Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Perils of Being In Love With Your Subject

"Until our own time, history focussed on man the achiever; the higher the achiever the more likely it was that the woman who slept in his bed would be judged unworthy of his company. Her husband's fans recoiled from the notion that she might have made a significant contribution towards his achievement of greatness. The possibility that a wife might have been closer to their idol than they could ever be, understood him better than they ever could, could not be entertained." -- Germaine Greer, Shakespeare's Wife (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 1.

Germaine Greer's assessment of Shakespeare's biographers reminded me also of Annette Gordon-Reed's assessment of Thomas Jefferson scholars who were not so much appalled that their favorite Founding Father had sex so much as that he had sex with an African American woman. These two scholars focused on women who, like Anna Murray Douglass, left behind no surviving documents in their own hand. The view of each woman comes from those around her, her actions, and how various people have chosen to remember and interpret her life. To discern the person through these layers of interpretation, the intent and meaning of her actions is a delicate task. In fact, sometimes it feels like a violation, an act of supreme hubris, and often aggression. We historians are nasty creatures sometimes, are we not?

I'm still rooting out what contemporaries have said, so my task for the week involves collecting historians' interpretations of Anna. Right now, I'm still in that state in which you just have a general impression of the consensus, but haven't really dissected your findings and engaged in an intelligent dialogue. One consistent element that I find is that her life lends itself to embellishment that perhaps overemphasizes, without evidence, her participation in such things as the aid of fugitives and the anti-slavery movement. I'm looking for the evidence, trust me! Nonetheless, this overemphasis seems more to portray her as the proper helpmeet for Douglass rather than to understand how she defined herself. I don't think Douglass's biographers have been as guilty of sexism or racism as Greer and Gordon-Reed charge the biographers of Shakespeare and Jefferson. I trust that they do want to give her her due. They just have not focused on Anna as subject, only as indirect object, and therefore have not fully considered her experience or range of options.

I could be wrong, of course. As I wrote, I have not yet deeply analyzed my findings; but I did want to write out my general impression. Also, I wanted a blog post for the day!

No comments:

Post a Comment