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Blurred Lines

Spring 2011 | By Eric Nelson. Photo by $photocredit.value.

There are points in all important representations of history and its figures — from Eva Perón to Mozart — when fact and fiction begin to blur.

“We’d like to think there is a very clear line that separates one from the other, but no matter how diligent you are as a historian, you can’t return the past and reproduce it,” says biographer and Purdue professor Susan Curtis.

“From a pure causality approach, the best you can do is to make an informed assumption that is rooted in documents and textual evidence.” What falls between and beyond is usually a matter of inference and imagination. And as the methods and purpose of historical research continue to evolve, so too does the recognition that literature and other fictional media can supplement official records.

Lingering mysteries
Presented in November by Purdue Theatre, Amadeus is more than a portrayal of genius and the arousal and jealousy it provokes, says department chair Richard Stockton Rand.

“In Peter Shaffer’s telling, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart channeled a beauty that could only be experienced as an expression of the divine,” says Rand. “His story is funny and subversive, majestic and mysterious, innocent and dangerous.”

But Mozart’s story is from the point of view of composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival.  In the play, Salieri confesses to Mozart’s murder, fictionalizing a rumor that surfaced after Mozart’s death and serving more as a symbol of stifled genius than historical fact.

Kristine Holtvedt, who directed Purdue’s production of Amadeus, helped her students and cast recognize the lines between fact and fiction in Mozart’s story by drawing a comparison to a more contemporary musician, Michael Jackson.

“Both were child prodigies and considered eccentric, both changed the musical landscape, and both died relatively young under mysterious circumstances,” she says.

Conclusive evidence of what took Mozart’s life has not been found, but it was almost certainly from natural causes, not Salieri’s self-alleged poisoning. First-person descriptions of his symptoms that have been analyzed by historians have led many forensic experts to conclude he died from rheumatic fever.

Such mysteries may draw the biggest share of fans to the story of Mozart, but in Holtvedt’s interpretation of Amadeus, the truth behind his demise is less important than the play’s representation of 18th century Europe and the age of reason and enlightenment.

“In the tradition of classical Greek theatre, it raises two of humanity’s most universal moral questions: what is our relationship to God and what are our responsibilities to one another? It also introduces younger and unacquainted listeners to his exquisite music, which will outlive us all,” Holtvedt says.

And whether or not every audience member comes away from such productions with the same grand questions is less important than what the experience can provide, she adds.

 “The story of Mozart is operatic in its scope and much more than a revenge play or murder mystery,” Holtvedt says. “When we watch a historical drama, we see human beings overcoming challenges, which gives us courage to overcome our own. It gives us a sense of comfort to know that obstacles can be surmounted, relationships can be healed, and the future can be changed for the better.”

Meaningful rhythms
Associate professor Ariel de la Fuente, who specializes in Latin American history, adds to Holtvedt’s musical metaphor.

“For a historian, literature is like a machine for producing harmonies,” he says. “There are things we know, perceive, and understand about certain public figures that cannot be demonstrated through the rules of strict research. Novelists, playwrights, and other fiction writers, who are freer to use their own creativity, can present a more accurate portrait and provide greater insight into personality.”

De la Fuente describes fiction and history as being “different moments on a continuum of the search for an expression of a perception, reality, society, or human condition.” Although many people view fiction as fabrication, de la Fuente believes most authors write to create a sense
of truth.

In some cases, there are ample facts to support this lofty goal. As a court musician playing to an audience of European nobility, for example, Mozart left behind hundreds of timeless compositions as well as an archive of letters, notes, public records, and official documents.

But there is often a lack of reliable data related to people outside the circles of power and influence, especially women and ethnic, religious, and political minorities.

Mozart, portrayed by senior Matt Webb, cavorts with his love interest and eventual wife, Constanze Weber, played by first-year MFA acting student Elizabeth Krane. Photo by Mark Simons.

In shaping Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune, her biography of African-American composer Scott Joplin — a musician born more than a century after Mozart — history professor Susan Curtis had no traditional archive to draw upon.

“I even examined film representations of Joplin, most of which weren’t very accurate,” she says. “What I was able to piece together from newspapers, census materials, and personal reminiscences painted a much different picture of his life.”

As a result, the book became a study of cultural history within a biography. “My intention was to deepen our knowledge and understanding of Scott Joplin by contextualizing him in the communities where he lived and worked,” she says. “I tried to frame his activities and productions within the world of turn-of-century America.”

The Purdue historian’s most recent book, Colored Memories: A Biographer’s Quest for the Elusive Lester A. Walton, also began with traditional research efforts, but morphed into an even deeper search for personal and cultural discovery.Walton, an African-American journalist, social critic, diplomat, and political figure, was well-known to the public during much of the twentieth century, but had become largely forgotten in death. Curtis wanted to know why.

“I had 200 manuscript pages from preliminary research about Walton’s youth and family, and I was making the typical inferences about employment, neighborhood, and class when I found evidence that tore the narrative to shreds,” Curtis says. “I could have published a perfectly acceptable biography that followed all the rules of the historian’s craft, but it would have been totally fabricated.”

Instead, she began a writing experiment that placed her academic pursuit of the truth alongside Walton’s muted history of record, creating what some reviewers have called “a post-modern ghost story” and “experiment in life writing” that explores how America’s racial obsessions have cast shadows over its true colors.

“Authors are unquestionably implicated in their work, but often their role is hidden behind scholarly convention and the ideal of objectivity,” Curtis says.

dancingcolored memories
A lack of credible archival informationled history professor Susan Curtis to use unconventional techniques in her biographies of Scott Joplin and Lester Walton.

“Once I realized that I couldn’t write a traditional biography, I decided to present the fragments within the frame of the research process,” she explains. “It is as much about how I sought the unknown as it is about what I discovered.”

But what if the writer, the composer, or the artist becomes a public figure in the same culture he or she strives to interpret? And what if the historian plays a role in the very events subject to documentation?

In de la Fuente’s native Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges was more than the country’s most celebrated writer, essayist, and poet of the twentieth century. He also gained fame as a lecturer and political activist, accepting the presidency of the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE) in 1951 and directorship of the National Public Library in 1955.

Though his short stories and verse tended more toward the surreal, especially as progressive blindness replaced his powers of observation with those of imagination, Borges’ skill at weaving the factual and the fantastical are on full display in his A Universal History of Infamy, which de la Fuente frequently incorporates into class readings.

In addition to forgeries and hoaxes that Borges had earlier published as translated passages from famous but infrequently read literary works, the book includes fictional short stories telling essentially true biographical narratives.

“He used the official archives documenting some of history’s most infamous individuals to imagine various aspects of their lives and enhance the most despicable elements of their personalities,” de la Fuente says. 

In A Universal History of Infamy, Jorge Luis Borges used historical facts to create fictional short stories that enhanced the most despicable personality traits of real-life individuals. Public domain photo.

Through SADE and essays for various journals, Borges also articulated the opposition to the populist regime of Argentina’s three-time president Juan Perón and his wife, Eva, whose story premiered on stage the year before Amadeus in the 1978 musical Evita.

Although neither Borges nor his likeness are characters in Evita, his public comments describing her as “a common prostitute” and his scathing essays on her husband’s politics contributed to negative public opinion about the couple, the passion for which was equaled only by those who still consider them among Argentina’s greatest heroes.

Borges refused to spare even his own life from fictionalization, writing a personal history embellishing his most notable traits and experiences. For de la Fuente, arguments over such subjective details obscure the larger meanings.     

“It would be unfair to ask any of us to speak with complete objectivity, not because we’re dishonest, but because our memories are inherently selective,” he says. “We all have perceptions of what has happened in our lives that are different from those of our family, our contemporaries, and the rest of the world.”

New realities
Curtis’ approach to biography and de la Fuente’s views on fiction and other literary genres are further extended by William Palmer, professor emeritus of English, whose research continues to advance the field of “new historicism.”

“New historicism challenges fallacies that scholars had embraced in their teaching and writing for centuries,” Palmer says. “As soon as an event, historical personage, or conversation passes from one individual to another, and especially as it passes from pen onto paper, it has already changed completely in relation to the original reality.

“There may be no conscious agenda operating in writers’ minds, but the style itself and the very words that writers choose have already biased their view of history.”

Like Curtis, Palmer thinks it is critical for scholars to examine history not only from the victor’s perspective, but also from the perspective of those who were defeated or overlooked by the forces in power.

“History is an attempt of the present to give voice to the past,” he says. “And yet for centuries, history often ignored some of the central figures who participated in that past. New historicism comes from the ground up and gives voice to ordinary people.”

book3 book4 book5
English professor emeritus William Palmer has authored a series of historical mysteries that blend his academic studies of Charles Dickens with fictional journals purportedly written by nineteenth century novelist Wilkie Collins.

When sufficient archival evidence is unavailable or too tainted by bias, Palmer believes that all writers — from scholars and biographers to playwrights and novelists — have both the right and the responsibility to view history with informed creativity.

“In Colored Memories, Susan Curtis created a narrative arc, put herself within it, and made it clear when she leapt from relatively objective inferences to imagination,” he says. “As long as they’re used properly and not hidden from readers, those types of literary techniques can bring a much richer and deeper understanding of history.”

Palmer practices the craft himself. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he is the author of four historical mysteries in the “Mr. Dickens” series, which blend his academic studies of Charles Dickens with fictional journals purportedly written by nineteenth century novelist Wilkie Collins.

Though purists may take issue with such techniques, the creative approach taken by Palmer and other writers is necessary when attempting to bring history from academia into popular culture.

“Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a perfect example,” says Curtis. The 2004 bestseller tells the alternating tales of two real-life figures behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — Daniel Burnham, the fair’s brilliant chief architect, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who prowled the fairgrounds for victims in the guise of a friendly doctor.

“The events truly happened, but Larson’s telling of them is much more novelistic and dramatic than most scholarly books of history,” Curtis says. “Historians can read the footnotes for documentation, but a much larger audience will read it simply because it’s a compelling story.”

Palmer, who has taught courses in film studies, believes that movies, television, and other dramatic productions can share a role with literature and textbooks in the exploration of history, though only with the proper direction.

“A growing majority of people are getting their history from Hollywood and other popular culture sources rather than from scholarly or academic sources,” he points out. “For the most part, anything that engages today’s youth in their cultural origins has some merit, but I think we all agree there is a point where that trend can be damaging.

“There has to be some measure of objectivity, some degree of fact on which to base any story rooted in the past. As teachers, we need to provide our students with the sophistication and knowledge that’s required to understand and interpret those critical distinctions.”

In the end, it comes down to our role as readers. As we navigate between the sometimes murky lines of objectivity and artistic license, we learn to listen to the stories of those whose voices, while not always finely tuned or loudly heard, still sound notes of truth.

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