Blindspot: Lepore and Kamensky in Olde Boston

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Kamensky & Lepore: 2 madwomen, 1 attic

Blindspot is a lark, with lessons. First, about sex and slavery in 18th Century Boston, where you didn’t expect to find so much of either. And then, about the writing of serious history as delicious fiction.

Blindspot was undertaken as an experiment, something of an email joke, by ranking professionals who’ve been friends since grad school (Yale): Jane Kamensky, now at Brandeis, and Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker magazine.

Told in letters and journals, Blindspot, set in 1764, is a borderline kinky love story about a Scots portrait painter (think: Gilbert Stuart) who’s fled his London debts to Boston, and a passionate, downwardly-mobile 19-year-old daughter of the Boston ruling class who presents herself as a boy so as to get a job as the painter’s assistant. Get it? Frances Easton goes to work as Francis Weston for the portraitist Stewart Jameson. She falls in love with him, of course, and he with her — or him, as he supposes through most of the narrative. Fanny writes: “I felt full prepared to open myself to him, in whatever direction he wanted, Easton or Weston.”

But Blindspot is also an argument about history and the writing thereof:

18th Century novelists called their books ‘histories.’ You know, Tom Jones is “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.” Fielding insisted that Tom Jones was a history and that what historians wrote was made up, that it was so contrived to be answerable to the surviving set of facts that could be lined up and arranged in any which way that its reliability is fundamentally questionable. It comes from Aristotle’s Poetics to make this claim — that to make something up that has universal truth because it’s about humanity was the true reform of historical writing. And it wasn’t just Fielding who made this claim. This was the argument of 18th Century novelists from Defoe on; and it was an argument they had with historians like Hume… That is a piece of intellectual work that Simon Schama took up when he called for a return to narrative history in the 1980s and 1990s…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

I think our agent was hoping that Blindspot would generate the kind of controversy that Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties generated in the 1990s. I remember Gordon Wood writing an extremely angry brief in the New York Review of Books called ‘Novel History‘ — about how dare a historian do such a thing. To the extent we’ve had reaction from our colleagues — and we didn’t write it for our colleagues — it’s been very positive… I’ve been asked by a graduate student: is this something that every historian should try? And I’ve said: I don’t know, maybe every historian should take up tennis.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

The itch that Blindspot scratches for me is the appetite for history in the manner of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables or, in our own day, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies — which is to say, grand, teeming, historically informed but imaginative narratives that speak to the contemporary national and global crisis.

What Dickens, Tolstoy and Hugo have in common is that, like a Breughel painting, they’re crowded with life. I can’t think of things in the 19th Century American literary tradition that do that. Maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe. But that sort of teeming, crowd-centered urban history that tackles a political event from below is not for the most part an American tradition.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Why is that? … Where is our Dickens? It’s a really interesting question…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Blindspot can be taken as a shot at answering it.

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