By Brook Wilensky-Lanford (Wonders & Marvels Contributor)
Recently, I reviewed Tony Horwitz’s new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, for the San Francisco Chronicle. As history readers, you probably know Horwitz’s previous work Confederates in the Attic, telling the Civil War story through its modern-day re-enactors, or A Voyage Long And Strange, following in the footsteps of pre-Mayflower explorers.
In these books, Horwitz writes in the first person, dramatizing historical events through his own physical presence. Someone once said the job of the writer is to build two bridges: between yourself and the subject, and between the subject and the reader. For Horwitz, the two bridges were the same. He let you in on his own experience discovering the subject.
But Midnight Rising, an account of the life, defeat, and eventual martyrdom of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, is entirely in the third person. In the prologue, he explained: “I could tread where Brown’s men did, glimpse some of what they saw, but the place I wanted to be was inside their heads.” It’s always impressive when a seasoned writer tries out new things, and it got me thinking about my own process.
My own book, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, covers almost 200 years of history. Several people advised me to write it in the first person. But it just didn’t seem right–I wasn’t there in 1881, when the first president of Boston University said that the Garden of Eden had been at the North Pole! Like Horwitz, I was less interested in commenting on my characters than in trying to get inside their heads.
I ended up compromising: the first three sections are in third-person, and the final section, in the present, is in the first person. But Midnight Rising makes me wonder about this. In his acknowledgements (which I always read first!) Horwitz mentions crossing the bridge at Harper’s Ferry by night, as Brown’s men did. So he did go and do all the on-the-ground research, he just didn’t include it as part of the narrative.
Would you ever put yourself in a story about the past? If so, when? And how does your on-the-ground research inform your in-the-past storytelling?
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in August. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Salon, Lapham’s Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe. A graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction writing MFA program, she lives in New Jersey.