Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Filtering History

Yesterday KJ Charles did a guest post on Joyfully Jay's blog, wherein she warned against 'timewashing', or applying a contemporary mindset to characters in historical fiction. To a certain extent it's unavoidable, because modern readers don't really want to know the nitty gritty about sanitary, health, and hygiene practices from back in the day, but Ms. Charles argues that when it comes to sexism, racism, and gender/orientation issues, a writer needs to be a lot more careful.

I mean, if your hero is the only guy in his entire 19th century Southern American town who doesn't have a lick of racism in him, he might not be quite believable.


Timewashing. It's a cool word, and it got me thinking about another challenge for writers of historical fiction: The status quo rendering of history may not be accurate.

What do I mean by that?

Basically, if your understanding of history comes from a textbook, you might think every important thing was accomplished by a jowly white dude with a funky haircut and a badly fitting suit.

(Insert a mash-up of Winston Churchill and Walter Cronkite here.)

Or these guys. They fit the description.

Anyone who has read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States knows what I'm talking about. There's what happened in the history books, and then there's what actually happened. You just have to dig a little to figure out what part women, people of color, and people with different orientations played.

Let's look at some examples. 

Have you ever heard of Edmonia Lewis? She's one of the 100 Greatest African Americans...

"Motto edmonia lewis original" by Henry Rocher - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor who studied at Oberlin College and in Rome. Among the highlights of her career, she sculpted a bust of Henry Longfellow, and her work was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Once, long ago, I studied Longfellow in school. 

I never heard of Edmonia Lewis until I started making this post.

Another example is given by the women who fought in the Civil War - as soldiers. 

Frances ClaytonMissouri Artillery and Cavalry units.

Something like 400 women fought in the Civil War. Motivated by the same things as their male counterparts - patriotism, mobility, money - they disguised themselves and did battle. Some were discovered when they were wounded or killed. Some were simply never discovered. You could argue the reason their contribution is overlooked is that their numbers were small and they made an effort to remain invisible. 

But maybe we overlook them because they don't fit the expected narrative for how that war was fought.

Shared tombstone of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, a 19th century lesbian couple.

Here's another thing that might not fit the expected narrative: same-sex couples who lived together and were treated by their communities like they were married. Click on the tombstone picture or the link at the bottom of this post to read more about Miss Bryant and Miss Drake. Their story is a pretty compelling argument against the idea that same-sex marriage is a modern construct.

When I was doing research for my novel Aqua Follies, I read about MacIver Wells and John Chadwick, a gay couple who moved to Seattle from Canada in 1957 to open a gay bar. They had some trouble getting permission to stay, because "the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 specified that "aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality" should be excluded from the United States." (Gay Seattle, GL Atkins, 2003

Because gay men were included in the definition for "psychopathic personality".

The Immigration agent who interviewed Mac and John pointed out that they'd  lived together for years, they owned a house together, and they held joint bank accounts, however when they challenged him to prove they'd had sexual relations, he couldn't, so they were allowed to stay in Seattle. 

To me, one of the most interesting things about their story was that two men owned a house together and shared a bank account. They were living - and sharing - their lives, and only when they immigrated to the US did they run into any trouble with authorities. They had to know people, to have friends and family and community. Maybe, as appears to have been the case with Miss Bryant and Miss Drake, their immediate circle knew about their relationship in an abstract way, but didn't want to know the specifics.

And maybe I'm optimistic, but I think on the microscopic, everyday level, people are more accepting of each other's differences that we give them credit for. I certainly don't have the academic background to make big broad statements, but I have to wonder if the trauma associated with World War II led to the pervasive conformity seen in the 1950s (Hello, Senator McCarthy), and if that conformity filtered a great deal of what we otherwise might know of as history.

So women and people of color were taking part in word affairs and LGBTQ people didn't magically spring into existence sometime after Stonewall in 1969. There are more stories than what you find in a standard history textbook, and if you're going to write those stories, you need to both pay attention to historic ideas and attitudes, but also look for real-life examples of people who didn't fit into stereotypes. Any story will be much stronger if it's grounded in the truth.

If you would like to do some more reading, jump HERE for more about Edmonia Lewis, HERE for more about women who fought in the Civil War, and HERE for more about Miss Bryant and Miss Drake. And if you actually do know about history, let me know what you think about my theory that '50s conformity played a role in whitewashing (timewashing?) history.



  1. I LOVE Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the US. I used it for some of my research for past lives in my book.

    I love history and I love to research for my writing.

    Great post with lots of interesting people for history that really should have gotten more attention than they did.

  2. PS - I don't think it was just the 50's that 'time washed' history. Humans are wonderful at hiding or keeping the truth from the masses and have been since the beginning of time.

    Although we've met our match with the internet :)

  3. You're right about how timewashing didn't start in the '50s. The other element that I didn't get into is how short our collective memory is. When I was researching the premie baby history project, I couldn't find anyone who knew which Seattle hospital had the first incubator unit. I asked everyone from people who'd worked in the neonatal field in the '70s to people who were in their 90s and had been having babies back in the '40s when I figure the first unit opened. No one remembered - except the Seattle Times archives. Good thing we have newspapers - and the internet's like that on steroids.

  4. I love the term "timewashing". It's something I think about from time to time, writing fantasy, but precisely because it is fantasy, I allow myself to indulge.

    You do raise some fabulous points though. With the gay relationship thing, I seem to recall reading somewhere that f/f couples weren't illegal, because the concept of two women together was too inconceivable. I might be making that up, or it might have been in Victorian England... Anyway, I think the m/m couples have always been treated far more badly.

  5. I think - and I'm no more sure of where I got this than you are - that women had an easier time of it because physical touch between women didn't necessarily have a sexual connotation. Female friends could walk arm-in-arm without raising eyebrows, while maybe men weren't allowed to engage in the same behaviors.

    Or I might be making that up. Thanks for checking in, Ellen!