Monday, January 29, 2007

History / Fiction

Erik Larson The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)

James L. Swanson Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (2006)

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (Kevin Willmott 2004)

H. H. Holmes has long interested me so I should have read The Devil in the White City three years ago when it first appeared. Like so much, though, that didn't happen but when I took time to get around to it I was then struck by something Larson says in a preface: "However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction." (His emphasis.) Now of course I never expected this to be fiction and most likely anybody bothering to read it knows that the events will be strange and macabre, if not worse. It seemed a peculiar statement.

But then I get to page 39 and see that what Larson really meant--even if he most likely didn't realize it himself--was that he wanted to write fiction instead. History, apparently, is more a ready-made story. This page and the next one describe Holmes travelling around Chicago. It's dated to "one morning in August 1886", claiming the "air was stale and still, suffused with the scent of rotten peaches." No source is given for any of this in the notes except that Larson used Holmes' own memoir and three confessions as sources so presumably that's where the date and the destination (Edgewood) came from. Did Larson know the exact day? If he did then why not mention it (history after all) but if not then how does he know it was stale and still? Perhaps there was a morning shower or even a breeze (this is Chicago even if not on the lake). And where on earth does the scent of rotten peaches come from? Was it a common train food? The station near a fruit stand? Pure supposition?

A bit further Larson writes "Despite the heat Holmes looked fresh and crisp. As he moved through the station, the glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals." (That's an entire paragraph.) Now while the section discussed above might have come from police records or journalist researches even if Larson didn't bother to source any of that, this part could only have come from Holmes' own writings. Who else is going to say he's fresh and crisp despite the heat? Actually I think it's really all Larson invention, something supported by the glances of young women comment. Even if Holmes had claimed that he drew these glances the petals part is a bit excessive (not to mention a poor simile: glances don't fall "around", petals is a clumsy match for seeing, and "wind-blown" out of line with the earlier comments about still air even though it's not meant literally).

The rest of the section has Holmes going down the street, visiting a drug store and talking to the woman inside. All of it has the feel of novelistic embellishment. The store and conversation are supported by multiple sources in the notes and to get there Holmes would have walked down the street but again it feels like Larson wants to make this "come alive" and doesn't hesitate to add what he imagines probably happened, not the best way to write history. Oddly, one thing that he does source is that on a specific corner was "Fire Alarm Box No. 2475". This is the kind of pointless information that results from some writer wanting to display how much research they've done. Even mentioning an alarm box at all really doesn't matter--after all Holmes is merely walking down a street--and if included is only for a bit of period color. To give the box number is simply overkill at best and a distraction for the reader at worst.

Then again, I haven't continued any further with the book so if there's some hidden design that becomes apparent later then I'll add that in a future post.

Swanson's Manhunt is more the type of book that Larson doesn't really admit he's writing. In other words, it's a polished, cohesive narrative with an emphasis placed on the flow. So you get comments about people sniffing the air or spurring their horse; stuff that might have happened though it's impossible to know. Maybe I don't have as much objection to it here (though I still don't entirely like this) because that's what I expected from the book and there's no attempt to downplay this approach. When there are unsettled issues or even controversies--most notably the whole "did Dr. Mudd know Booth" thing though there are numerous others--Swanson makes a decision and sticks the uncertainties into the notes. So in the body of the book Mudd knowingly helps Booth and misleads Union soldiers. The long-standing debate about that is only briefly covered in the notes but thoroughly enough to know what Swanson did and why as well as where to look for opposing views.

Overall, it's a solid chase story. There are also a lot of fascinating details such as the actress who saw her moment of glory in the assassination. Even more the former Confederate spy who hid Booth and his companion for almost a week and would have vanished from history if years later a journalist hadn't decided to track down what happened out in the swamp. Also, the very young woman who had a brief flirtation with Booth and then after the assassination hid his letters so that they weren't discovered until the 1920s. Somewhere there must be an option for this as a movie, not something I usually think about when reading but this has the right elements: historical resonance, taut story, a clear ending and the cast could be restricted enough to be not confusing.

Admittedly, while I enjoyed the book and though it's well-done despite a bit too much detail that causes it to drag in spots, this is also not what interests me most about history. I would rather have read a book that discussed the whole Mudd issue even though it's pretty clear that Mudd did know. Or what did Booth actually say "Sic semper tyrannis" at the assassination and when? There are several conflicting reports and all those are more what I'd like to read about rather than being told this is what happened.

As most people likely to be reading this already know, the film C.S.A. is in the form of a televised British documentary about America after the Confederacy won the Civil War. Alternate histories are created for several purposes (and since they're generally considered--rightly or not--as science fiction then C.S.A. is a science fiction film). Probably most common is simply to have an unusual setting for a story that otherwise doesn't particularly depend on the history. But many writers use the concept to explore ideas of free will and determination, perhaps most notably Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Moore's Bring the Jubilee (WWII and the ACW both being common "what if" scenarios). Another approach takes alternate history as a way to examine real-world history, examples being Roberts' Pavane or Spinrad's The Iron Dream (though the latter being more about ideology than historical events).

C.S.A. is an attempt at digging into racist thought rather than anything to do with actual history. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that the Confederacy would have taken over the US even if given the opportunity and having the ability. A stretch as well to think that France and England would have sent troops as late as 1864 even given that they were supposedly convinced the war wasn't about slavery. And though writer/director Kevin Willmott claims (unless I misunderstood him) that Lincoln's banishment to Canada parallels Jefferson Davis that's not what actually happened to Davis. Despite the huge change of slavery still existing America still develops in the CSA universe much as it did here, even to the point of electing JFK over Nixon in 1960. And the idea that slavery would have continued to be economically feasible is addressed in the film at the end, though not particularly convincingly. As C.S.A. progresses this historical timeline approach seems more and more limited.

While I think that Willmott may have become caught up in the history he also clearly paid a lot of attention to recreating earlier media. The 50s educational film is almost dead-on, the problem being just a bit too much tongue-in-cheek acting. The DW Griffith film is a bit too broad as well but doesn't feel completely wrong and most of the commercials could almost be real. (That clothing and types of speech mostly don't change is perhaps license so that viewers don't get lost, it's hard not to wonder if the quasi-dreadlocks on a runaway were deliberate. Would they have even existed in CSA World?) The two recreations of 40s films, though, are just a mess; you'd think that even if Willmott and crew weren't familiar enough to wing it that they then would have taken a real film and copied it in detail with their own content. Some of the supposedly older photos made for the film also don't quite match but that's common. Willmott also doesn't explain how there could have been a sound film of Lincoln in 1905; maybe the CSA developed a little faster or even in our world there could have been an audio recording along with the film. And even though it's a low-budget film were these really the best actors he could find?

But the history is all more or less irrelevant to what Willmott is trying to do. That the CSA would survive to the present day with slavery intact is simply the given of his story even if he spends a bit of time trying to justify it. What he's really after is to highlight racism in our actual current society and also to bring slavery back into discussion of the ACW (the latter comes more from interviews since it's not quite as apparent in the film itself). I'm not sure the fake documentary form is appropriate to either considering that it's most the story of the dominant class even though the pretence of this being a British documentary should have allowed more direct commentary. There's also a direct comparison in the form of Goodbye Uncle Tom, also a fake documentary about slavery. Made by Italian sleazemasters Jacopetti and Prosperi, it's supposed to be a film about the slave trade as if it had actually been made at that time. Even though it ends up being perhaps the most racist anti-racist film ever made it nevertheless is anti-racist for large stretches. It's deeply unsettling, almost unwatchable, in places and that's part of the intent. This attempt to go as far as possible and not find a safe area to comment on the proceedings is both its strength and its undoing because by the end it doesn't always feel like Jacopetti and Prosperi are displaying the horrors of slavery so much as reverting to their natural instincts to shock viewers.

Needless to say, C.S.A. doesn't go anywhere near that far but an unfortunate parallel to Goodbye Uncle Tom is that it's hard not to shake the feeling that the film is indulging enjoyment of racism during the commercials shown throughout, a sort of "isn't that just awful" smugness. The risk of any good satire is being misunderstood but it's easy to imagine some Klansman thinking C.S.A. is just a hoot. Overall the film is just too removed from current real society to make much of a connection.

Perhaps it would have been a harder distribution sell but it seems to me like a more effective approach would have been to tell short bios of three or four people in the CSA universe rather than the grand and often unconvincing overall story. Harriet Tubman, for instance, helping Lincoln escape seems a promising subject and there must be others.