Natalie Zemon Davis: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of `Martin Guerre'. (Today's History).(Interview)

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WHAT IS HISTORY? What is it about and how should it be portrayed? Such questions are much in the air these days. But few have examined them more consistently and imaginatively than Natalie Zemon Davis.

Widely revered as (variously) a leading historian of early modern France, a left-leaning intellectual who helped pioneer the shift from social to cultural history, and one of the great iconic figures of feminist history, Natalie Davis is not `simply' any of these. The sheer versatility of her skills, and her capacity to incorporate multiple meanings, defy simplistic labelling. Like a jeweller turning a diamond this way and that in different lights, Davis insists on the multivalent meanings of the historical record. If you come across (say) an early edition of the essays of Montaigne, she insists, check not only its contents but how and by whom it was printed and bound, who bought it from whom and who gave it to whom, what the inscription says and what the handwriting is like, and which pages are particularly frayed. You may not have hard and fast evidence to answer all the questions that arise; but, given all the other things you know--be brave, use your imagination. `What I offer you here is in part my invention,' Davis acknowledges in the introduction to her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre, `but held tightly in check by the voices of the past'.

Martin Guerre was a sixteenth-century French peasant who deserted his wife and family to become a soldier of fortune. A few years later `Martin' returned from the wars and took up again with his wife--until the `real' Martin returned and the man living in his place was tried and executed as an impostor. Davis was consultant to the film (starring Gerard Depardieu), and her ground-breaking book, first published in 1983, has been translated into some twenty languages. Meanwhile, the Martin Guerre story has ridden off into all sorts of new directions, among them the film Sommersby and a musical version. Evidently, Davis had touched upon a story with profound reverberations for our own times. And not only in Martin Guerre. Impostorship, uncertain identity, multiple portrayals: these themes run throughout her work.

Their roots go back to her childhood. Born to a prosperous, liberal-leaning Jewish family in Detroit in 1928, Natalie Zemon grew up straddling different worlds. An all-American girl, she became increasingly conscious of her European ancestry. Attending a private girls' high school, she'd go to Christian chapel but cross her fingers lest her Old Testament God be angry with her. As a politically active undergraduate at Smith College after the war, she gravitated towards the radical `Progressivism' of Henry Wallace just as the national mood was swinging towards the anti-Communist right. A history major, she loved reading European (especially French) literature, thought about working in film--and went to a Harvard summer school to study the philosophy of science.

In general, Natalie thrived as she bridged her disparate worlds. But the foothold faltered. At Harvard, she met and married a young (non-Jewish) mathematician, Chandler Davis, receiving opprobrium, especially from her mother, for marrying `out', while the political radicalism she and Chandler shared brought the young couple into conflict with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The HUAC confrontation led to the withdrawal of Natalie's passport, which distressed her deeply as it put a (temporary) end to the PhD research she was undertaking in Lyon. But there were beneficial by-products. Pregnant with her first child, she realised it was perhaps no bad thing, at least temporarily, to forego transatlantic commuting. Also, living in the New York area, she began to encounter some of the incomparable rare book collections on her doorstep.

Davis was a thirty-year-old mother of three before she completed her PhD, and she held teaching posts at Brown, York (Toronto), the University of Toronto and at Berkeley before she published her first book. …