Monday, December 10, 2012

First Person Artificial

Is there a narrative term for First Person Artificial? Maybe not. But there should be.

In the process of researching the life of some saints from Tennessee, I came across the following snippet written in a larger family history.

My sister Elizabeth Lancaster, her husband and three children came with us to Colorado. She and I were very close, and both pregnant in 1916. Jim was born in July 1916, a black-haired baby boy. At the time of his birth I was close to death, and it seamed my sister and I went to the spirit world. We went into a large, beautiful building where hundreds of people were going in.We were given a seat. I was called back to the table and the man said, "You have not come to stay; but, we are going to keep your sister. She has come  to stay. You are going to go back and raise this child." I looked and there stood a boy, a red-haired and freckled-faced one. I said, "This is not my child. My baby has black hair." The man said, "We know all about it. You are going to raise this boy and others." I saw Clint two years before he was born. He was the very child I saw in this dream. A short time later Elizabeth passed on and was buried in the Manassa old cemetery. Soon after her death, Elizabeth's husband returned to Tennessee with his three children.

This paragraph is about Margaret E. Talley DePriest. But it wasn't written by her. It was actually written by two of her descendants, and put in first person as a literary device. It is a lovely piece of literature. With apparently great information for my research. It provides me a personal, if perhaps invented insight into Margaret's life. It also gives me a timeline for when family members moved back and forth between Tennessee and Colorado. But it is really historical fiction. I am left not knowing what is embellishment and what is authentic. I know there was a time when writing biographies as though they were autobiographies was an accepted practice. But this was written in 1996.

There is one other problem with this. The one piece of information that could be considered verifiable, that should be authentic was wrong. It isn't a typo. The author put the date 1916 in there twice. But both of them are wrong.

I was actually researching Elizabeth's husband, John, and was pleased to find an indication of when he returned to Tennessee. I took the date at face value. But then other evidence surfaced saying he returned before 1907. So last week I went back to this source and looked more carefully. While 1916 would have been a reasonable date for John to have returned to Tennessee, everywhere else the date didn't work. Margaret would have been 58 years old, probably too old for having children.  Jim, the baby she just had, was actually born on 14 June 1886, not 1916. He died in 20 July 1916.

What this amounts to is an editing error. Someone added a date to a touching story and carelessly added the wrong one. But at its core, the error exists because the paragraph is not what it claims to be. Had this been a genuine reminiscence of Margaret's, that error would have been less likely.


Amy T said...

Oh boy. I ran into this in the book "Southern Grace: A Story of the Mississippi Saints" (1995). Sources like this are alternately helpful and infuriating. (But usually the latter.)

BruceAllen said...

I know this literary device has a name. I just don't know what it is.

Oh, and the more I dig the more I find historically wrong with it. I just can't compose myself enough to describe all the problems. I'm just going to have to write the authors and ask, "Is anything you wrote in that story real, or did you make it all up?"

Amy T said...

Asking for the original sources for the stories could potentially turn up some real information. It's certainly worth a try.

I use DUP materials for a lot of my biographies, since they're often some of the only personal information remaining about some of the pioneers, but I always go through a process like you're describing. First I compile genealogical data on the family, and then I go back to the family memories and judge their reliability based on cold, hard facts.

It's always lovely to find a reliable source. For example, the Kate Thurston book Winds of Doctrine is strictly historical fiction, but although she changed names to protect the identities of certain people, the verifiable information was all impressively factual.

Then I compare that to books like The Essence of Faith, historical fiction about my Jarvis ancestors, and am disappointed that the author included such egregious, easily disprovable stories.

Good luck with the Talley/DePriest family!

BruceAllen said...

Of course, the tone you describe is more likely to get a positive response. Thanks. And I'll post my progress.

Clark said...

Historical fiction is problematic, but historical fiction posing as fact is even more so.

In 1904, my extended family commissioned a professional geneologist to travel to England and research the ancestry there. The book he produced (published in 1908)and relied on as perfectly accurate for about 80 years, has proven to be almost entirely false, including make-believe castles and fake coat, of arms. Turns out the family evidently financed his two-year vacation!

BruceAllen said...

Wow. How do I get that Job?