A Hot Mess of Historiography
I haven’t written much here about the new book by Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks, Entangled in Freedom, a novel for young people. The book’s protagonist, Isaac Green, is a young black slave in Civil War Georgia who follows his master into the Confederate Army and, by virtue of having memorized the Bible, quickly finds himself voted by the white soldiers to be the regimental chaplain. I’ve tried to avoid the subject in part because Levin has been all over it since the book was announced, and partly because I had intended to publish here an e-mail interview with Ms. DeWitt, trying to get at some of her background and thinking in writing and publishing the work. I contacted her a couple of weeks ago asking if she’d be willing, and she promptly responded positively. But I got lazy and didn’t send her my questions and, in the meantime, the debate over the book has intensified considerably. Last month Mr. Weeks sent a copy of the book and an angry letter to Levin’s employer — very bad form, that — accusing Levin of “slander” and trying to have the book “silenced.” In the back-and-forth that’s followed, both on Levin’s site and Ms. DeWitt’s, both sides have laid out their cases (and likely will continue to do so), and I’m not sure that there’s any point now in doing the e-mail interview. I don’t think it will illuminate much, since neither “side” in the debate is even speaking the other’s language.
Here is what I mean about not speaking each other’s language: Levin’s (and others’) criticisms of the book — what’s known of it — revolved entirely around the historicity of it, how well the fictional story fits within the known historical framework of that time and place. In response, Ms. DeWitt counters with a response outlining her values and motivations in writing the book:
Imagine writing a novel for young adults which (1) espouses the sanctity of marriage, (2) does not contain profanity, (3) promotes earning ones way in America, (4) advocates true friendship, (5) demonstrates the positive progression of America over the last 150 years, and (6) highlights the strength of the family unit; yet, the novel is dubbed “nonsense” by a recognized Virginia Civil War journalist and historian.
The above six principles are the family narratives of Ann DeWitt. I have no 19th century written documentation of these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors. I do not secretly hide them but proudly share them with the world.
It’s clear that, far from defending the research and historical background presented in the novel, she doesn’t understand the criticism of it. None of those “principles” have anything to do with the historical accuracy of the setting or the plot. One could write such a work in any of a thousand settings, and and frame it in a way that is, if not historically documented, at least plausible. Laura Ingalls Wilder is the obvious example of doing this, although she had the advantage of having actually lived the life she described in her writing.
DeWitt asserts that “these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors.” Okay, fine, but no one’s asking for documentation of her family values. This statement reveals something much more essential here, specifically that, in Ms. DeWitt’s view, criticizing the historical accuracy of the book is criticizing her family, and her values. She sees it not as criticism of her work, but as a personal attack on her. It’s not the same thing at all. I don’t doubt that Ms. DeWitt is a very well-intentioned and sincere person, but having good intentions and a strong moral compass is not enough when it comes to presenting a believable and realistic picture of the past.
Ms. DeWitt and Mr. Weeks haven’t written an historical novel; they’ve written a moral allegory nominally set in the Civil War. But it’s not the South that existed in 1860s or, for that matter, the 1960s. Ms. DeWitt and Mr. Weeks have constructed a Confederacy where wise people “in the Deep South knew all the time that black people are cut from the same board of cloth as whites,” and “knew that slavery wasn’t going to last always.” Alexander Stephens and George Wallace never existed in this version of the American South. Ms. DeWitt and Mr. Weeks have the notion of historical fiction exactly backwards; the goal is to tell a story that fits within the larger, factual context of its setting, not to create a fictional history that supports the particular story one wants to tell for other reasons.
The passage Levin posted recently shows that the historical framework for the novel is based largely on Black Confederate factoids and memes culled from the web. Just that one short passage — 648 words — crams in multiple Black Confederate bullet points, strung together by stilted dialogue. Only a tiny percentage of Confederate soldiers owned slaves? Check. Harper’s Weekly reference to black soldiers at Manassas? Check. Loyal slaves will be delivered “a great prize?” Check. Slaves and owners who “get along fine?” Check.
In defending her book and its thesis, Ms. DeWitt has made some extremely odd arguments — so odd or tangential that one might guess that they were meant in jest, though I don’t think they were. She argues — in all sincerity, it seems – that the slaves who went to war with their masters as body servants were the historical equivalent of present-day, college-educated executive assistant, and then extends that analogy further to the entourage that a modern-day U.S. president travels with. She openly wonders why “mark-and-capture,” a technique used to estimate wildlife populations that involves trapping animals, tagging them and releasing them back into the wild to be recaptured and counted at a later date, hasn’t been used to calculate the numbers of Black Confederates. DeWitt does an online search of Confederate pension records from Alabama’s state archives under the surname “Slave” (!), but says cryptically that the archive “does not document if these African-Americans fought for the Union or the Confederate States Army.” DeWitt lists over two hundred men who received “colored” pensions from the State of Tennessee, helpfully adding that “Colored = Black = African-American,” but omits the fact that Tennessee differentiated these from “S” pensions, issued to soldiers. She hints — both on her website and in the novel — that enlistment or service records that do not explicitly identify the subject as white should be taken as de facto evidence of prospective Black Confederates: “CSA enlistment forms and pension applications did not include race, so . . . the world may never know the total number of African-Americans (Blacks) who served in any and all capacities of the American Civil War.” And then there are explanations that are just odd non-sequiturs:
African-Americans want to know their family history for personal as well as medical reasons. We have turned to scientific DNA testing in order to trace our family lineage. As a human being, it is offensive when historians overall imply that my ancestors in South Carolina were not smart enough to band together and run across a field of dying Confederate soldiers to join the Union Army.
As historiography, this is a hot mess. I don’t know Ms. DeWitt; she seems like a very nice, well-intentioned person who’s deeply devoted to her family and its traditions. That’s a good thing, but I fear that she assumes oral tradition, passed from generation to generation, to be sufficient in not only interpreting her own family’s history — I’ve addressed this before with regard to my own Confederate ancestors — but also in understanding the South, the Confederacy and the fundamental nature of the white supremacist slave society the Confederacy was established to protect and promote. The historical world she presents in Entangled in Freedom isn’t based on research or academic study; it’s the product of intuition and her own, deeply-held faith. But those things are not enough, and to frame what’s intended as an uplifting and inspiring personal story within such a farcical historical context does a real disservice to the public generally, and to students particularly.
It’s a missed opportunity.