[10 November 2008]
History books are necessarily problematic. Despite their oft-noble aims of presenting “just the facts ma’am”, history books are plagued by the linear nature of narrative; in linking the events which they treat together, they have to present their account of history as singular and exhaustive. History, though, is not a causal chain of occurrences. It is an infinitely vast mosaic of motivation, actuality, and relationship. This could only approach representation in some non-linear history—a history that doesn’t presume that its plot captures history within a single timeline. Such a history would be unnatural, unreadable, and painfully Joycean. Writing is naturally linear, history is naturally diffuse.
However, this does not leave us immobilized with a medium inappropriate for presenting its subject. Rather, we have adapted to understand history not as something which is contained in a single, sufficiently researched tome, but, rather, as the intersection between a collection of history texts; we guard against linearity by writing history for ourselves as a summa rather than a story.
Very few history books are aware of this, though. Despite the literary community’s savvy on any number of vastly more complicated hermeneutical issues, most history authors turn a deaf ear to how we interpret history and continue to feed us linearity and feign shock at any alternative. Bill Kauffman is no such author. Kauffman’s latest offering Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin proves not only his mettle as a formidable researcher and archivist, but foreground his relentless awareness of the hermeneutical dimension of history. Without sacrificing cogency and maintaining a consistently cool voice, Kauffman plumbs history in its diffuseness to round out historical models.
Forgotten Founder tells the story of Luther Martin, one of America’s less-remembered founding fathers. A livid Anti-Federalist, Martin has gone down in the annals of 18th century America as little more than a footnote. He was accused of being an absolute boor, drinking to excess, rambling in speech with incessant monotony, and having an altogether prickly disposition.
Kauffman takes up the cross of giving Martin a fair shake, not by defending the man but just by telling his story. Kauffman never thinks he is revising an inappropriate history, but rather sees himself as extending our current knowledge of the Constitutional Congress and the subsequent 18th century. Never the explicit apologist, Kauffman delicately and humorously weaves a more complete portrait of Martin. Furthermore, Kauffman’s writing is well-founded upon a towering bibliography that Kauffman adroitly parses.
However, a few pages in, it becomes apparent that Kauffman is not just writing a story about a forgotten founder, he is writing a story about Anti-Federalism and the nature of history at large. He begins “…[the Anti-Federalists] have been written off as bucolic bumpkins unable to grasp the exquisiteness of the Madisonian argument.” However, “The Antis were not quibblers, not captious carper arguing about dotted i’s and uncrossed t’s. Their objections cut to the heart of the new Constitution.” Kauffman sees his book as finally fleshing out history on the side that lost, not because he feels the Antis deserve recompense, but because history is truest when most exploded. Kauffman’s end is not to rewrite history from the point of view of Martin and the Antis, but, to free history from the Federalist-centric linearity that grade school texts typically confer. Kauffman does this very well.
This book is a quick read and marked by monumental scholarship and deft style. The only time Forgotten Founder stumbles is when Kauffman becomes a little too caught up in the belles-lettres that come so naturally. For every ten pages of excellent prose there might be one cringe-worthy overuse of alliteration, one awkwardly florid clause, or one joke only a historian could love. However, this hardly detracts from the book. If anything, such visible faults only reinforce Kauffman’s latent argument that no single history can ever be perfect.
Kauffman proves time and again that although a specific text will never be all-sided enough to capture history, we can still value texts based upon how much they expand, rather, than contract our sense of history. In this sense, Kauffman is not only capable in his writing, but in his mastery of the spirit of history.