March 26, 2008

Imagination and History

On November 14th 1959, the Clutter family were brutally murdered in their own home late at night. They were murdered by two drifters- Richard Hickock and Perry Smith- who hoped to find a large ammount of wealth at the Clutter household but of course found nothing of any value whatsoever. The tragic murder of the upstanding citizen Herb Clutter, his melancholic wife Bonnie, vivacious and successful 16 year old daughter Nancy and his fifteen year old introverted son Kenyon shocked the surrounding community. It also shocked America bringing down a group of reporters upon the sleepy Kansas town of Holcombe and in particular exciting the interest of Truman Capote, the novelist and essayist, who himself came to Holcombe and investigated the murders. His investigations turned into his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood and was dramatised in the films Capote and Infamous, both of which are amongst the better films of the last couple of years.

I have just read In Cold Blood- and what strikes me as interesting in reading In Cold Blood is its approach. Capote uses a novelistic format to put together what he says. That obviously means that his account is more vivid than say a historical account: this is a thrilling read about a gruesome matter and Capote gets you inside the mind of his characters. However nagging at the back of your mind is the question of how real what you are reading is. When Capote reports a conversation between the officer in charge of the case, Al Dewey and Perry Smith, the criminal, he cannot be giving you the accurate account of what happened. Dewey and Smith definitely talked to Capote- but it would be incredibly unlikely that their memories of that conversation would be entirely accurate or consistent. One of the best ways of telling that something is historical is that there are gaps and that knowledge is imperfect: Capote's account is too perfect. He also attributes motives where he cannot, even with his interviews, be sure that the motives are ones that the people felt at the moment that they committed the crime. Capote's account is therefore not the truth, it is a series of truths spliced with probable or possible ideas between them.

That may be true. But I would suggest that that has more in common with historical work than we all might think. Historical work relies on the imagination more than you might think. My own work for instance relies on the fact that fighting in a war is a traumatic experience: I cannot prove that every soldier in the New Model found the experience traumatic, but I can imagine that many did. Imagination fills in gaps by which we understand the rest of the evidence. So often for example what a historian does is go through the same process as Truman Capote- generating an imaginative construct and working his evidence into it. The ways that you tell good history is not that it avoids imagination, but that it involves an Occam's razor, whereby you rely on the least ammount of imagination in formulating your construct, and furthermore that you ammend and discard your imaginative construct with regard to what the evidence tells you. In that sense the Capote novel is more historical than we might think- it does not have the caveats that historians would introduce- but it does bring to light one of the real talents of history which is imaginative- empathy is neccessary in order to understand the way that evidence fits together, the person behind the instances of the past.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Historical work relies on the imagination more than you might think.

Esp the history of gloablization, right old chap? :)