What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

David Maraniss's Chaotic Theory of History

One of the coolest, most interesting theories I’ve read recently is David Maraniss’s statement of his approach to history writing. In his new biography, Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss says:

My perspective in researching and writing this book, and my broader philosophy, is shaped by a contradiction that I cannot and never intend to resolve. I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. I find these connections in story, in history, threading together individual lives as well as disparate societies – and they were everywhere I looked in the story of Barack Obama.

I share Maraniss’s belief. Chance does play a part in the way our lives unfold. I’ll never forget the line Ian Frazier uses in his great Family (1994) to describe the beginning of the attack at Chancellorville that killed several of his Ohio ancestors: “In the next instant, History, that force which always seems to choose people who are richer or poorer or in a different place, caught my relatives and the rest of the 55th square on the point of the chin.” That’s the way history works. If you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – look out!

However, at least two reviewers have criticized Maraniss’s theory. Jill Lepore, in her “Obama, The Prequel” (The New Yorker, June 25, 2012), says:

There is something quite searching and wonderful about seeing much of history as a chaos of chance. It has a few pitfalls, however. One is that it renders brutality, as a driver of the course of human events, hard to see and even harder to gauge. Politics and economics appear in Maraniss’s account, in carefully researched detail: slavery and abolition, Jim Crow and civil rights in the United States, and colonialism in Kenya and Indonesia. But they can seem like richly painted stage cloth. Another difficulty is that telling the story of the President’s ancestors to explain how the President became the President is a teleological project, and a teleologist who embraces randomness is in some danger of finding himself unable to decide which details to include and which to leave out.

Darryl Pinckney, in his “Young Barry Wins” (The New York Review of Books, August 16, 2012), has a different complaint: “But if Dreams from My Father is Obama’s declaration of selfhood, it is his self-definition that Maraniss tries to take away from him by recasting him not as self-invented, but as the sum of inherited characteristics and traumatic circumstances.”

But I don’t think Maraniss is saying that “inherited characteristics and traumatic circumstances” are the only causes in Obama’s history. He treats them as among the multiplicity of causes in play at all times, in all humans. As Lepore points out, “By no means does Maraniss believe only in chaos. He has a passion for chance, but also a belief in order and a commitment to evidence.”

Is brutality “hard to see” in Maraniss’s account? It mightn’t be emphasized to the degree that it is in, say, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, but it’s implicit, I submit, in Maraniss’s coverage of slavery, civil rights, colonialism, etc.

What I like about Maraniss’s theory is that it treats chance, accident and mistake the way, say, Carlyle treats heroes, and Marx treats relations of production, that is, as bright threads in history’s causal tapestry. 

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