Footnotes to Fiction
Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore
What happens when historians write fiction? We decided to find out. Blindspot, our novel, is set in 1764, in Boston, a city reeling from the economic downturn following the French and Indian War, and beginning to simmer with the fires of liberty. The book tells the story of Stewart Jameson, a Scottish portrait painter fleeing debtor’s prison, and Fanny Easton, the fallen daughter of one of Boston’s richest merchants, who poses as a boy to gain a situation as Jameson’s apprentice. Their lives take a turn when Samuel Bradstreet, Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly, is murdered the day Jameson and Easton are to paint him.
We invented these characters and their story is fiction. But we meant it to be a kind of history, too. In ways small and large, Blindspot engages with the real world of the late eighteenth century, and with the struggles of scholars to understand that world. Fanny Easton bears more than a passing resemblance to the young, striving John Singleton Copley, for example. And our Samuel Bradstreet is closely based on James Otis, Jr., who insisted that Boston patriots consider the contradiction between their cries for liberty and the owning of slaves. More broadly, the novel engages with the century-long debate over the ideological versus the economic origins of the American Revolution (a debate whose contributors include everyone from Charles Beard to Bernard Bailyn, Alfred Young, Gary Nash, and Gordon Wood). The characters in our fictional Boston wrestle with both, as people at the time surely experienced the growing conflict with Britain.
In the pages of the novel, we try to wear our expertise as historians lightly. But a close look at a scene suggests what lies behind the fiction. Here, Fanny Easton has returned to Jameson’s house on Queen Street after attending Bradstreet’s funeral, to find her employer’s long-lost friend, Ignatius Alexander, in the house. Alexander, an African-born and Oxford-trained physician, had been sold into chattel slavery in Virginia. He has run away to Boston, where he has read in the Boston Gazette the story of Bradstreet’s murder. When Alexander appears unmoved by Bradstreet’s fate, Easton pleads with him to be sympathetic. She begins,
“A good man has died.”
“A good, slave-owning man, was he? I only wish my hand had stirred the fatal dose into his tea. As Defoe–one of our friend Jameson’s favorite writers, though I find him over-rated–once explained, ‘there is sugar at the bottom of every cup of misery.”
With that, he raised an imaginary cup to his lips.
“‘The case is as plain as cause and consequence,’ Defoe wrote. ‘No African trade, no negroes; no negroes, no sugar; no sugar, no islands; no islands, no continent; no continent, no trade.’ You see, ‘tis but one chain that spans the globe. Let us call it the great chain of un-being.”
“A chain, sir?” I whispered, dizzied by his tale and dazzled by his intellect.
“A chain that holds us all, though it binds us differently. Some feel its shackles daily,” he said, revealing to me the freshly bathed scars ‘neath his cuffs. “Ah yes, I can see it in your face: my wounds are indelicate. They are not pretty, these stigmata of the Indies trade, are they?”
Before I could answer, he ceased his orbit round the parlor, coming to stand before me, his face mere inches from mine.
“Show me your wrists, boy,” he demanded, taking my hands in his. “Ah, fine hands. Yet you, too, hold the chains, and they you. And though the links of your portion are more lightly borne, they are always, always about you.”
“But I don’t take sugar in my tea.”
“You read, don’t you? Take your precious Gazette. Do you notice the rewards posted there for runaway slaves, black men and women who have stolen from their owners by stealing themselves? I myself am a man-stealer. My poor master, still reeling from his losses! But he found the hard coin to pay for an advertisement, putting money in Edes’s pocket, that he may print the news for you, twice weekly. More links in the chain, Weston.”
Here he broke off, poised between rage and reverie. I dared another question.
“Which chains were yours, sir, and how did you break them?” …
“Which chains were mine? How did I free myself? It is a tale without heroes. That I will tell you, and four words more. With my own hands,” he said, tracing with the fingers of his left hand the branded R that ruined his right. And then he muttered beneath his breath, “‘What hands are here, what hands are here.’”
“Lady MacBeth, sir?” I inquired, taking his allusion.
But he ignored my question.
“You know not the reddish work these hands have done, boy, and never shall.”
Here our fiction draws on history in several different ways. Most obviously, we, through Alexander, quote an eighteenth-century text: the first volume of Daniel Defoe’s annual Review of the State of the British Nation. Easton also alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Blindspot is full of allusions to books that learned people living in the eighteenth century read and knew intimately. Alexander’s tone in the passage grows increasingly Gothic, our homage to the campy side of European Romanticism, which had begun to filter into the prose of the era. Throughout the novel, he and other characters speak in the pervasive literary idioms of the day: Fanny in the sentimental vernacular of the epistolary novel, Jameson in the blustering, bawdy tones of the picaresque.
At another level, Alexander’s reaction to Bradstreet’s murder rests upon the historical analysis best done in two landmark studies published in the 1970s, David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution and Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. The implicational chain that Alexander forges among sugar, printing, and slavery deploys the work of other scholars, from Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power, to David Waldstreicher’s Runaway America. His remarks about slavery as spectacle rest, in part, on the insights of the work of scholars like Marcus Wood. Alexander also demonstrates the kind of thinking-at-a-distance that writers from Thomas L. Haskell to Christopher Brown have called a taproot of both capitalism and humanitarianism.
One of the conceits of our novel—wherein many characters suffer from many blind spots—is that Alexander, like other housebound heroes of detective fiction (think Nero Wolf), sees the world around him more subtly and ultimately more fully than those around him. How is Alexander, a once-enslaved man, able to make such sophisticated interventions? Some readers who are not historians have been shocked—indeed, skeptical—of his erudition. But historians of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world might notice that our fictional Alexander is closely modeled on Francis Williams and Ignatius Sancho, black “protégés” of the Duke of Montagu. These men, like Olaudah Equiano or Boston’s Phillis Wheatley, lived on the rim of the Atlantic world. Their cosmopolitanism, as Ira Berlin revealed so cogently in Many Thousands Gone, was as genuine as it was hard-won.
What happens when historians write fiction? They find themselves itching to write footnotes. After much to-ing and fro-ing on the matter, we decided not to scratch that itch in Blindspot. We settled instead on a short afterward, directing interested readers to a few of the more obvious historical sources for our novel. And then we urged them to visit a website, http://www.blindspotthenovel.com, where they can find out much more about what is true, and what is not.
Jane Kamensky is professor of American history and chair of the Department of History at Brandeis University. Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker.