Life Imitates Art, Imitating Life


Anyone paying close attention to this blog (if any such person exists) will notice that I haven’t posted anything for quite a while. There’s a reason for that: I seem to have turned into one of my semi-fictional characters.

Allow me to explain. For the past several years I’ve been researching and writing a novel based on the experience of a real woman who lived in Baltimore in the early 19th century. Sometime in late 1806, she  became involved with a group of people, most if not all of them young men, who were engaged in putting out a magazine. All of them were volunteers, as was the norm in those days at publications of the kind, and the young men were apparently so busy launching their careers that they didn’t have much time to spend on the magazine.

The woman, on the other hand—a 26-year-old named Eliza Anderson—had plenty of time, since elite women like her didn’t generally hold jobs in the early 19th century. She had a flair for writing, and she seems to have taken on more and more of the workload associated with the magazine. That’s apparently how she ended up as its editor, and then editor of its successor magazine in 1807, even though the idea of a woman editor was almost unheard of at the time.

Eliza threw herself into writing and editing the magazine, which was called The Observer. Although she complained from time to time about the workload and the difficulty of finding decent contributors, she was clearly enjoying herself. And she was on a mission: she thought the taste of her fellow Baltimoreans was sadly lacking, and she wanted to raise the cultural tone of the city. The Observer, she felt, would be the tool for accomplishing that. People began to react to what she wrote, which she seems to have found a gratifying experience.

And now we come to me. Some months ago, I became involved with a group of people, most of them young (younger than me, anyway), who had decided to put out the 21st-century counterpart to Eliza’s magazine: a blog. As is the case with many blogs, all of us were volunteers. The younger people all had full-time jobs and/or young children, and they didn’t have much time to spend on the blog.

I, on the other hand, was basically trying to write a novel that it wasn’t clear anyone would be interested in publishing, and my children were grown. I started writing posts for the blog, in a way returning to my long-ago abortive career in journalism, and I discovered that it was actually much more compelling than writing a novel I wasn’t sure anyone really cared about.

Part of this was because I, like Eliza, am on something of a mission. In my case, the mission has to do with public education. For the past several years I’ve become increasingly interested in the very lively landscape of public education in Washington, DC, where I live.

It was clear that there was a huge amount going on and not enough coverage. (The Washington Post does a pretty good job of writing about education these days, but there’s no way it can cover everything that’s happening.) And to me, improving the state of public education in this city (and this country)  is every bit as crucial as improving the state of public taste seemed to be to Eliza. In fact, when I came across this new blog, which was about to go live, I had been on the verge of trying to start my own blog on DC education.

So, like Eliza, I threw myself into writing for the blog, which is called Greater Greater Education. It’s an offshoot of a blog called Greater Greater Washington, which focuses on urban issues like smart growth and public transportation. I ended up writing more for Greater Greater Education than others did, partly because I had more time. And lo and behold, I’m now the editor.

Like Eliza, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the workload and the need to rustle up contributors. But, again like her, I’m also gratified by the fact that people seem to be paying attention. Putting out a publication, especially a publication that’s completely staffed by volunteers, can be frustrating, but it’s also exhilarating. I feel Eliza’s pain, but also her joy.

I’m hoping that my experience with Greater Greater Education doesn’t completely parallel Eliza’s experience with The Observer. Eventually, Eliza became preoccupied by vendettas with other editors and writers, and after a year she abandoned the magazine in disgust. Part of the problem appears to have been that people just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of a female editor, at least not one as feisty as Eliza. And part of the problem was that Eliza just couldn’t seem to walk away from a fight.

There are plenty of fights available in the education world these days, but I’m not interested in joining them. What I’ve been looking for is a sanctuary where people aren’t just preaching to the choir or calling their opponents names, but rather trying to figure out what actually might work without worrying too much about who proposed the idea or what label is attached to it. So far at least, it looks like Greater Greater Education has the potential to be that place, at least in DC.

So what about the novel that’s now stuck in my computer, which, of course, happens to be about Eliza? Based on what I’ve heard from the few people who have read the manuscript, it basically just needs one more round of revisions and then it will be ready to go. The only problem is that I’ve been so caught up in writing and editing the blog, I haven’t had time to look at it in months.

But here again, maybe I should look to Eliza. Somehow, during the year that she was writing and editing The Observer, she managed to translate not one but two works from French into English: a pamphlet on military strategy written by the man who would soon become her husband, and a racy novel about an extramarital affair. (That last one didn’t help her reputation in Baltimore much.) If Eliza could find the time to translate two books, surely I can find the time to finish one that’s pretty much already written.

Or can I? We’ll see.

Never Say Never–or First

When people ask me what I’m working on, I generally say this: a historical novel set in 1807 that’s based on the life of a woman named Eliza Anderson, who was–as far as I’ve been able to determine–the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’ve omitted the “as far as I’ve been able to determine.” After scouring various secondary sources on the history of women journalists and editors, I hadn’t come across any earlier female editors. Most sources identify Mary Clarke Carr, who edited a women’s magazine from 1814 to 1816, as the first female editor, and she came seven years after Anderson. So I had begun to feel pretty confident that Anderson was the first.

But, just as one should never say “never,” one should probably never say “the first.” I’m currently reading a book called Learning to Stand and Speak, by Mary Kelley. It may sound like a manual for dog trainers, but it’s actually a history of women in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century. The title refers to the explosion of women’s education during that period, and what women were able to do with that education in a society where many roads were closed to them. The answer, in a nutshell: do good works, teach, and/or write.

In discussing the last of these options, Kelley mentions an anonymous “Lady” who apparently edited a magazine called the Humming Bird in–wait for it–1798. That is, obviously, a full nine years before Eliza Anderson came along in 1807. So (in my own attempts to learn to stand and speak) I stand corrected, and admit that I misspoke.

Compared to Anderson’s magazine, the Observer, the Humming Bird appears to have been a fairly modest affair. Only two issues have survived, the inaugural issue in April 1798 and another issue from June of the same year. Undoubtedly there were other issues, at least between April and June, but it’s not clear how long the Humming Bird sang. And the issues that have survived are only four pages long, whereas the Observer ran to sixteen pages that appeared every week for an entire year.

More significantly, the Humming Bird presented itself as a publication specifically for women–or rather, “ladies”–whereas the Observer set out to appeal to a general audience. Initially Anderson tried to conceal her gender (even those who knew full well she was a woman began their letters to the editor with “Dear Sir”), but after a while, perhaps because the secret had gotten out, she came out of the closet. In an editorial titled “Speak of Me As I Am,” she acknowledged that “much curiosity has been excited to know, what manner of woman our female editor may be,” and proceeded to describe herself.

The anonymous editor of the Humming Bird, on the other hand, alluded to her sex in the very first issue, and presented her introductory “Address” to “those of her Sex who see fit to Patronize the work.” Like Anderson, the Humming Bird editor (or “compiler,” as she referred to herself) realized that there might be curiosity about such an unorthodox undertaking: “A Lady paper is a novelty in this part of the country [Connecticut], and many will predict that it cannot be supported.” But, she went on, “I find there is taste enough among the ladies to encourage a work of this kind, and hope there is spirit enough to keep such a work from sinking, if properly conducted.”

The Humming Bird‘s editor went to some pains to reassure her readers that her entry into what historians might label “the public sphere” wouldn’t interfere with her duties in the private one. “I know it will be agreed that it is a woman’s business to attend to her family concerns,” she wrote, “and that she has no business to be inquisitive about what is going forward in the world.” But she argued that it was possible for her, and her readers, to find time for the magazine without neglecting their domestic responsibilities: “I am not concerned, however, but that I shall have time both to clothe my family and to find entertainment which shall be satisfactory to you; and if you will divide the time properly, you will find time to do all your business, to read the Humming Bird, and to earn a small sum to pay the Printer for printing it.”

Anderson made no reference to whether or not she was neglecting her domestic duties. And to judge from at least one contemporary account, she wasn’t particularly zealous in that department. The architect Benjamin Latrobe, who wrote arts criticism for the earliest issues of the Observer, remarked in 1812 that Anderson’s house was “miserably out of sorts,” and that Anderson’s daughter was “not well attended to.” Anderson yearned for the life of the mind, for books–Latrobe reported that the house was full of them, and that she had 400 of her own, quite a collection for that era.

But while they may have had different priorities, both Anderson and the Humming Bird editor recognized that women, or at least elite women, were in a position to devote some of their energies to literary endeavors. The Humming Bird editor, seeking contributions, solicited “the aid of those ladies whose situation in life give them time and opportunities to write.” And Anderson argued that in a community where men were “almost entirely engrossed” by the demands of business, a woman like herself should have been applauded for trying to “promote the cause of taste, literature, and morals by undertaking the arduous employment of editor to a weekly paper.” (“But alas! luckless dame,” she continued, such was not the case.)

They had other things in common, too. An essay on “affectation” in the Humming Bird could almost have come from the pages of the Observer. “Can it be too much lamented,” asked the writer in the Humming Bird, “that the beauty and simplicity of nature should give way to the disgusting rules of studied art?” Nine years later, Anderson (writing under a pseudonym) complained of “this ridiculous rage for improving [women’s] natural graces by the assistance of art.” Affectation was apparently quite a serious problem in the late 18th and early 19th century.

And Anderson, for all her implicit challenges to male authority, shared with the Humming Bird editor and most other women of the time a reluctance to follow her arguments to their logical conclusions. She may not have alluded to her domestic duties, but in other ways she subscribed to the traditional conception of the feminine role. While she published “political communications” (as long as they were “written well and with temper”), she protested that she herself had “never so much attended to the subject of politics as to entitle her to an opinion.” And she criticized the practice of public examinations at girls’ schools because it endangered “modesty, the sweetest ornament of the sex.” Public acknowledgment of young women’s merits might lead them to become “insolent, forward, and presuming,” she said. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she was indignantly defending herself against those very same charges.

In the end, both the Humming Bird editor and Anderson illustrate, to different degrees, the dilemma faced by educated women in this period. They were, so to speak, all dressed up with nowhere to go: educated, but not employable–and perhaps afraid that if they challenged their assigned role too openly, they might lose the privileges and freedoms they’d managed to acquire in the preceding decades.

And in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether Anderson was “first” or not. She was close enough to first, and far away enough from us, that her accomplishment–like that of the anonymous editor of the Humming Bird–is impressive and worthy of note. And if neither of them is as modern as we might like in their opinions, we need to keep in mind what they were up against.

Joining Giblets and Colonel Cundum

I’d intended to write this blog post about a dictionary of late 18th-century slang that I’ve been consulting for the past several months–I’m writing a novel set in 1807, and some of my characters are of the rougher sort. Always on the lookout for good blog material, I’ve been keeping a list of colorful terms that I thought would make for amusing reading.

But I seem to have been done in, to a certain extent, by 21st-century technology. I had the dictionary (which I found online through Google books) “bookmarked” on my old computer, which recently died a slow and rather painful death. My new computer is way healthier, but it’s never heard of my old bookmarks. And when I Googled what I remembered as the title of the dictionary–A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue–I got plenty of results, but none of them matched the dictionary I’d been taking notes on.

So, rather than being able to search for fuller definitions of the terms I jotted down, I’m reduced to a couple of small scraps of paper where I made the jottings. But I will forge ahead, in antiquated fashion, and try to write a blog post based on scrawled pencil-and-paper notes.

Many of the terms I wrote down had something to do with sex and/or prostitution, because one of my characters is a prostitute. Some of these terms interested me because they haven’t changed, or haven’t changed much. The term “short-heeled wench,” to describe a woman of easy virtue, sounds a lot like the modern (or at least relatively modern) “round heels.” And it’s pretty easy to deduce the meaning of the phrase “touch up a woman,” meaning “to have carnal knowledge of her.”

But then there are the phrases that, despite their colorfulness, have gone out of use. “To join giblets,” for example, strikes me as a nifty euphemism for having sex. Maybe we can bring it back? And then there’s the term “larking,” which my now irretrievably lost dictionary defined, tantalizingly, as “a lascivious practice that will not bear explanation.”

I also came across some intriguing terms to describe a woman who (as they used to say) has “gotten herself” pregnant: to have a white swelling, to have sprained her ankle. Then there’s the phrase “in her tantrums,” which, alas, I neglected to write down the definition for. I guess I’ll never know.

Some non-sexual phrases haven’t changed: shoplifter, skinflint, shilly shally, ship shape (I must have been scrolling through the “s”s that day). There’s also “the parleyvous lingo” as a term for French–no surprises there.

Then there are words that are still in use, but have taken on a different meaning. “Vamp,” for example, which has come to mean (among other things) a woman who seduces men, used to mean “to pawn anything.” And, at the risk of antagonizing an entire country, I confess that I was amused by the phrase “the urinal of the planets” to denote Ireland–presumably inspired by its rainy climate, but no doubt also inspired by prejudice against its inhabitants.

That’s about all I can say for the mysteriously vanished dictionary, since I’m unable to consult it further. But, as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. None of the terms I’ve mentioned above are in the dictionary that predominates in my search results for the term “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” a volume that dates to 1811. But on the other hand, it contains a whole new world of slang waiting to be explored.

Just looking around at random, for example, I came across the following entry for “Cundum,” apparently an archaic version of the word condom. “The dried gut of a sheep,” the dictionary helpfully explains, “worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection, said to have been invented by one Colonel Cundum.” Who knew?

There’s more–apparently these “machines” were sold “by a matron of the name of Phillips, at the green canister in Half-moon-street”–but I’ll save the remainder of the entry for another blog post. Those of you who are yearning for more ancient slang, and perhaps fresh insight into some of the terms in use today, watch this space! Or, alternatively, you can just Google “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” yourself.

Double Vision and Women’s History

Sometimes I feel very lucky to live in Washington—for instance, when I need some obscure book or magazine from the 18th or 19th century, the kind of thing maybe three people in the world are interested in, and I can just hop on the Metro and go read it at the Library of Congress.

Last Friday, I felt the same way about the National Portrait Gallery. Not only is it a terrific museum where I have spent many happy hours, but last Friday they organized a five-hour symposium on a subject I find of great interest: women’s history in the late 18th and early 19th century. Five different academics (all female—a “whole binder full of women,” as someone inevitably remarked) delivered papers in a well-appointed auditorium, and the whole thing was capped by a reception in the museum’s stunning atrium. And all of it was free (or at least, supported by our tax dollars—a fact I’m hesitant to point out, lest someone become indignant about it).

The symposium was tied to one of the museum’s current exhibits, entitled: “A Will of their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic.”

Who, you may ask, was Judith Sargent Murray? I had only a vague sense of who she was myself, and I’ve been researching a female contemporary of hers who shared many of her ideas—and yet never mentions Murray in her writings.

Murray was, like the woman I’ve been researching—Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807—what one might call a proto-feminist. She lived from 1751 to 1820, and in 1790—two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—she published an essay entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in which she argued that women were just as capable as men and that it was only their lack of education that held them back. She also believed that women should be independent, that they shouldn’t be required to marry (although she herself was married twice), that they were free to comment on any topic they chose, and even that they could lead nations and armies. All of this was pretty radical stuff at the time.

Anderson wasn’t quite as upfront about her feminism as Murray, and she didn’t write as much about women as Murray did. But as I listened to the speakers, I kept seeing parallels between Murray and Anderson. One of those parallels was that neither of them talked much about other American women. Murray listed a whole slew of “female worthies” in her essays, published under the pseudonym “The Gleaner,” but they were almost all women who lived in the past or in Europe. One of the things that puzzled me about Anderson was that, although she too vigorously defended women’s capabilities and stressed the importance of their education, she overlooked other accomplished women in America—including Murray. When she did hold up a woman as a paragon of accomplishment, it was Emilie Du Chatelet, a French mathematician, physicist, and author who died in 1749.

Murray’s biographer, Sheila Skemp, suggested that Murray’s failure to acknowledge the accomplishments of American women (with the exception of her friend, the historian Mercy Otis Warren) had to do with her elitism and her pride: coming from an important New England family, Murray considered most other American women beneath her. She also may not have wanted to promote potential rivals.

Anderson was also an elitist, and she certainly thought well of herself. But, while her father was a respected doctor, she didn’t come from a grand family. And she wasn’t celebrated enough in her own right to be worrying about promoting rivals. It seemed to me that her failure to acknowledge the achievements of American women stemmed more from her general disdain for all things American. While she desperately wanted to improve the cultural sophistication of her fellow citizens, she clearly felt that was an uphill struggle. For her, the real locus of civilization was not in the cultural backwater that was then the United States (and, in her view, Baltimore in particular), but in the past and in Europe. So it was natural for her to look to those sources when searching for an example of sophistication and intellectual accomplishment, whether male or female.

I asked Skemp whether that might have been part of what was going on in Murray’s mind, and she said yes, she thought it was. In an era when we in the United States feel like we’re living in the center of the universe, it’s hard to imagine how marginal existence here must have felt a couple of hundred years ago. We were the sideshow to the great pageant of Europe, the experiment that many doubted would last—the place where life was new and crude, with no great cultural institutions to boast about. These days, some of us may feel ashamed of our American-ness from time to time (I certainly did as a teenager touring Europe during the Vietnam era), but it’s a different kind of shame. Back then, it was probably equivalent to what someone from Kazakhstan may have felt during the “Borat” craze.

The other thing that struck me about Murray was that she, like Anderson, shrank from the logical conclusion of her arguments about women’s capabilities. After presenting her case that women were fit to lead nations and even armies (a pretty radical thought even for the 21st century), Murray pulled back. Just because women could do these things didn’t mean they should, she said. Rosemarie Zagarri, another historian who spoke at the symposium (and who I was thrilled to discover remembered me from the prenatal exercise class we took together 25 years ago), said that Murray didn’t want women to become too masculine or to encroach on their husbands’ prerogatives. Murray defended women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, touting their virtues of amiability and tenderness. She didn’t even suggest that women should have the right to vote.

Neither did Anderson—nor did she remark upon the fact that the one state that had allowed women to vote since the Revolution, New Jersey, actually rescinded that right in the very year that Anderson was publishing her magazine, 1807. Like Murray, Anderson didn’t push for equal rights. Although she was crossing the generally accepted line between men’s and women’s roles by assuming the position of editor (she was apparently the first woman in this country to do so), she defended that transgression in terms that were in keeping with the notion of women as the softer, civilizing influence in society. Women, she argued, had the responsibility of promoting the cause of “taste, literature, and morals” in a town “where the nobler sex are almost entirely engrossed by parchments, pulses, or price currents.” She herself had no interest in “price currents,” and it’s not at all clear she thought women in general should have anything to do with them.

Zagarri suggested that Murray stepped back from her more radical positions because she was wary of the public reaction to her views on women. When I asked Zagarri what that public reaction had been, the answer was: there really wasn’t one, as far as we can tell. Zagarri pointed out, wisely, that the things we identify as important from our perspective weren’t necessarily the things that appeared important to contemporaries. Murray wrote about a lot of other things besides women’s rights, so her fame—to the extent she had some—may well have rested on the essays that today hold little interest for us. Who was to know that someday we would have female Secretaries of State, female Supreme Court Justices, and serious female candidates for the Presidency? Given what happened in New Jersey in 1807, it may well have looked like the tide was going the other way.

It’s always important, when looking at history, to maintain at least two points of view, as much as we can: the view from here (that is, the present), and the view from there (the time we’re looking at). People and ideas we now identify as significant and forward-looking may, in the eyes of contemporaries, have just appeared wacky. Or they may have been so obscure as to occasion little comment.

So why didn’t Eliza Anderson mention Judith Murray? One possibility is she’d never heard of her.

Who Are You Calling an Amateur?

When you spend a fair amount of time reading documents that are 200 hundred years old, as I do, you inevitably come across unfamiliar words—or words that, even if familiar, are being used to mean something different from what you think they mean. And sometimes you start wondering about how and why those words have changed.

Let me offer an example. In 1807, a Baltimore magazine called The Observer discussed a highly anticipated concert, where (it said) “Mr. Nenninger, and a number of amateurs, will delight the scientific ear with a variety of both vocal and instrumental music.

I was immediately brought up short by this use of the word “amateur.” Yes, it denoted someone who wasn’t being paid for his or her efforts, just as we might use it today (although, in fact, lack of payment became a subject of dispute on the part of at least one of the performers). But there was none of the derogatory connotation that often attaches to the word nowadays, when the adjective “amateurish” is used to mean substandard. Instead, the word seemed to have a meaning closer to its Latin root “amo,” meaning “I love.” (For now, I won’t attempt to parse the word “scientific,” which is also used in the article in a way we wouldn’t expect.)

In fact, the word “amateur” originally just meant someone who did something because he loved to do it, not because he expected any profit from it. And in the old days—let’s say, the early 19th century—this was often considered a good thing. The Observer itself, like most magazines of the day, was written by “amateurs.” Its editors and correspondents received no pay, and there’s some indication that they would have bristled at the idea. They were “gentlemen” (or, in the rare case of The Observer’s editor, a lady), and their journalistic endeavors were undertaken out of a sense of civic duty—or perhaps out of a desire for amusement—not for what they might have dismissed as mercenary reasons.

To some extent this seems to have been a holdover from feudal, or at least aristocratic, times, when those at the top of society essentially lived off the profits from their land holdings and didn’t have to sully themselves by actually working for a living. The arts, in particular, weren’t seen as something one would get paid for, exactly. Ladies (and, to a lesser degree, gentlemen) learned how to play an instrument or sing or draw as part of their education. It was a way of passing the time and amusing others, not a way of making money.

Of course, there were “professional” artists as well, but in Europe they weren’t necessarily paid for their labors in any sort of quid pro quo arrangement. Often they had patrons who supported their work in a more disinterested fashion.

But in the United States in the early 19th century, there were—at least theoretically—no aristocrats. There were plenty of wealthy people, of course, but they didn’t necessarily see supporting artists as something it made sense to spend money on. The demise of aristocratic patronage was a phenomenon bemoaned by The Observer, but it was the wave of the future.

Until now, perhaps. Yes, wealthy Americans did eventually become patrons of the arts. And—on the other hand—there have always been starving artists. But with the arrival of the Internet, the number of people creating “art,” or at least engaging in pursuits for the love of them rather than for any financial reward, seems to have exploded.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the realm of publishing. Technology has now made it far easier to self-publish—whether it be in the form of a blog, an e-book, or a traditional hardcover book. And there are online magazines where, just as at The Observer in 1807, no one gets paid for their efforts (my son, in fact, is a founder of one of them).

So, are those who write (or are creative in other ways) for the love of it to be considered “amateurs,” in the modern, derogatory sense of the word? Or in the flattering, elitist sense attached to it in 1807?

I think the answer here is “neither.” There are plenty of traditionally published authors who aren’t able to support themselves from their writing—even authors whose books are reviewed favorably in such places as the New York Times. Are they “amateurs”—in the derogatory sense—too?

At the same time, it’s undeniable that the self-publishing revolution has led to a lot of publications that only the author’s mother could embrace. (I should add that this is NOT true of my son’s magazine!)

So perhaps “amateur” is a word we should return to its origins, simply to denote someone who does something out of love. Whether others will love what they do is another question. But of course, that’s also true of those artists and writers who are lucky enough to be able to make a living from their creations.

My Historic Weekend

Last weekend I had two encounters with the past.

The first was right in my own neighborhood: a walking tour organized by Historic Chevy Chase DC (that would be my neighborhood). Some 15 or 20 of us spent an hour traversing familiar streets under the tutelage of a local real-estate-agent-cum-guide, learning sometimes unfamiliar history.

Chevy Chase, by the way, does not derive its name from the comedian (years ago, when I was in Canada and attempting to pay for a purchase with a credit card issued by Chevy Chase Bank, the sales clerk thought it was a joke: “The comedian has a BANK?”). The origins of the name are somewhat obscure, but it appears to derive from the Cheviot Hills along the border between England and Scotland. “Chase” is an old word for “hunt.”

Anyway … I learned that much of what is now Chevy Chase (a neighborhood that straddles the DC/MD line) was once a plantation belonging to a Colonel Joseph Belt, whose name lives on only in a quiet, lane-like street called Belt Road, which meanders haphazardly through the upper Northwest section of DC. Eventually, shortly after 1900, the land was purchased by the Chevy Chase Land Company, led by a few inside-the-Beltway types—before, of course, there was a Beltway. Their dream was to build an exclusive streetcar suburb (they even paid for the streetcar—Chevy Chase was then way out of town). But an economic downturn slightly derailed the plan, making the place somewhat less exclusive than originally envisioned.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if they went down our street?” I whispered to my husband on the tour. And then lo and behold, our guide not only led us down our street but actually brought the group to a halt in front of our very own house! Did our house have some historical significance that had escaped us, I wondered? Built in 1918, it was a relative latecomer to the area. But maybe someone of note had once inhabited our very rooms? (The astrologer Jeane Dixon did own the house briefly at one point, but I wasn’t sure she’d rate a stop on a walking tour.)

But no, it turns out our house only provided a good vantage point to admire the various architectural styles on display across the street. On the other hand, our BLOCK has some historical significance: one of the structures down the street has the distinction of being the oldest house in Chevy Chase. And the one next door to it sits on the site of Colonel Belt’s original plantation house and incorporates some of the brick from that house in its foundation and chimney. Who knew? To me they were just my neighbors’ houses.

A few years ago there was a drive, led by Historic Chevy Chase DC, to have the whole neighborhood declared a historic district. At first I thought it sounded like a fine idea. After all, I’m a historian! But then, like many others in the neighborhood, I realized that it would mean I’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops just to replace the windows in my house, or redo the paving in my front walk. There was a groundswell of opposition, and the idea died. So now, theoretically, someone could come along and tear down the oldest house in Chevy Chase. On the other hand, it’s a perfectly nice, well-maintained house, so I can only hope that no one will.

The next day—Sunday—found me in Baltimore, the town where I grew up, and which provides the setting for my historical novel-in-very-slow-progress. I’d gone there for brunch with a friend, but as I was driving to Fells Point—one of the older parts of town, and the background for sections of my novel—I passed a sign that said “Carroll Mansion.”

I knew that the Carroll Mansion had been the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and—more important from my perspective—the grandfather of four young women who were contemporaries of my main characters. The house, I learned through Google, was open on Saturdays and Sundays until four. It seemed that Fate was calling me to tour it.

But Fate apparently hadn’t notified anyone else: when I showed up, breathless, just in time for the 3 o’clock tour—the last tour of the day, the website warned—I discovered I was the only one there. I was greeted by a young man who took my five dollars and proceeded to show me around.

I don’t know who usually shows up on a Sunday, but they probably don’t have quite the command of Carroll-related factoids that I do. Nor can they generally correct the guide who places the Baltimore Burr riot in 1808 (it actually took place in late 1807). My guide seemed a little taken aback, and then—not realizing that my familiarity with Baltimore history basically begins in mid-1806 and ends in early 1808—assumed that I knew far more than I did. I was actually pretty impressed with the extent of his acquaintance with local lore, especially after he told me that his graduate work had been in Yugoslavian history (apparently when the house re-opened to the public after a hiatus they needed a guide right away, and he was the closest they could come in terms of expertise).

The house itself evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, there it still stood, a fairly grand early 19th-century structure surrounded by multiple lanes of traffic, and within shouting distance of the urban revival brouhaha of the Inner Harbor. Over the years the building has been used as a saloon, a tenement, a vocational school, and a recreation center, but at least it hasn’t been razed.

On the other hand, the high-ceilinged rooms are pretty bare, adorned by photos showing what they apparently used to look like with period furniture in them. What happened to the furniture, I asked? Turns out it’s at the Maryland Historical Society. Given the less than optimal conditions at the Carroll Mansion—no air conditioning, limited heat in winter, and no humidity control—it’s not the best place to house expensive antiques.

It’s a shame, but understandable: if the Sunday I visited was at all representative, they’re not exactly raking in money from tourists. Charles Carroll may have been the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps the wealthiest man in the country, but he’s far from a household name these days, even in Maryland.

Would it make more sense to adapt the Carroll Mansion to some other purpose, I wonder—something that would preserve its historic character but, not to put too fine a point on it, bring in more money? Right next door there’s a luxury bed-and-breakfast that bills itself as the “Carrollton Inn,” and charges up to $350 a night. Why shouldn’t the Carroll Mansion itself get a piece of that action? And use the profits to repair the peeling wallpaper?

History is all around us—as was brought home to me Saturday on the walking tour of my neighborhood—but much of the time we’re not aware of it. Sometimes we ignore it because it’s right under our noses, as with my neighbor’s house. And sometimes we ignore it because its historical associations have become obscure, at least to most people, and it’s been nearly buried by modern accretions (I drove right by the Carroll Mansion without noticing it was there and then had to backtrack).

They seem to do this rather better in Europe, as Margaret Dumont said to Groucho Marx of his courting technique. There, history gets woven into the fabric of daily life in a more graceful way—neither obtrusive nor neglected. Give us a few hundred more years, and maybe we’ll get the hang of it.



Caveat Reader (of Secondary Sources)

We’ve probably all done it: you turn in a term paper or a report, and someone (your teacher, your boss) points out that you’ve made a mistake somewhere. So maybe you get a B on the paper instead of an A, or you send out a correction warning anyone who might rely on the misinformation in the report. No biggie, usually—these things happen.

But what if you’re, say, a historian, and you make that mistake in a published work? Maybe even a text that’s going to be relied on by untold numbers of other academics, researchers, and students? That’s a little trickier.

For the most part, of course, secondary historical sources are pretty reliable. Scholarly articles and books published by academic presses not only get edited, they’re vetted through what appears to a pretty rigorous peer review process. Nevertheless, once in a while mistakes get made.

Occasionally there’s a real whopper—like the claim in a Virginia public school textbook a couple of years ago that thousands of black soldiers fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, information apparently gleaned from websites operated by pro-Confederacy fringe groups. More often, though, it’s some seemingly plausible factoid that’s only tangentially related to the main subject of the book—something that falls through the cracks because it’s not that important, at least to the author.

But one person’s factoid can become another person’s prime object of interest—at which point that little mistake can take on larger proportions. And most people who have worked extensively with primary sources have had the unnerving experience of reading something in a secondary source that they know to be inaccurate or untrue. Sometimes you have the even more unnerving experience of seeing the same mistake repeated in several other books that have relied, understandably, on the first one.

Having spent a lot of time digging into the lives of obscure historical figures, I’ve had that experience myself, more than once. Most recently it’s happened in connection with the research I’ve been doing on Eliza Anderson, who founded and edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 called The Observer.

Anderson (who later became Eliza Anderson Godefroy, after her marriage to a French architect) was a friend of a somewhat less obscure historical figure named Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, a Baltimore heiress who married the youngest brother of Napoleon and became, in her time, a woman of great renown. In the late 19th and early 20th century she was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, biographies of dubious accuracy, and two Hollywood movies that leapt far into the realm of fiction.

There followed a long period where no one paid much attention to her. But in the past two years there’s been a little flurry of interest in “Betsy,” as she’s known familiarly to aficionados, culminating in the publication of the first scholarly work on the subject: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic, by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis.

About three years ago, when I was researching Anderson’s life for a historical novel (which I’m still working on), I came across an article by Professor Boyer Lewis about Betsy Bonaparte and wrote to her to suggest that she, or some other academic, write an article about Anderson, who in some ways seems to me a more interesting figure. I ended up writing that article myself, with Boyer Lewis’s encouragement. And when it was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine—just a short while before Boyer Lewis finished writing her book on Betsy—I sent the article to Boyer Lewis at her request.

Let me first say that Boyer Lewis has done a valuable service by clarifying and setting in context the facts of Betsy Bonaparte’s life, especially given the daunting amount of raw material she had to sift through (there are twenty boxes of Betsy’s correspondence at the Maryland Historical Society alone). Although the book probably won’t win any awards for its prose style, I found much of what she had to say about Betsy and her place in the early republic of great interest, and I’m sure other researchers will as well.

However … I was dismayed to see Eliza Anderson described, on p. 179, as someone who “wrote and edited a Baltimore ladies’ magazine in the early 1800s, perhaps the first woman in the United States to do so” (emphasis added), with my article cited in a footnote. Yes, I was pleased to see in print—for the first time, aside from my article—the acknowledgment that Anderson was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States (albeit with the qualifier “perhaps”). And it was nice to have my article cited. But The Observer was not “a ladies’ magazine.”

This is actually a significant point, and it’s one I took great pains to emphasize in my article. Virtually all the female editors of the 19th century (all of whom came after Anderson) were editors of ladies’ magazines, sometimes even styling themselves “editresses.” Yes, they were undertaking a job hitherto performed by men. But by speaking only to other women about matters of ostensible interest only to women, they were carving out a safe harbor for themselves.

Anderson, on the other hand, was editing a general interest magazine—a “literary miscellany,” in the parlance of the day. She and her contributors addressed themselves to anything and everything, including traditionally “male” subjects like history, philosophy, and science. Anderson might have had an easier time of it had she edited a ladies’ magazine. She came in for a fair amount of abuse, some of which almost certainly had to do with the fact that she was a woman presuming to tell men, among others, what they should think and how they should act. It was a bold thing to do at the time, and describing her as the editor of a ladies’ magazine really isn’t giving her fair credit.

That wasn’t the only mistake I found in the book. At another point, Boyer Lewis refers to The Observer as “a gentleman’s magazine,” apparently not realizing it’s the same publication she describes elsewhere as “a ladies’ magazine.” And she quotes a letter written by Anderson to Betsy Bonaparte without appearing to realize it was written by Anderson, even though the footnote identifies her as the author. The quotation praises the United States in extravagant terms (“We have no scandal … nor ill nature, no envy hatred or malice”)—terms that are, to anyone who knows anything about Anderson, clearly dripping with sarcasm. Further down on the same page, Boyer Lewis includes a second quotation, from another letter Anderson wrote, denouncing “Love of Country” as nothing more than “a fashionable cant.” Nevertheless, Boyer Lewis takes the first quotation as though it were meant seriously and attributes it to a nameless “woman on the periphery” who valued America’s “republican simplicity” over Europe’s “aristocratic luxury.”

So, what to do when one comes across what one knows is a mistake in a published text? Well, unless the text is a “wiki”—a format that has yet to be embraced by academic presses, probably with good reason—there are basically only two possibilities. You can write your own book and correct the record—as, ironically, Boyer Lewis herself has done vis-à-vis Betsy Bonaparte, a figure with whom many other writers have had their way. (In a footnote, Boyer Lewis cites one of the more egregious examples: a historian who described her as a “prostitute,” when in fact she was the daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest men.)

You can also write to the author and diplomatically point out the mistake. Not that they’ll recall the book, of course, but you’d think they might want to know. I brought the “ladies’ magazine” error to Boyer Lewis’s attention over a month ago and have yet to receive a reply.

On the other hand, consider this: A couple of years ago, I picked up the then newly published Empire of Liberty, a magisterial and altogether wonderful survey of American history between 1789 and 1815 by the dean of American historians of the era, Gordon Wood. I was at first delighted, and then a little disappointed, to find a couple of pages discussing Eliza Anderson. Wood described Anderson as “a female editor,” but didn’t pause to consider how unusual it was for an editor at the time to be female—let alone that she might have been the first female magazine editor in the country. So I wrote to him and enclosed a copy of my article. Within days, I got the following reply via email:

“Thanks for sending me the journal with your splendid article. I wish I had had your article when I wrote the book. You’re quite right about the novelty of a female editor and I should have made more of it.”

It doesn’t quite correct the record. But at least it acknowledges, quite graciously, that the record should be corrected.

A quick addendum: This morning (October 3), I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition detailing the struggle of a historian to correct what he believes is a mistake in virtually all secondary accounts of the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, based on his reading of primary sources (the trial transcripts). Apparently Wikipedia has a policy that requires a secondary source for an assertion, and wouldn’t accept his attempt to change their entry on the Haymarket riot based on a primary source.


How I Get My Kicks

One of the things I love about writing historical fiction based on the lives of real (albeit obscure) people is the weird interplay that sometimes occurs between what I imagine and what really happened.

The novel I’m currently working on is based on a year in the life of a woman named Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Anderson got into a lot of journalistic vendettas that year, some of them stemming from the fact that she was a woman engaging in activities that women at the time weren’t supposed to engage in, and some of them stemming from the fact that she was vehement in voicing opinions that proved controversial.

One of the things that outraged her fellow Baltimoreans was Anderson’s denunciation of her hometown as a cultural wasteland. It’s hard to assess how accurate this claim was, but Baltimore was a town that had grown rapidly—it was the third largest city in the country, and it basically hadn’t even existed thirty years before. There was a lot of new money around, possibly unallied to a great deal of sophistication. Unlike New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Baltimore hadn’t had time to develop many cultural institutions. And unlike Europe, the United States as a whole lacked an aristocracy that saw the support of the arts as one of its civic duties.

In an essay that ran in May 1807 in her magazine, The Observer, Anderson delivered an impassioned lament on the state of the fine arts in Baltimore, and the lack of support that condemned a Mr. Nenninger—a German violinist residing in town—and other European musicians to make a living by “teaching brats without ear or attention” and “playing cotillions to dancers who have no idea of measure.” She declared that Baltimoreans’ “insensibility on this point is Vandalism indeed—yes, Vandalism, we cannot refrain from giving its true and merited epithet.”

This “Vandalism” comment—along with another line in which she labeled Baltimore “the very Siberia of the arts”—caused a sensation. Challenged to retract both expressions, Anderson instead repeated them, and apparently took great pleasure in doing so.

I’m in the process of writing a second draft of the novel, and I decided to add a new scene: an evening party hosted by Anderson, shortly before she made her “Vandalism” comment, which would give some idea of her social circle. She and her doctor father were friendly with some of Baltimore’s wealthiest families, but they also socialized with a number of struggling European artists who had fetched up in Baltimore due to the conflicts then roiling the Continent.

Who to have on the guest list, I pondered? Well, the German violinist Nenninger, of course. And Maximilan Godefroy, the French architect who Anderson would marry the following year (causing something of a scandal, since she was technically already married and had to secure a divorce from her first husband). Who else? I decided to throw in a real person who was a friend of Godefroy’s, and something of a celebrity: Benjamin Latrobe, the pre-eminent American architect during this period, who was supervising the construction of a cathedral in Baltimore that he had designed (and which still stands). Latrobe didn’t actually live in Baltimore, but he had many ties to the place, and it’s not unreasonable to place him at a party there (one of his sons settled in Baltimore, and there are still Latrobes in the area to this day).

Searching through biographies of Latrobe and Godefroy in search of factoids I could insert as conversational tidbits, I came across an intriguing footnote in the Godefroy biography (The Architecture of Maximilian Godefroy, by Robert Alexander). It appears that Latrobe and Godefroy both held a low opinion of the level of culture in Baltimore, and the author even attributed Anderson’s characterization of the city as “a Siberia of the arts” to Godefroy’s influence—albeit with no direct evidence.

Towards the end of the footnote, I was startled to see a quotation from a letter Latrobe wrote to Godefroy in January 1807—just a few months before Anderson’s first “Vandalism” statement, and my fictional dinner party: “I believe anything that can be said of the Vandalism of the Baltimoreans in the arts,” Latrobe opined, “provided it is exceedingly absurd & ridiculous.”

Wow. Not only did I discover that Godefroy—and Latrobe—probably fueled Anderson’s scorn for her compatriots’ artistic sensibilities, I accidentally stumbled across words that I could put in Latrobe’s mouth at the dinner party, and which would then find their way into print in the essay Anderson was shortly to write. In my scene, I can have Anderson think, after hearing Latrobe speak of the “Vandalism” of the Baltimoreans, that he has hit upon le mot juste to describe her fellow citizens. And, since I’m including excerpts from The Observer as part of the narrative of the novel, a few pages later readers will see that she steals the phrase to use in her next issue. Not only that, but the scene will give some context to Anderson’s views on culture, which can strike the modern ear as pretty elitist: she was far from the only one who felt this way at the time.

What really thrills me is the fact that I decided to put Latrobe at this party without even knowing he’d said anything about “Vandalism.” I could easily have missed the footnote about Latrobe’s letter and never discovered he’d used the word. But thanks to whatever gods help historical novelists out with these things, I’ve come up with a nice little sequence of events—and one that I’ll know (even if my readers don’t) has some basis in truth. Maybe not everyone would get such a kick out of that, but it made my week.

Criticism, Then and Now

Some thoughts on criticism of the arts—its value and its pitfalls—inspired by Dwight Garner’s piece in today’s New York Times Magazine

I’ve written criticism, I’ve written books that have been the subject of criticism—mostly positive, thank God, but some negative—and I’m currently working on a novel based on the life of a woman who set herself up as a critic of the fine arts in the early 19th century. So I’ve done some thinking about the subject.

Garner’s main point, as I take it, is that a society without criticism—even harsh criticism—would be “a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die.” He acknowledges that criticism can hurt, but basically he advises writers (and it’s specifically book criticism he’s discussing) to suck it up. In lawyers’ terms, writers assume the risk: you put your book out there for the public to react to in whatever way they will, so don’t complain if you get slammed.

He’s right, of course. But I also have some sympathy for the point of view expressed by the writer Dave Eggers in a quotation Garner cites and then disagrees with: basically, don’t criticize what you can’t understand (to borrow a line from Bob Dylan). Writing a book—or making a movie, or a work of visual art, etc.—is a tremendously difficult thing to do, so critics should approach it in a spirit of generosity.

Having been on both ends of criticism, I can attest to the pain that can be inflicted by a scathing review. Not long ago I read an essay by a writer who noted that negative reviews of your book always make more of an impression than positive ones, and I’ve found that to be all too true.

But I’ve also read and seen things that I thought deserved to be panned, and I wouldn’t want to muzzle critics who have sincere reservations about the quality of what they’re reviewing. Of course (and this is one thing Garner doesn’t mention explicitly), it’s actually easier to write a negative review than a positive one, and it usually provides more opportunities for humor. When I was writing reviews fairly regularly, way back in college, I would sometimes find that I thought I’d really enjoyed a book or a play—until I started writing. Then somehow my inner snark would take over. Or perhaps you could say I started exercising my critical faculties. It depends, perhaps, on whether you agree more with Eggers or with Garner.

Either way, it’s particularly risky for critics to let loose when they live in a relatively small community and are likely to come into contact with the objects of their criticism. When I was in college, I swore off reviewing student productions after seeing the actress I’d panned in that day’s paper walking towards me on campus. She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her. She was with a friend, holding a copy of the paper with my review, and weeping copiously.

The woman I’m currently writing about—Eliza Anderson, who edited the Observer, a magazine published in Baltimore in 1807—also lived in a fairly small community. Actually, Baltimore was the third largest city in the country at the time, but the elite were a pretty insular bunch. Anderson set out to raise the level of culture in Baltimore, which she believed to be sadly lacking, through criticism and satire. She discovered that the objects of her criticism sometimes struck back.

One of her targets was an artist named Francis Guy, whose work is now included in such collections as the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the new Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Arkansas. Guy, who seems to have been largely self-taught, had been a tailor and dyer and still produced, in addition to his landscape paintings, tavern signs and decorative embellishments for furniture. Anderson believed that artists should be viewed as a class distinct from “artisans and mechanics,” and she apparently saw the happily hybrid Francis Guy as a threat to that distinction (he also marketed what he claimed was a miraculous toothache cure). Reviewing an exhibition of his paintings, Anderson observed that Guy had some natural talent, but from want of encouragement reduced to the necessity of making coats and pantaloons, he has not had it in his power to cultivate his talent, nor has he made a single striking step in the art.”

Guy took offense at this and similar remarks by Anderson. Although Anderson protested that she was only trying to bring him the recognition and support he deserved, Guy was not convinced. He published a brief riposte in a local newspaper, which began “What do you think the Observer means, by playing shuttle-cock with my poor name at every full and change of the moon?” He was selling plenty of paintings, he protested, and indeed had to turn down some commissions. In fact, he opined, Anderson had only brought him more business through her “scurrilous and witless opposition.”

Anderson got an even harsher response from a singer and actor named W.H. Webster—but then, her criticism of his performances was pretty vicious. On one occasion, she complained about the “horrible grimaces” he made while singing, which she said produced the general effect “of a man laboring under the operation of a strong emetic.” On another, she remarked that he resembled “a creature in the agonies of convulsion” and treated the audience to “the wretched caricature of an ape.” It was impossible, she said, “to listen to him without disgust.”

Again, Anderson claimed she was only bothering to criticize him because he had talent—talent that was unfortunately undermined, in her view, by his physical contortions. But Webster heard only the criticism. And it’s hard to blame him. Like Guy, he took his revenge in a local paper, claiming that Anderson had sent him a letter offering to praise him in the Observer if he took out a five-dollar subscription—essentially, that is, if he bribed her.

Anderson protested vigorously that she’d sent no such letter, and Webster claimed to have lost it, so there’s no way of knowing the truth (although, as Anderson pointed out, given her previous harsh criticism of Webster, it seems unlikely she would have offered to champion him, even for five dollars).

I suppose the moral of Anderson’s story, if there is one, is that artists are capable of biting the hand that slaps them. Generally speaking, though, the critic has the upper hand, whether it slaps or nourishes: who’s going to believe a disgruntled artist or writer over an ostensibly objective critic?

But even if critics generally have little to fear from those they critique, they might want to consider the maxim that Garner says he was raised on but ultimately rejected: if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. Especially with the shrinking number of book reviews out there—a phenomenon Garner bemoans—perhaps that valuable space is better spent praising good books than slicing bad ones to shreds. Silence is kinder, and often just as effective in preventing the reading public from committing the mistake of buying a bad book.

A Real Tear-Jerker

Yesterday I came to the end of the first draft of a novel. And I cried.

You might think I was crying just because I was overcome by the realization that I’d managed to get to the end. After all, this is something I’ve been working on, in one form or another, for the last five years or so (albeit with time off to write another novel in the middle). You might think that, after all the permutations and false starts I’ve been through with this project, they were tears of joy.

But you would be wrong. In fact, I was blubbering like a baby over what I was actually writing—the final scene between my two main characters, who have been sworn enemies throughout the course of the book and are at last discovering that in fact they have some things in common, over which they can bond.

Stated baldly like that, it doesn’t sound like anything that would inspire tears, let alone enough tears to require two tissues (and a trip in search of a whole new tissue box, since I’d been down to the last tissue in the box on my desk). In fact, stated like that, I realize that that’s basically what’s happened at the end of the two other novels I’ve written. And I cried while I was writing those endings too.

But I didn’t expect to cry while writing this one. All along, I’ve been plagued by doubts about this story—or perhaps I should say more doubts than usual—wondering if I’ve been on the right track, questioning whether I shouldn’t just throw in the towel and move on to something else, possibly something that doesn’t involve writing novels. Let’s just say there have been moments of discouragement.

And much of that discouragement has arisen from my doubts about the two main characters: Were they believable? Were they too stereotypical? Were they two-dimensional? Were they just ridiculous? There were times when it seemed that no matter what I did I couldn’t get them to take wing, that I was lugging them around the story like a couple of sacks of potatoes.

But something happened when I was writing the last chapter. Maybe it was just the knowledge that I was on the home stretch, but I couldn’t make myself stop writing, with the result that I finally ended up eating lunch at about 3:30. And the writing did take off, the characters did come alive, so alive that I felt I was right there with them, in a book-filled room in a house at the corner of Hanover and German Streets in Baltimore on a cold January afternoon in 1808—in their heads, inside their skins, feeling all the wrenching emotions that were coursing through them.

This is the mysterious magic of writing, when you sit in front of your computer (or, in the old days, in front of your typewriter or your quill pen or whatever) and with nothing more than your brain and your fingers, you conjure up a whole world that you believe in. Not only are you seeing, smelling, and touching things that aren’t there, you’re feeling emotions that you’ve conjured out of thin air. In a way, it’s a socially acceptable form of insanity.

But it’s also a way of forming connections to people who may be very different from ourselves, and not just because they’re fictional. In the case of the novel I’m working on now, the main characters (one of whom is based on a real person) are ensconced in a world that no longer exists, the world of 200 years ago. In other cases, like that of the contemporary novel I wrote, it may be that their personalities and outlooks on life are just different from my own. But when I write their dialogue and enter into their heads, I feel a direct and gut-level connection to that essential human part of them that exists in me as well. (In fact, come to think of it, it’s more or less what happens to my characters—people viewing each other as alien but coming to realize they actually have something in common—at the ends of each of my novels.)

It isn’t just when you’re writing novels that this weird and magical thing happens. It can happen when you’re reading them too—think about the times reading a novel has made you laugh or (possibly more often) cry. Scientists have actually demonstrated that when you read about things, you’re also experiencing them, in a way. When you read the word “cinnamon,” for example, not only does the part of your brain associated with reading light up, but so does the part of your brain associating with smelling things. And there’s evidence that when we read stories, we’re also using the brain networks that help us navigate real-life interactions. In other words, we think of the characters we’re reading about as though they were real.

You might think you wouldn’t need fiction in order to do that, and maybe sometimes you don’t. After all, why not learn to empathize and deal with people by reading about real people? But it seems to me there’s a barrier inherent in writing about real people that dissolves in the realm of fiction. There’s no way to get inside the skin of someone real—even in a memoir, given that there are all sorts of possibly unconscious defenses and things that get thrown up when we write about ourselves—the way you can with a person who’s a creature of someone’s imagination.

Of course, just because I’ve convinced myself that my characters are real doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to convince anyone else. I’m keenly aware that I have a long way to go, and possibly many drafts, before I end up with a successful novel—if I ever do. But the fact that I’ve at least convinced myself of the reality of my characters gives my some hope that—as the real-life model for one of my minor characters said about himself 200 years ago—“I shall not have labored in vain; I shall not have … often wasted the midnight lamp fruitlessly, nor sacrificed the best worldly prospects for an imaginary good; although deferred, I shall be in the end gratified by a sure reward.”