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Insufficient Woe: Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History

Author(s): Andrew R. L. Cayton

Source: Reviews in American History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 331-341
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Andrew R. L. Cayton

In Kyrie, a cycle of poems about the global flu epidemic of 191

Bryant Voigt wonders why we insist on picking at the past. Why
to go back, go back,/to that awful time, upstream, scavenging
wreckage, what happened or what we did/or failed to do? Why dr
to the ditch?," Voigt asks. "Have you no regard for oblivion?
people have sufficient woe?"1
Few historians consider the poet's questions, let alone try to ans
We know why we do what we do. History is a formal discipline
inquiries into the nature of lost worlds, how they changed, or did
over time. If in part we seek the origins of our own worlds, we d
respect for the distinctiveness of the past shaped by the emot
ment central to our identity as professional historians. In general,
about the past more than we empathize with dead people. We
economies, politics, and ideologies; we rarely consider irrationality
or ignorance. Seeking to fit everything into neat interpretive cate
construct narratives that bring order to the whole in ways that w
no sense to the people whose lives we arrange into patterns. We tr
religion, for example, without ascribing much credit to the idea t
simply have faith.2
Unlike historians, who fret that negotiating the line between lit
history will destroy the sanctity of their discipline, self-proclaim
novelists seem quite comfortable with the idea that "novel" is
"historical" a modifier. They know they make things up, and they
historians, by definition (as recent controversies have reminde
do that. Thomas Mallon admits that the "available documentation" about

Henry and Clara Rathbone, the unfortunate couple whose lives were forev
scarred by a chance invitation to attend the theater on an April night in 1
with the President of the United States and Mrs. Lincoln,

amounts in the end to no more than a scaffold, and the reader should know t
I have taken liberal advantage of the elbow room between the scaffold's girder
and joists. The narrative that follows is a work of inference, speculation, an

Reviews in American History 31 (2003) 331-341 @ 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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outright invention. Nouns always trump adjectives

fiction' it is important to remember which of the t

Mallon, Gore Vidal, Patrick O'Brian, and, m

exploit their self-consciousness about not being
about what they are doing and how they do it
compliment. Perhaps historians might learn f
questions, employ different methods, write in d
have different sensibilities. Perhaps we might b
the implications of Mark Carnes's contention
novelist's guidance on the workings of the e
much as "[n]ovelists need the historian's disciplin
to fact."4

It is no news that academic historians are prim

Our preferred form of expression is the mo
question, offer a thesis, and pile on evidence
plausibility. Because we tend to talk to each othe
a monograph are generally the preface, the ackn
Most monographs are successful to the extent th
goal of transmitting an argument with evidence
readers find them tedious, it is not because
because the structure of the genre itself makes
It is also no news that novelists are far more concerned with people and
emotion than they are with argument and evidence. When they think of
accuracy, they tend to focus on details-on clothes, food, utensils, and
language-rather than on cultural context. Historians generally want to
distance the past from the present, to emphasize the integrity of unique lost
worlds. Novelists, on the other hand, want us to identify with the past and
highlight what we have in common with our collective ancestors. They
encourage that identification by using information to establish a mood or
tone-emotional texture for lack of a better phrase-and by creating a world
out from the inner lives of individuals. They assume that we will never know
everything about the past and, as important, that we are probably better off
because of it. "There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are
not spoken or written of," remarks A.S. Byatt toward the end of Possession, a
romance that conjoins past and present in search of the unknowable, "though
it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all
the same, as though such things had never been."5
Novelists tend to be more interested in questions of form than historiogra-
phy. Patrick McGrath, Charles Palliser, Iain Pears, and Sarah Waters, among
others, enjoy playing with the elusiveness of evidence and the unreliability of

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CAYTON / Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History 333

narrators. They construct the past as an enigma and the study of it a cul-de-
sac. Critics complain that these writers toy with readers, some of whom
express frustration with the absence of clear-cut narrative. More than exer-
cises in wit and guile, however, these novels require readers to engage both
author and story emotionally as well as intellectually, to judge by instinct as
well as intelligence on the basic of incomplete information delivered by
characters who may not be what they seem to be.6
Three decades ago, in writing The Killer Angels, an acclaimed and popular
novel about the battle of Gettysburg, Michael Shaara deliberately bypassed
historians and depended "primarily on the words of the men themselves,
their letters and other documents." Shaara proffered a kind of populist
history, Jeffersonian in its implication that an ordinary person is as likely to
make sense of the past as a professor. Gettysburg matters less as a military
and political occurrence than as a sad but necessary event in which decent
men tried hard to do the right thing, and suffered misery and death for their
efforts. The Killer Angels is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: men
destroyed in righteous causes, undone by the honest mistakes of well-
intentioned leaders; victory won by the instincts of a classics professor from
Maine. Shaara constructed a narrative whose power flows from a gathering of
details morphing into elegy. Like the creators of the film Glory, Shaara made a
plausible case for the necessity of tens of thousands of deaths.7
As important, Shaara invited readers to participate in interpreting
Gettysburg. Unlike a professor, he does not lecture. Rather, he engages his
readers in a kind of conversation that allows his conclusions to become their
conclusions. When the rain comes at the end, "cleansing the earth and
soaking it thick and rich with water and wet again with clean cold rainwater,
driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow it again with the roots toward
Heaven," you do not have to be instructed in meaning. "It rained all that
night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July."8
This is old-fashioned storytelling, nineteenth century in the sense that
Shaara reproduces the cadences of the world he is trying to recreate and in
that it is deeply romantic in ambition as well as morality. The structure of The
Killer Angels consists of a series of chapters told from the viewpoints of
individuals such as Joshua Chamberlain and James Longstreet. This approach
allows the novelist to finesse one of the great challenges of modern historiog-
raphy. We believe in multiple interpretations; we accept the idea that truth,
such as it is, emerges from the collision of several different perspectives; we
teach that history is a collection of conflicting interpretations. Yet we have
found no satisfactory form for expressing the challenge we have given
ourselves. How do we write a history that is multiple within a traditional
linear narrative or an argument written in the form of a lecture, that is, the

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Like Shaara, Kevin Baker confronts that challenge

(2002), a novel built around stories of individual
during the draft riots of July 1863, which eventua
Robinson, a journalist speaking mainly in the first
running commentary of events while dealing with
with a prostitute named Maddy Boyle. In other c
Irish potato famine and migration through the live
lover, Ruth Dove. Ruth has subsequently mar
enslaved African American, Billy Dove. Dove sp
trying to escape the clutches of mobs of Irish
imposition of a military draft in which a white ma
cost of a substitute) while a black man costs $1
Deirdre, Johnny's sister who lives near Ruth and
soldier in the 69th New York, wounded at Freder
Gettysburg. Paradise Alley is a collection of vivid p
ing city of New York, in which everything and eve
life is mainly about endurance.
Non-fiction writers who directly merge the h
sometimes produce uneasy hybrids of history and f
White City, Erik Larson alternates the story of the
architect Daniel Burnham's quest to make the Chica
smashing success, both in commercial and civic term
quest of the respectable and charming doctor Hen
much property and as many women as possible. The
operates on several levels: as a straightforward
recreation of the texture of life in Chicago in the 18
stories whose outcomes are contingent and unpredic
gation of the mysteries of human motivation. Why
And how similar are the obsessions of a serial killer and an architect?

Less compelling than Larson's wonderfully paced narrative is his claim

that the book is non-fiction. His choice to imagine in several instances what
must have happened is problematic at best. If his speculation is informed
speculation, it is in the end nothing more than speculation. Larson may be
right that Holmes "broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy." But how does
he know in describing Holmes's arrival in Chicago on a hot August day that
he "looked fresh and crisp" or that "[a]s he moved through the station, the
glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals"? When
Larson imagines the details of two murders without any direct evidence of
what transpired, he crosses the border into fiction.10
Unlike novelists, historians seem reluctant to experiment with form. And
those who do usually produce consternation, if not outright indignation, from
colleagues who want books to convey argument and information predictably

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CAYTON / Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History 335

and efficiently. In The Promise of the New South, Edward Ayers tried to "quote
rather than paraphrase, show rather than describe, dramatize rather than
summarize" in order to write "a more active and intimate history." Eschewing
"the linear illusion of a seamless story," Ayers "shifted from one perspective
to another within chapters, letting the space on the page mark the disjunc-
tions, the gaps among people's perceptions." Like an impressionist painting,
Louis Masur's 1831: Year of Eclipse (2001) consists of a series of seemingly
random parts, stories in this case, whose meaning comes from the pattern
they form when the reader steps back and seems them as a whole. The
challenge for these authors is that their peers are largely reluctant to read their
books as anything but monographs. Because the argument is embedded in
the text, scholars looking for new information or a concise thesis are heading
for frustration.11
Perhaps no contemporary academic scholar better conveys texture through
the juxtaposition of stories rather than explicit argument than Charles
Royster. Yet historians sometimes seem baffled by what to do with his work.
Not only do Royster's books not behave like monographs, their meanings do
not fit into neat categories. What if the Civil War was all about nasty, brutal
violence caused by personal hatreds and irrational, impulsive anger? And
what if a historian refused to tell us that directly but decided to show us, as in
the tale of the young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, who, upon seeing
a captured Union solider in the wake of the destruction of her hometown,
experienced a "wave of hatred." Asked by the guard what to do with him, she
"answered, deliberately: 'Kill him."'12
This general tendency to disdain experiments with form hinges to a
significant extent on the problem of emotion, which, by temperament as well
as training, historians tend to avoid. The rise of the novel in the eighteenth-
century Atlantic World had much to do with interest in the inner lives of
human beings, mainly middle-class women who both populated and read
literature. In many ways, novels were a counterpoint to the male-dominated
public world of politics and history. They dealt with the stuff of ordinary life
and explored the power of emotion and sentiment; then as now, their glory
lay in the details and the characters. As literature developed, it became in its
modem form even more obsessed with private worlds, to the point that
people in the works of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner
scarcely seem to exist outside their own minds, and time and narrative are
nothing more than constructs designed to torment and confuse both charac-
ters and readers.

History, meanwhile, became more public and more scientific. Rules of

evidence superseded the effusive prose of the likes of Francis Parkman and
George Bancroft. Scholars created their own community, affirming each
other's importance (and their own) in footnotes. The private lives of human

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beings were hardly worthy of exploration (what so

emotion too vague (and perhaps perceived as too f
ment. History was about structure rather than indivi
rather than contingency. Even today, with the growin
and the evolution of emotion, we have trouble w
directly. Charting the history of emotion is not the
power of emotion in our own work.
More than evidence inhibits us. As important, if no
sensibility, the way in which we perceive and feel,
sionally, it generally allows little room for emoti
could imagine, let alone document, change happen
lovers' quarrel, grief, or a personal accident? How ma
the idea that human beings sometimes do things
illogical? To do so would be to engage in history that
with a past that cannot be shoehorned into sweepi
underlying structures.13
So we leave the world of emotion to novelists,
Where among historians is the sensibility required
mystery or faith or evil? Indeed, how many historian
accept the existence of mystery, faith, or evil? S
abandon history for other genres, particularly the thr
executed, stories of solitary men and a couple of
madmen seem more than a little anachronistic bec
often ironic. Caleb Carr's The Alienist (1994) and M
Club (2003) are cases in point. Entertaining and rich
characterizations of human motivation are not entire
The Alienist are more likely to remember the reservo
It is hardly coincidental that novelists deal best w
concentrate on the long nineteenth century, when pe
and North America were becoming fascinated by t
behavior, confronting questions of irrationality an
talking about it with an earnestness that is more than
our own age of irony. Nineteenth-century Americans
articles of faith regarding language that we no longer
Banks. "First, they believed they had something im
they believed that their native version of the English
articulating what they had to say. And, third, they b
be understood by their listener or reader. This triang
medium, and audience, is very powerful." Whateve
Shaara, he could not have made Quebec or Yorktown a
simply because the participants did not talk in the
sensibility connects best with the nineteenth century

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CAYTON / Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History 337

operas, of grand gestures and lost loves. And it flourishes in nineteenth-

century genres.14
Not surprisingly, filmmakers recreate nineteenth-century worlds more
persuasively when they base their movies on novels rather than monographs.
Martin Scorsese made a brilliant film out of Edith Wharton's The Age of
Innocence, a cinematic representation of a literary representation of a culture
revealed through the story of one man's realization that he was trapped in a
web of manners. The details of Newland Archer's life accumulate into a
prison of unspoken rules, invisible borders, and choices that were cru
illusions. When at the end Archer declines to visit the love of his life, e
though he is free to do so, his decision seems inevitable, as right as it is sad
Yet the same talented Scorsese failed (however admirably) in The Gangs
New York because he self-consciously tried to film history and populate it wi
stick figures plopped down in the middle of the nineteenth century. H
characters lacked cultural context or personal complexity.
The focus on the individual allows writers and filmmakers to play w
narrative and perspective in ways historians cannot, not because of fidelity
accuracy so much as fidelity to a linear, rational mode of explanation. At th
beginning of the twenty-first century we have a surfeit of mildly experimen
fiction, rooted in historical details that evoke experience, offer a gener
darker version of history, and locate motive and change in personal, concre
experience. Peter Carey's rendition of the manuscript memoirs of the Austr
lian folk hero, Ned Kelly, in True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) and Matth
Kneale's effort to explore colonialism and racism from multiple perspective
in English Passengers (2000) are non-American examples. In these and ot
books, the engine of the action is personal, a motive undecipherable in extan
records. These are worlds in which the personal drives the public, rather th
the other way around.
Because the real action centers on universal themes of love and loss, p
and reconciliation, guilt and atonement, because the goal is a representat
of the human condition rather than a recreation of a specific historical wor
novelists, poets, and filmmakers need to distort chronology and mix up
past and the present. In the film Memento, we follow a character with no sho
term memory, constantly recreating the immediate past so that he c
understand who he is and what is doing, or rather has done. The actio
happens backwards.
I am not advocating that historians emulate Memento. But I am suggestin
that films and novels should interest us to the extent that they force u
think about the ambiguity of ordinary life, the ways in which people actua
experience what is happening to them. Historians want to make life neat. W
love interpretive constructs, like "the frontier," which bring order to
whole through design and composition. Rather than flagellate ourselv

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because we cannot write, we might profitably thi

avoidance of irrationality. Sometimes it seems that we
dead. Do we really understand them as human bein
think of them as evidence in bloodless arguments? Mu
tion with our subjects, for to do so is to lose the persp
which makes us scholars rather than artists, historians
In other words, perhaps the distinction has to do wit
general attitude toward what history is and the rol
well those about whom we presume to write. In fiction
the past is generally a tyrant, an obstacle of some
human beings and trapping them, restricting their ch
of quoting William Faulkner on the past not really
challenge for most characters is to escape it somehow,
control; they want to free themselves to move on
themselves, where they imagine themselves as act
characters in their own lives.

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain exemplifies this sensibility. Inman and

Ada, the two main characters, experience separate journeys to the heart of
western North Carolina and their own interior lives. Frazier evokes the
battlefield at Fredericksburg with precision and creates a tangible sense
nineteenth-century rural life. But he is not interested in the Civil War or r
or gender or any of the great themes of historians. When Ada and Inm
finally come together, they "talked ceaselessly of the past, as if each must b
caught up on the other's previous doings before they can move forwa
paired." Inman tells her that no one will ever understand war, no matter ho
much they learn about it. He recalls a goat woman who told him that "it
sign of God's mercy that He won't let us remember the reddest details of p
... God lays the unbearable on you and then takes some back." Ada disagrees.
"I think you have to give Him some help in forgetting. You have to work at
not trying to call such thoughts up, for if you call hard enough they'll com
Trying to concentrate on the future, "they agreed they neither gave two hoo
now as to how marriages were normally conducted. They would do as th
pleased and run their lives by the roll of the seasons." And war would be fa
away. Because in this world "[t]here's to some degree a choice[,] ... the
would go forward ... into whatever new world the war left behind."15
History frees us, or so most American historians imply. Monograph after
monograph piles up, detailing unspeakable horrors, from the destruction
American Indians to the brutality of slavery to the deaths of children and t
blighting of dreams, and yet they end, most of them, on a note of optimism
History, for historians, is a public guide to our world and our futures.
inspires; it liberates; it gives us possibilities. We honor the dead by feeding
their examples of resistance and persistence, organization and defiance. But

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CAYTON / Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History 339

literature, the past weighs us down as a tyrant we have to escape. As Toni

Morrison tells us of Sethe in Beloved, she "was not interested in the future."
"[T]he future was a matter of keeping the past at bay."16
Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter illustrates all these themes. Narrated by Owen
Brown, it is ostensibly about his father, John Brown, who, like a mountain in
Vermont, splits the haze of "clouds, fogs, mists of words." Looking back at the
end of his life, Owen does not want the past reduced to facts. So he confesses,
reveals his "inner voice," prompted by a request from a young woman acting
as a research assistant for Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of William
Lloyd Garrison and biographer of John Brown. Owen tells us how the private
lives of the Brown family determined the public events of the patriarch's
career. Owen goaded his "divided" father into action because of personal
tragedies-the death of his mother, a childhood accident that maimed him,
his unrequited love for a married black woman, and his murder of her
husband, his best friend.17
In other words, an obsessive commitment to the cause of human freedom
originated in the struggles of an ordinary family in nineteenth-century North
America. Seeking love, respect, and a sense of purpose, the Browns found that
"the sudden, unexpected sharing of a vision of the fate of our Negro brethren"
made their "blood ties mystical and transcendent." Lonely Owen identifies
with African Americans because they too are denied their humanity. The
secret of John Brown's success was personal; he understood black people and
his own children as complex human beings. "It was his weakness as much as
his strength that guided and instructed us; his pitiful, simple common
humanity that inspired us." Together the "powerless, humiliated, and de-
prived" Browns conclude that the tribulations of business failure and per-
sonal loss may be overcome in "true work" that ennobles the ordinary and
transcends the personal. They had to be "good for something."18
History in Cloudsplitter is not the same as the past. In our profession,
history is a formal record of public events, our organization of happenings in
a world distant from our own. In literature, more often than not, the past is
our world, the collective detritus that confines us as much as it makes us.
Owen wonders toward the end of his confession where there is "such a thing
as a true accident, a purely causeless event." "[I]f events are driven not by
man's unconscious desires, and not by pure mystery, and not by some deep,
unknown historical force - then what?" All he can do is be "responsible for
[his] own bloody acts." Killing a few men in Kansas in order to "save millions
of innocents later" demonstrates how "terror, in the hands of the righteous,
works." History, according to Owen, is "living our lives in public."'19
Historians may ignore Owen's flawed recollection of "facts, dates, names,
and so on," but they cannot quarrel with his "feelings and emotions, [his]
whole sensibility." Indeed, he wants them to use that sensibility to allow the

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story of his "private reality ... to impinge upon public

is this point, I think, that is most useful. We should lo
goad us into thinking about what we do and how we d
as well as what we include, to contemplate a history th
between the structural, rational paradigms of profe
emotional, contingent personal world craved by reader
The lessons of literature, in other words, lie less in t
less in information than in sensibility. Historical nove
much from us; it is past time that we returned the fa
write fiction, or adopt the experiments of fiction. It is
role of individual, to confront the power of emotion,
the all-pervasive power of hypotheses, and to write ab
well as politics and economics. It is to propose that
readable is a sense of connection between writer and su
and audience. It is to consider the importance of em
whose lives we presume to hijack without confusin
approval or tolerance. In the end, it is a question of re
to write about the dead as human beings rather than a

Andrew R. L. Cayton, Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University

in Oxford, Ohio, is the author of Ohio: The History of a People (2002) and, with
Fred Anderson, The Dominion of War: Liberty and Empire in North America,
1500-2000 (forthcoming).

1. Ellen Bryant Voigt, Kyrie: Poems (1995), 73. See Voigt, "Kyrie," in Introspections: American
Poets on One of Their Own Poems, ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini (1997), 295-8.
2. Because this essay originated in years of conversations with Mary Kupiec Cayton, Fred
Anderson, Renee Baernstein, Carolyn Goffman, Dan Goffman, Matthew Gordon, Susan
Gray, Irene Kleiman, Sue Jennings, Marj Nadler, Steve Norris, Michael O'Brien, and
Fredrika Teute, among others, much of what follows no doubt paraphrases or misrepresents
their ideas. It was while listening to Ellen Bryant Voigt and reading her poetry, as well as her
essays collected in The Flexible Lyric (1999), that I finally understood what I wanted to say.
3. Thomas Mallon, Henry and Clara (1994), 357. On the dangers of novels as history, see
Peter Gay, Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks (2002). On the dangers
of the personal, see Sean Wilentz, "Freedom and Feelings," The New Republic, April 7, 2003,
pp. 25-32.
4. Mark Carnes, "Introduction," in Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's
Past (and Each Other), ed. Carnes (2001), 24. See Gore Vidal, Burr, A Novel (1973), 429; Patrick
O'Brien, Master and Commander (1990), 5-6; and Ian McEwan, Atonement, A Novel (2002).
5. A. S. Byatt, Possession, A Romance (1990), 552.
6. See Patrick McGrath, Asylum (1997) and Martha Peake, A Novel of the Revolution (2000);
Charles Palliser, The Quincunx (1989), Betrayals, A Novel (1994), and The Unburied (1999); lain
Pears, A Instance of the Fingerpost (1998); and Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002).
7. Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974 ), xiii.
8. Ibid, 344-45.

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CAYTON / Sense and Sensibility in Writing Nineteenth-Century History 341

9. See Peter Burke, "History of Events and the Revival of Narrative," in New Perspectives on
Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (1991), 233-48; William Cronon, "A Place for Stories:
Nature, History, and Narrative," Journal of American History 78 (1992): 1347-76; Fred
Anderson and Andrew R. L. Cayton, "The Problem of Fragmentation and the Prospects for
Synthesis in Early American Social History," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 50 (1993):
299-310; and Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History
10. Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That
Changed America (2003), 36, 35.
11. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (1992), ix. On a historian
who experimented with form, see Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations
12. Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and
the Americans (1991), 33. See also Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company:
A Story of George Washington's Times (1999).
13. See the enlightening exchange between Paul Boyer and John Updike on Updike's take
on the mid-twentieth-century life of the academic American historian in Memories of the Ford
Administration, A Novel (1992), in Novel History, ed. Carnes, 45-60.
14. Russell Banks, "In Response to James McPherson's Reading of Cloudsplitter," in Novel
History, ed. Carnes, 74.
15. Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, A Novel (1997), 343, 344, 346. Pauline Jiles covers
similar territory in Enemy Women (2002). On Frazier's lack of interest in historians' great
themes, see Frazier, "Some Remarks on History and Fiction," in Novel History, ed. Carnes,
16. Toni Morrison, Beloved, A Novel (1987), 73, 42.
17. Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter, A Novel (1999), 314.
18. Ibid., 73, 247, 417, 549.
19. Ibid., 605, 606, 640, 607, 608.
20. Ibid., 673, 674.

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