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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

My Take On the Final


I selected the passages from March because I see in them examples of what I treasure as well as what I dislike in HF. Oddly enough the same book, even the same paragraph epitomized both ends of the HF spectrum — to my eyes. Like Mary, I found that whole first excerpt up through the word "shards" to be a marvel. It exemplified what Greenblatt said of Mantell. Brooks combined visual description with such a deep sense of time that the supposed moment of writing was not only reflected in word choices ("slough," "obelisk") but in the very character of the world the narrator was seeing and describing. Perhaps Brooks had some period photo or engraving to use as reference, but she was not merely describing it with a few period terms like a reenacter wearing a costume, she was inhabiting that world, seeing it with the worn, dashed-ideals, war-weary eyes of the moment. She truely made me feel I was seeing the place with the mentality, not just the eyes or vocabulary, of the day. And that was the ideal Greenblatt posed — writing that immerses you so completely in the era you feel it is there, all around you, a kind of hologram filling real space. That passage was the most convincing HF I have seen in years…and then it dissolved instantly. for from the "few dreamers" to "equality" and again in the entire second passage I quoted the mirage instantly evaporated. The gas light snuffed out and the eco-electic bulb of the 21 Century switched on.
     I get that Brooks, in describing the Washington Monument in 62 is evoking MLK and the same place just over a century later, and I so wish she were not. From "dreamers" to, in that last passage, "black and white may one day" she so directly paraphrases King and his cadences that she destroys any sense of being in the past moment. I selected these violations of a sense of the past because I could imagine that if they arose in one of our HF books, some adults would be thrilled to see them — teaching moments conveniently embedded in a rich description of the past, just the right ideals and messages. But to me this presentism, this violation of the contract HF makes with the reader to take you away from now and carry you back into them, is precisely what HF cannot do. Paradoxically, her decision to allude to the Dream speech destroyed the dream of the past she so perfectly spun. 
    That’s how I read those passages — you too?


  1. Ah, okay. I wasn’t excited about the first paragraph, but I really didn’t care for the second; I knew the Alcotts believed in racial equality, but I, too, thought the callback to MLK was overdeliberate and would take one out of the story.

  2. Mary E. Lyons says:

    Forgive my late arrival to the seminar. Though I love Brooks’s writing, I couldn’t get past the first chapter of March. Years ago, I researched Daddy March for a chapter in a nonfiction book. I knew too much crummy stuff about him to suspend belief for a fictional book. In other words, too much NF ruined the HF. Let’s not do the same to young readers. Do we really need baby lit crits? My street is littered with adult English profs, and my husband’s used and rare bookstore is littered with the remains–excuse me, the remainders–of their works of literary criticism.

    To this day, Forever Amber, a slightly naughty book about Charles II that I read (hidden behind the covers of my Algebra II text)in high school is the trunk of my cognitive tree about previous and subsequent British kings. Was it accurate? Who cares? The hallucination, as Marc calls it, was all that mattered.

    I fear that we post-Watergate, post-Bush adults put way too much pressure on young readers to see the world in the stark true/not true way we want them to see it. Let them be kids. Let them experience the magic of an historical era via a book without bashing them to bits first (or later) about accuracy.

    And, as Bill Bryson, my favorite NF author of the week says, that’s all I’m saying.

  3. Mary:

    I remember your research into the Alcotts quite well. I don’t exactly agree though on stark/true v. let them be kids. Or at least I think that is moving boundary that an author needs to think through carefully. In fact the very difficulty of defining that border has been the main point of this discussion.