Stories were their assets
Tales of 19th-century Americans
Archived article from Dec 9, 2002
By Amy Vames
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The book's final category of narratives is those written by prisoners of war, primarily Northern soldiers imprisoned during the Civil War in such infamously horrendous prisons as Andersonville. For Fabian, the most fascinating aspect of these narratives is how the white prisoners appropriated the suffering of slaves. Many even went so far as to describe themselves as Negro because of their dirt-blackened skin.
"Civil War prisoners are a fascinating group, but it's harder to like them because they end up playing into a reconstruction of white racism," Fabian says. "While they're in prison, they seem to have a real sympathy for slaves. Then they come out and forget about any debt or tie to the communities of freed people" who helped many prison escapees return North. In fact, many of these former prisoners, in trying to claim their share of government pension funds, minimized freed slaves' claims of hardship.
Fabian ends the book with an example of storytelling from the 20th century, that of True Story magazine. True Story was a phenomenally successful publication begun in 1919 by Bernarr Macfadden. The magazine comprised stories - supposedly true - sent in by readers about their own lives. Fabian draws parallels between True Story and today's reality series, tabloids and tell-all talk shows such as "The Jerry Springer Show."
There is a major difference, however, between the narratives in "The Unvarnished Truth" and today's confessional outlets, Fabian notes. "The narratives in my book are pre-Freudian; they don't have that internal psychological discourse available to them. The beggars are tapping into a sense of politics and the nation. The slaves are tapping into abolition. The criminals are tapping into ideas about guilt and innocence. The soldiers are tapping into a story of race." While today's true-storytellers seem mainly to want to tell their stories to cleanse themselves of guilt or simply make themselves feel better, 19th-century narratives "are all about higher causes, how they will make a better world, will correct something that's wrong," Fabian points out.
Fabian plans to use her Guggenheim Fellowship to do research on her next book. The book will be about Samuel George Morton, a Philadelphia man who in the 1830s collected and studied human skulls. Fabian admits the topic sounds morbid but says she plans to use Morton's studies to understand the end of the natural history era and the beginnings of modern ethnography and anthropology, as well as issues arising from the reclaiming of human remains by native American tribes.
Prisoners and slaves
Some white prisoners sympathized with slaves, and those who escaped usually acknowledged the help they received in flight from communities of freedpeople. But sympathy and gratitude were both undermined by the ways former prisoners told their stories. White soldiers were the actors in these stories, the agents who made history and deserved recognition and reward. Even when prisoners recognized the help given them by former slaves, they managed to belittle that help, describing a people blessed with an abundance of food and given to expressing themselves like comic characters on a minstrel stage. — From "The Unvarnished Truth" by Ann Fabian
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