Tuesday, September 20, 2011
September 20, 2011: Creative Histories
In the brief prefatory note to Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1826), about which I blogged here, Sedgwick positions herself, and more exactly her work in the novel to follow, as roughly equivalent to the efforts of Native American “historians or poets.” The moment speaks directly to her revisionist goals for this work of historical fiction (about which I focused in that earlier blog), but at the same time it more implicitly but just as importantly reflects an era in American writing when the genres of historical and creative writing were not at all separate, and often in fact coexisted in the careers of prominent individual writers. After all, the nation’s first professional creative writer, Washington Irving, was also at least as well known as a biographer of George Washington, a historian of both the American Revolution and medieval Spain (among other interests), and the author of a work of historiographic satire and criticism, A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).
I don’t want to glorify that pre-specialized era, either as a time when writers chose not to limit their interests (it wasn’t a choice since such specialized genres simply hadn’t been developed) or as a time when better work was produced (I could blog daily about the number of amazing works of American history writing produced by more specialized academic historians and not run out of topics any time soon). But as someone with an obvious interest in interdisciplinary work, and a lifelong passion for historical literature to boot, I have to admit that many of what I’d call the richest American works—whether creative or scholarly or, y’know, some complicated combination of the two—defy any obvious categorization, or at least bring many elements of other genres and types of writing into their own most central forms. Even when the writer in question is not necessarily in the upper echelon of American talents, the very nature of these combinatory texts makes them, to me, significantly more compelling than might otherwise be the case, yields works that embody some of the best AmericanStudies questions and ideas.
A perfect case in point would be the early 19th century poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865). One of the era’s most popular poets, Sigourney’s works can seem from our 21st century vantage point far too traditional, in both form and theme, when compared with the era’s true innovators, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; less politically potent than James Russell Lowell at his best; less catchy and engaged with American myths than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; less spiritually potent than William Cullen Bryant; and so on. But whatever Sigourney might lack in those areas, I believe she makes up for in her strikingly historical poetic style and themes; works like “The Indian’s Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers” and “Indian Names” (both available at the first link) may be written in rhymed and metered stanzas, but they engage with founding and ongoing national histories and narratives very centrally and successfully. And in a book such as Scenes in My Native Land (1844; full text at the second link), Sigourney does away with generic boundaries even more fully, intermingling prose and poetry freely and smoothly in her powerful and compelling reflections on national sites and symbols as varied as Connecticut’s Charter Oak, Niagara Falls, and the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (in Hartford, Sigourney’s hometown).
As is the case with virtually every topic about which I write here, I don’t want to replace our current emphasis on distinct genres and modes of writing; instead I’m suggesting that there’s significant value in complementing such valuable distinctions with a sense of what authors and texts that blur or erase the generic boundaries also have to offer. In the case of writers like Sedgwick and Sigourney, their creative histories bring our national narratives and stories to life with compelling success, a contribution to AmericanStudies that renders absolute categorization very much a moot point. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Some of Sigourney’s best-known and best poems, including “Welcome” and “Names”: http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/sigour01.html
2) The full text of Scenes: http://www.merrycoz.org/voices/scenes/SCENES.HTM
3) OPEN: Any genre-busting authors or works you’d highlight?