IFLS Book Club [1] Lolita Buckner-Inniss on Mrs. Dred Scott—a genre bender?

Here are Dr. Lolita Buckner-Inniss’s opening thoughts for our inaugural book club pick.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her since – well, somewhere between five and ten years, shockingly.  I once described Lolita as a “natural” scholar, but I think that diminishes her incredible appetite for reading and also minimizes the way that she works hard not to scare people with her intellect.  She’s also one of those relatively rare American scholars with a deep interest in Canadian law. Here’s her Faculty page at CSU-Marshall, and she blogs at “Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar Too? (often x-posting to Feminist Law Professors).  Many thanks to Lolita for starting this party – without further ado:

Dr. Lolita Buckner-Inniss:

Lea VanderVelde’s Mrs. Dred Scott —a genre bender?

There are many ways of writing about history. Three somewhat related genres within the larger historical enterprise are non-fiction history, historicized fiction and fictionalized history. Mrs. Dred Scot, to my read, manages to fall somewhere in the interstices of all three of these. It is clearly based on real people who lived, including Harriet Robinson Scott, her husband Etheldred (better known as Dred), and the various historical figures who surround them, and so in this regard it has a claim to the label of non-fiction history. There is also a recounting of real life events, such as the signing of aboriginal treaties and the settling of formerly aboriginal lands by white Americans. The events, in fact, are researched in admirable detail, as are several of the historical figures discussed. The book also, however, resembles in some ways an historicized fiction in that it relies upon documented events and people within a clear historical context but ornately colors in gaps in the historical narrative with assumptions, speculations, and probabilities. Finally, because the main character of the book, Harriet, lives at the margins of the events and in the historic shadows of some better known figures, including her husband Dred, one might also view the book as a fictionalized history in which Harriet has been given centrality or importance as a key figure in a story that up until this telling assiduously excluded her. Harriet creates for the reader a kind of relational intimacy between Dred and the larger tableau of slavery in the Western territories of the United States.

The problem of genre may, I suppose, be resolved by viewing this book as a work of micro-history that looks just outside of the center of the story of Dred Scott in much the same way that a viewer of a painting or photograph looks outside of the center of the intended visual frame to gain a new perspective on the entire image. Harriet is an historical figure whose role in making law and making history is perhaps just as large as (or larger than) her husband’s, though it is his name that is remembered. For at least four decades historians have acknowledged the important role of micro-history, giving historiographic attention to smaller events and unknown or little known persons as a way of illuminating larger trends. Because lesser known people and events often leave little trace of themselves, one of the significant challenges of micro-history is to allow such persons to speak, and to do so in their own voices. Excavating existing materials that memorialize larger events and better-known persons may help to achieve this objective.

One significant critique of micro-history is the extent to which the historian takes license to extrapolate from accounts that may offer little if anything about the subject of the discussion. As such, micro-history may fall short of typical expectations about the objectivity of the non-fiction history genre (though we have long known that most histories, even “official” histories, are anything but objective.) Micro-history may alter the narrow, particularized relationship between the known, the knowable, and the knower that we often posit in such renditions. This is certainly one significant problem that I see in Mrs. Dred Scot. Harriet is too little present for much of the early part of the book, and when she is present, descriptions of her actions or thoughts are tempered by “probably”, as in “Harriet probably saw” and “Harriet probably thought”. (I was so struck with the use of probably that I used Amazon.com’s preview function to count them: according to that search engine, probably occurs 142 times in the text). VanderVelde addresses this word choice in the introduction (p. 5), noting that we have no choice but to speculate on the details of lives that are for the most part unrecorded. Still, I found myself troubled by my early reading; I simply wanted much more information about Harriet that was premised on established facts. I grew more reconciled to the author’s technique as I reached chapters 12 through 14, since those parts focused more directly on the life of Harriet. I suppose that if the choice is between finding Harriet at the speculative margins of recorded history and not finding her at all, I’ll take Harriet at the margins.

Lolita Buckner-Inniss

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