Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ON TWO WAYS TO TELL HISTORY

Isabel Wilkerson's new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," chronicles the exodus of some six million African Americans out of the Jim Crow South and to the North and West of the country, from about 1915 to 1970. I can't wait to read it -- except that I'll have to wait until my turn comes up on the list of people who've requested it from the local public library. (God forbid I should just buy the darn thing!) In the meantime, however, I'll have to content myself with reviews of the book, such as the one by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. She makes a sharp observation about different ways of narrating history...

"[Wilkerson's] project has less in common with the documentary populism of the nineteen-thirties, which, like Chicago School sociology, was always about the collective (if you could just talk to enough people, take enough photographs, conduct enough surveys, you could, finally, record what it meant to be human), than with the new narrative journalism of the nineteen-sixties, which was always about the individual (if you could just find the right person to talk to, and it had to be an ordinary person, you could write the story of everyone). Wilkerson’s work, in other words, is more novelistic than documentary, more 'Invisible Man' than '12 Million Black Voices,' and less Studs Terkel (another Writers’ Project writer) than J. Anthony Lukas (who, like Wilkerson, spent much of his career at the Times). 

"Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of. Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd. In 'The Warmth of Other Suns,' three lives, three people, three stories, are asked to stand in for six million. Can three people explain six million? Do they have to?"

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