Literature as History

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_0822I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.  This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature.  He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones.  They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’  And you can see the logic here.  Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction.  And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.

I use fiction a fair lot when teaching.  I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction.  This is true both in the case of literature and film.  So how is literature history, you ask?

Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written.  This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction.  The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times.  It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past.   Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry.  What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us.  It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.

So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past.  Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.

And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not.  Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader.  And this is the point of using literature as an historical text.  Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.

And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.

Irish History

April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments

It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers.  I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years.  Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides.  The Famine, in particular, gets me down.  The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well.  It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora.  Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.

It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas.  But, Irish history is massively complicated.  My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up.  I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic.  But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously).  So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.

My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Waylast week.  It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did.  But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers.  And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin.  He’s confused.  He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland.  When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused.  And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders.  This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.

One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history.  He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland.  But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated.  He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.

Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation.  And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.

And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.

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