacity for or interest in mental agility, they were deeply affected by their experiences, longed to express and redress the injustices they faced, and as soon as they could at least scratch out an attempt to do so, they did. It may have taken a long time to write a one-page letter, and the final product typically wasn’t perfectly constructed (not that white people’s spelling was any better in many cases), but there’s little doubt in the depth of feeling that drove the writing process. Further, in their own way, these voices were already following a tenet of every writing class: re-read and revise your work. Extant pieces shown in the book contain cross-outs, squeezed-in words and other changes, as if the writers continued struggling with what to say and how to say it well after completing the de-facto first draft.
Another point that sticks out as Hager considers White’s canon is that by the time of the War, there were great differences between free blacks and blacks who were still enslaved. There was an emerging tendency to look askance at illiterate blacks, even though that condition was hardly their fault or their choosing. By the same token, Hager reports instances of jealousies among the illiterate towards those who could read and write; depending on how widespread those instances were, the whole notion of “acting white” may have antecedents that have nothing to do with hip-hop, integration or any other urban factor of 20th Century vintage.
Most understandings of black history have the whither-black-people debate first surfacing between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington at the turn of the 20th Century. Word by Word suggests that the issues had been germinating in the black community for many years prior; once black people gained not just literacy, but the confidence to speak one’s mind literacy conferred, what was once merely thought in private or spoken to a group could now be disseminated to a much broader audience. That in itself is just an extension of Hager’s central premise: that literacy emboldened those who gained it to speak without fear or reservation from their minds, their hearts and their souls. And as they did so, black people wrote themselves into history.
And black people have kept right on doing that all these years. The official history of black America is supported and enlivened by the many autobiographies and memoirs by persons great and small. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is merely the most famous in the post-WWII era; one could go further back to Langston Hughes (The Big Sea, 1940) or James Weldon Johnson (Along This Way , 1933) for stories of earlier fascinating adventures. In the other direction, Maya Angelou’s five volumes of autobiography, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1967), touch on 20th Century black life from the Arkansas woods to the Broadway lights.
More recent memoirs fill in gaps by illuminating the corners and nuances of black experience beyond history’s sweeping, big-picture gaze. John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1996) captured the extremes of black male life – acclaimed success vs. crime and punishment – in microcosm. In Volunteer Slavery (1994), journalist Jill Nelson took on the realities of life in corporate America for a black woman, with all its attendant struggles and contradictions. James McBride told the story of his upbringing in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996), a remarkable tale of how racial identity is often more of a personal construct than a box on the census form.
In each of these memoirs (and too many others to survey here briefly), just as in the writings of slaves, what we gain is not a trivial thing. Taken as a whole, black memoirs may be about the writer’s self on the surface just like anyone else’s, but the best of them speak to more than one person’s particular themes. They allow black people to see themselves in the lives of others, and help anyone who reads them understand a little bit more about the complexities and subtleties of the lives black people have built in America. They’re not glorified therapy dumps, and they’re not always stepping-stones to a larger career. For black people, there is, and always has been, much more at stake.