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Monday, October 16, 2017

Telling Dead Men's Tales

by Lynn Downey (writer), Sonoma, April 03, 2007

Why do women still write books about the Great or Merely Mediocre men of history? I mean, we’ve finally managed to get women’s history onto library and bookstore shelves. Just check out the square footage of the history and biography sections at Borders or Cody’s or Copperfield’s. This real estate used to look like the pages of that classic reference book, The Dictionary of American Biography, also known as the “DAB.” Or, as the wags in my library master’s program at U.C. Berkeley used to call it, “Dead American Boys.”

Women are finally publishing books and articles about The Great or even Mediocre females of history, a phenomenon that’s only taken place over the last twenty years or so. We finally know about Florence Kelley, after years of having New York social reformers represented only by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Lincoln Steffens stood in for all muckraking journalists until someone discovered Ida Tarbell. And you can’t turn around today without tripping over a biography of Abigail Adams.

Out here in the West we’ve made a stab at giving women their due, but it’s a slower process for some reason. Women are given the “pioneer” treatment in innumerable books, but finding a full-length work about the women whose footprints matched their men’s is a lot harder. There are a few bright spots, though. Charmian London, wife of larger-than-life Jack London, was merely a footnote until someone wrote her story, which revealed that she was not only his courageous equal but also a decent writer. Mary Hallock Foote has finally stepped off the fiction shelves and out of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and is now acknowledged for her own superb writing skills.

There’s one thing all these books have in common, however. For the most part, the facts were uncovered by other women, after years of obscurity in the historical closet.

Now, I’m not saying that men have never written about women at all. The problem is that what they put on paper doesn’t come near to representing women’s true experiences. One reason is that male and female historians often have different definitions of what “important” historical records are. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won a Pulitzer Prize for A Midwife's Tale : The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. So why didn’t a man write that book? The Martha Ballard diary was available to anyone who visited the Maine State Library, and plenty of men saw it as it slumbered in the library’s vault. But it took a woman to see the value in a little brown book that men had considered full of unimportant details.

These days, people who are standing in front those extra miles of biographical bookstore shelves are looking for voices, and for the most part, they’re finding them. So, after all these years of being ignored by historians you’d think female writers would want to continue this trend, up the ante, spend some more quality time on ourselves, find more fascinating women to put onto the page. But no. Some of us continue to dig into the archives of men’s existence. And I think I know why.

It’s revenge.

It’s payback for all those years of being slighted – or worse, misrepresented – by male historians. It’s the reason my friend Kay, a documentary filmmaker, makes movies about history: dead people can’t sue you, and the longer they’ve been dead, the better. It’s that dish best served cold, and female historians are in the kitchen taking it out of the fridge.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re applying the same rigorous intellectual standards to these studies as the guys do, but our conclusions are unique. Our books and articles point out character traits, actions and experiences that male historians might gloss over. Things like infidelity, insensitive parenting, or emotional distance, for example.

So why do male scholars excuse or not even see the value of these issues when they’re doing the writing? Because to many men these just go with the territory of living in the world and really aren’t worth talking about. But if they are talked about, look out.

When Fawn Brodie and Barbara Chase-Riboud had the temerity to mention Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, you could hear the sputtering from Petaluma to the Potomac. And to say that women shouldn’t dwell on these topics begs the same response the suffragists gave to the men who told them they couldn’t have the vote back in the early 20th century. The political process is a dirty business, they said, and voting would bring the women into contact with “foul” men. By making the polling place sound as if it were a saloon in the worst part of town, the anti-suffragists thought they’d made their point. They hadn’t. Undeterred and probably chuckling, the women reminded their detractors that these were the same foul men they lived with every day.

In other words, we’ve looked at the DABs the same way we look at our husbands, fathers and boyfriends. We’ve learned to sniff out certain traits from the historical record because we smell them all the time. And by writing them down and printing them up we get to use a voice we might not get a lot of practice with at home.

So there are a lot of reasons to research and write about history’s male half. Turnabout is still one of them, whether it’s aimed at historians in general or one man in particular. But, to be fair, I also have to say that there are many men who have led extraordinary lives and who are simply fascinating topics for historical exploration.

But there’s one final reason to write men onto the page.

Dead men don’t break your heart.


About the Writer

Lynn Downey is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Telling Dead Men's Tales

Log In To Vote   Score: 3
By Charles, Jr on December 04, 2007 at 10:20 pm
I love girls. If I grow up to be a writer, I promise to write a lot about the glories and accomplishments of specific girls, women, and females. I also hope someday to marry one of the type of women you wrote about. That's the kind of wife/equal partner I want, and to be the mother to my child.
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Log In To Vote   Score: 3
By Kent J. on December 05, 2007 at 12:46 am
I enjoyed reading this story. So did my wife.
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