Academic journal article MELUS

Seeing "From the Far Side of the Hill": Narrative, History, and Understanding in Kindred and the Chaneysville Incident

Academic journal article MELUS

Seeing "From the Far Side of the Hill": Narrative, History, and Understanding in Kindred and the Chaneysville Incident

Article excerpt

Midway through William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) Quentin Compson and his father stand before a group of tombstones. Typically, Quentin can surmise how Thomas Sutpen's merciless resolve transported the pounds of Italian marble--"the best"--to his Mississippi estate during wartime. Quentin extrapolates further from the incomplete story the stones themselves script. The letters and words etched in marble are visible only "here and there," becoming "momentary and legible in the faint light." But even these flashes of text do more to obscure the lineage than illuminate it. The tombstones testify silently to negation: the relationships Sutpen refused and those he stopped others from claiming. "Not beloved wife of No," Quentin reads on Ellen Coldfield Sutpen's tomb; the absence of "Beloved Husband of' on Charles Bon's stone marks Judith's illicit love. The obscured, broken, or prohibited connections among the dead compose the history Quentin struggles to recover. This story--and Faulkner's novel--emerge from Quentin's work to imagine characters and conversations that fill such accidental and intentional holes in the record. Quentin recognizes the importance of his historian's distance from the story he tries to assemble. He thinks, "No. If I had been there I could not have seen it this plain" (152-55).

The "plain" sight Quentin claims here places him neatly in line with the questions about historical knowledge and imaginative narrative that have preoccupied historiographers and philosophers of history, particularly since the 1970s. Quentin's effort to construct a narrative out of the events Sutpen and his descendents left visible "here and there" is an attempt to manage the raw material of history. He reads stories--alternately as Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire--into the gaps frozen on tombstones and other traces of the lives he tracks (White, Metahistory 143). Within and beyond his storytelling sessions with his Canadian schoolmate, Shreve, Quentin works toward (although one might argue that Faulkner ultimately chronicles his failure) a practice that would explain horrific events by reconfiguring them as elements of a familiar narrative structure. Being there, he "could not have seen it this plain."

Working beyond Hayden White's description of the way history often is constructed according to Western (literary) forms, writers such as Michel Foucault, Peter Novick, and Michel de Certeau have provided wide-ranging critiques of institutionalized historical practice, including its claims to truth, accuracy, and objectivity. At the same time, these analyses yield strategies such as those theorized by Linda Hutcheon and Hans Kellner that exploit this construction to revolutionary ends. As John M. Reilly pointedly argues, uncovering history's literary origins makes it possible not only to undermine historical assumptions but also to realize the capacity of literary artists to "make history" (90). "The idea underlying metahistory that historical representation must be understood in terms of its own system rather than by its congruence with the real world has its counterpart in the recognition by literary critics [and novelists] that fiction creates its own objects," Reilly observes (88). In Reilly's assessment, the possibilities and constraints of historical "emplotment" have particular urgency among writers of African American history who face the paradoxical injunction to "se[t] history straight" by using conventional plotlines that are "without a means to treat the contradictions of racism" (White, Metahistory 7; Reilly 85, 111).

Two contemporary African American historical novels, Octavia E. Butler's Kindred (1979) and David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1981), confirm and thematize the various threads of this study of historical craft. Butler and Bradley force modern writers into a more intimate relationship with history, as well as a new concept of community, by investigating intersections between historical knowledge and imaginative narrative. …

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