Belief in the Past:
On Religion in
Breath and Bones
As a person with two Ph.D.'s somewhere in a drawer, I occasionally get the impulse to write academically, even about my own fiction. Here's a meditation on one aspect of Breath and Bones--first solicited by the editor of a history journal.
Breath and Bones follows a consumptive model named Famke (or Ursula) on a quest for a vanished painter, dashing through Pre-Raphaelite artwork, Utahan polygamy, American brothels, some cross-dressing, a dynamite-happy labor movement, a profligate journalist, a California millionaire, and the invention of electrical sexual stimulation—which is in service of the cure for consumption, of course. The events and culture are solidly researched, grounded in fact, and when listed in this way, highly improbable. Indeed, any of the events in this novel could have happened (and many of them actually did), but they are unlikely to have occurred all together. That’s part of the beauty of historical fiction.
The past offers a writer a great sense of possibility: Anything imaginable can have happened in the past, if one looks to the right texts. For example, I was attracted to nineteenth-century Mormons as a subject largely because they were certain that they lived in an age of miracles. The religion was founded less than two hundred years ago, and its myths are woven into the big “true” historical events that we all recognize. According to some versions of Mormon history, when Joseph Smith saw a traveling show of Egyptian artifacts, he recognized the language on nine ancient papyri as not Egyptian but the lost language of the Mormons. He bought the papyri along with four of the mummies, but the texts were illegible until God granted him the miraculous power to translate them unaided. Those papyri became the Book of Abraham, part of the present-day Doctrines and Covenants. Perhaps what intrigues me most is that, for a long time, the mummies and original papyri themselves were said to have vanished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871—a much-documented event that, with those Mormon artifacts, bleeds into the realm of myth. Most of us consider the Great Fire to be real; for Mormons, its status as material fact helps to validate the myth. Or perhaps it is the loss of the artifacts that makes the Great Fire seem real.
Narrative is our primary way of making sense out of worlds past and present. In the section of the novel called “Pearl of Great Price”–which follows Famke and her Mormon protector, Heber Goodhouse, on the journey from Denmark to America and into a polygamous marriage—characters read the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, a memoir called The Thrilling Narrative of an Indian Captivity, several promise-laden advertisements, and newspaper articles of varying quality. Stories can also be visual; Albert Castle, the love interest whose disappearance sets off the main plot, makes narrative paintings of figures from mythology. As in the story of mummies, papyri, and the Great Fire, narrative is always fiction until we weigh it against fact; and even then, we may find it nearly impossible to separate truth from fiction. Even with the most careful research, it is clear that past truth and reality are highly subjective and depend on the chronicler one is reading. That story of mummies and papyri, for example, exists in at least four contemporary reports, but there are significant discrepancies among them. And when, in 1966, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art declared that it housed the original papyrus fragments, Mormon scholars had to scramble to explain how this could be so. I found none of this story in readily available history books but happened across it in a bound transcript of a 1975 symposium on the sacred compilation Pearl of Great Price (see Jay M. Todd, “The Historical Background of the Book of Abraham”).
The Mormon myth/history put forward at that symposium is a prime example of historiographic process. The historian or historiographer (or historical novelist) has to sort through original source materials and variant descriptions of events in a process that shows that truth, or faith, or belief—that is, the story itself—lies somewhere beyond the signs or traces of history, facts, and words themselves. Scholars of historiography and fiction such as Hayden White, Lionel Gossman, Linda Hutcheon, and Nancy F. Partner have been demonstrating over the past thirty years that the writing of history depends on the ability to think in terms of fiction. Any historical account is an interpretation of jumbled and more or less related events; in order to make that interpretation, to forge a narrative that will make sense out of the tangle, the historian selects among available materials (documents, material facts, folk beliefs) and imposes order on chaos. He or she does so by fabricating relationships of causality—deciding which events grew out of each other, how historical figures might make cohesive and consistent characters, and so on. As Partner puts it, “The meaning of history depends on the meaning of fiction, not the other way around[,] because fiction is analytically prior—the larger category” (33). Perhaps most significantly, these theorists see both historiography and fiction as constructive modes of writing: We have neither fact nor truth until we undertake the fictionalizing, unifying process. The ring of truth depends on a certain amount of imaginative work on the writer’s part; thus, truth depends on fiction.
Many of the characters in Breath and Bones are almost painfully aware of this process. They are also conscious of entering themselves in the history books, of creating the new mythologies that will represent 1880s art, industry, and America itself. At the same time, however, they have varying ideas about fact, and some show a blithe disregard for what the others would consider an empirical reality. Even as I rethought history for the novel, the arts and industries that my characters produce are their ways of attempting to rethink the world and thereby define history.
Harry Noble, a “correspondent” who uses the pen name Hermes, most obviously wants to construct personally inflected versions of events. He knows that he lives in a time that will one day be history, and he helps shape conceptions of that time by documenting contemporary life through stylized articles written for the New York Times and other notable publications. When he gets wind of a good character, he is willing to chase her across the continent for further interviews. However, he sees his subject more as a muse, the inspiration of art, than as a figure to whom he owes a faithful authenticity; what matters most to him is not Famke herself, or even the Mormon community, but the “ripping yarn” he might give to the world. He wants readers; he wants to be the premier chronicler of his time—and in time, to be the voice in the history books.
Famke herself is enchanted with the idea of becoming art, but for the simplest reason: She likes people to look at her, and she likes to look at her own image in print or on canvas. She is happiest when she is muse to Albert , who wants to be one of the nineteenth century’s great artistic geniuses. He can think of nothing more delightful than to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which has already revolutionized art for the Victorians and incidentally given that era bountiful legends of odd goings-on, wombats walking down the center of the dinner table, a squeamish aesthete unable to consummate his marriage because he’d never seen a real woman naked, and so on.
Meanwhile, Heber Goodhouse, the Mormon patriarch and missionary, wants to change the world by leading his fellow-believers into wealth. He is too modest to present himself as a prophet, but he has read or heard somewhere that Brigham Young thought a Mormon silk industry would be a good idea, and he has decided to be the person who realizes Young’s dream. (Young did in fact conceive of such a scheme, but all attempts eventually failed, probably due to the harsh Utah climate.) The allure of becoming part of the age of miracles is irresistible—even though Heber doesn’t understand that age particularly well. During the voyage to America, he tells Famke about the mummies and papyri, but he remembers them as part of the mystery around the doctrine of celestial marriage (polygamy), one article in the Pearl of Great Price, which is bound together with the Articles and Covenants. He is an example of a historian getting his facts wrong—but then again, isn’t it more interesting to think of the mummies in connection with the most notorious Mormon doctrine?
It is clear by now that all of these artists and thinkers are second-rate. Albert’s art fails because he is trying too hard to reenter an era whose great moment has passed; the Pre-Raphaelites’ best work is behind them, many of the artists are dead, and the Brotherhood no longer really exists. He is trying to reenter a historical moment without rethinking it; artistic taste has changed, and he can no more bring it back than, without any real talent, he can push it forward. That is also the danger with historical fiction: The writer might try too hard to imitate Jane Austen or a medieval scribe and end up with a lifeless piece of prose. It is inevitable that the contemporary moment affects the writer, so it is best to acknowledge as much and move on accordingly.
The part of the past that we can perhaps most “truly” enter is mythological. Connections with mythology are connections with the eternal—patterns repeated in assorted historical eras and reinterpreted in each era. Thus Harry refers to the three Fates in his articles and to the messenger of the gods in his pen name, and Albert paints figures from classical and Nordic mythology. By doing so, they combine ideas from and of the past with contemporary models and materials; their own attempts at immortality (an ambition always directed toward the future) come from collapsing past and present.
Great achievements become new myths themselves, as the Pre-Raphaelites have already become for Albert. His mistake lies in his failure to recognize that he has to reinterpret their principles rather than merely reproducing them. If he were to combine ancient mummies with a current event equivalent to the Great Chicago Fire, he might really have something. And Heber’s mistake perhaps lies in not realizing that the acts of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, both of whom were alive during his own lifetime, have in fact become mythologized; if Heber were to reinterpret their teachings to suit his present era, he might succeed. Perhaps he should have convinced the Mormons he found the instructions for sericulture in ancient papyri.
As the creator of these characters, I was surprised to find that Harry turned out to be most successful at what they all undertake. His deliberate exaggerations and stylistic flourishes find an ideal vehicle when he pens a Dime Novel. He takes some “real” events—Famke’s journey to America, a rash of explosions in Western hotels, and a few other tidbits—and composes a narrative that stirs readers all over the United States. He fictionalizes deliberately and extravagantly to make the story (or history) his own, and the result is so convincingly true that it takes on a legendary life of its own and almost causes Famke’s death.
Gossman, Lionel. Between History and Literature. Harvard U P, 1990.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York:
Partner, Nancy F. “Historicity in an Age of Reality—Fictions.” In Frank Ankersmit and Hans
Kellner, Eds. A New Philosophy of History. U of Chicago P, 1995. 21-39.
Todd, Jay M. “The Historical Background of the Book of Abraham.” In Pearl of Great Price
Symposium (November 22, 1975). Salt Lake City: Brigham Young Univ., 1976, 1977.
White, Hayden. The Content of the Form.
with Sue Ellen Russell's book group in Washington, D.C.