Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

No Second Fiddle

· April 19th, 2016 · 1 Comment

In today’s post, WMQ author Miles P. Grier (January 2016) reflects on the editing process at the William and Mary Quarterly and how his background as a literary scholar affected that experience.


 

I ain’t gonna play no second fiddle / Cause I’m used to playing lead

—Perry Bradford

by Miles P. Grier

In a 2008 Forum, published simultaneously in WMQ and Early American Literature, Eric Slauter lamented that Atlantic literary scholars had been operating at a “trade deficit,” with exports from literary scholars to historians lagging far behind literary imports from history (153). He proposed that balance might be achieved if both disciplines recognize that historians do not have dominion over interpretive context because literary history is, itself, a “context-generating enterprise” (175). In short, Slauter advocated—if not quite as forcefully as Bessie Smith did in the classic recording cited above—a No Second Fiddle policy.

“Staging the Cherokee Othello: An Imperial Economy of Indian Watching” represents my attempt to participate in an interdisciplinary Atlantic conversation while avoiding the Second Fiddle position. Whether I succeeded must now be left to readers to judge. However, the attempt leaves me with two sets of questions for scholars who have an interest in Atlantic histories of race, capitalism, and performance.

  1. Tense About Verbs

In my first scholarly incarnation, I was a close reader, deeply skeptical of the transparency that I thought all historians ascribed to historical documents. From my undergraduate training in a battery of literary methods, from formalist analysis and rhetoric to post-structural linguistics, I had intuited that written texts of all kinds are language machines that refer only to their internal systems of differentiation—or, perhaps, to the larger enterprise that is Language, as a whole. Consequently, I had no difficulty using the literary present tense to describe the workings of any text, as addressed to its idealized, culturally competent reader.

In graduate school, as I moved away from analyzing canonical literary texts in scholarly editions and into the instability of the cultures of reprinting and performance, I became more interested in the historical fact of what might be called bad readers—advantage-seekers whose job was not, like that of the professional literary critic, to understand the internal functions of a text but, instead, to evade or redeploy a whole host of signifying practices. Though finding myself aligned with many scholars devoted to printers, readers, and performers bolsters my confidence that I have found fertile ground, I am left to wonder: in what tense does one write about bad readers, lost editions, and sparsely documented performances? If I have a text but no one’s response to it, may I perform a literary reading of that text to generate an implied audience? If so, should I mark that speculative activity with the sign of its origins: the use of the literary present tense? I still remain hesitant to use the past tense when it seems to me I am in the midst of a reading, yet that anxiety seems more strongly felt among those more firmly established in literature. Are there occasions when a more traditional historian would use the present tense when discussing a document written in the past?

  1. The Matter of Evidence

In response to the first version of “Staging the Cherokee Othello” that I submitted, most of the reviewers felt that the evidentiary base was too thin. I wanted to use the repetoire performed by British actors touring Williamsburg, Virginia in autumn 1752 to demonstrate a transatlantic culture of depicting black and Indian characters as economic dupes. I hypothesized that theatre preserved, evidenced, or exported a racial trope at least as old as the plays, which was then recirculated in a Virginia Gazette article claiming that Cherokee guests—in town for trade negotiations—mistook a staged swordfight during Othello for a potentially fatal brawl. A reading of blackface characters in The Merchant of Venice and Othello—both staged that season—supplied the basis of my analysis of the culture that enjoyed such performances.

Let me say, first, that I believe the article is stronger because the reviewers challenged me to bolster my theatrical material with the evidence of treaties and newspapers. The reviewers—and Stephanie Smallwood, who responded to a conference presentation—did me a great favor by pushing me to find more evidence of the cultural purchase of a trope of Indian literal-mindedness, the source of both theatrical and economic errors. However, despite the improvements, I still wonder whether some of their reservations stemmed from the type of evidence I employed and not the amount I had amassed. If the alternate evidence I found did not fundamentally change the content of my argument, why was the initial evidence insufficient? In other words, can one accurately assess a culture—and the world it dreams of making—by interpreting its entertainments? Anthropologists and historians of literature, theatre, and popular music would probably answer with a resounding yes. I suspect that the primary objection to this twist on Freud’s interpretation of dreams would be that past Atlantic subjects did not have their heads in the clouds but, in fact, sought and deployed practical knowledge. However, this impulse to find out what people knew or believed seems a conflation of a historian’s job with the aims of past subjects, who did not have to find facts but had to deploy effective rhetoric—statements that might accord more with intransigent hopes than with the reality of discouraging setbacks.

I believe that what people wanted to happen—whether or not they were able to implement it according to their wishes—is of historical import. Indeed, I hold this belief despite the fact that it seems that our disciplinary languages have provided us no tense for the narration of a history in which text serves as evidence of a dream world that could never be fulfilled to the letter.

One Response

  1. Melissa says:

    Yes to this! I am always encouraging my literature students to read our course materials on John Smith, Daniel Boone, and others as rhetoric, not fact. Poetry, drama, and novels similarly attempt to create a world not just reflect the world as it is. Your “dream world” captures this angle perfectly.

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