Entry from April 29, 2015

Just over a year ago I wrote of the Twitter-bombing I had received on account of having written that the movie 12 Years a Slave would have been better, and even more effective as propaganda, if it had allowed itself to present an ever-so slightly more benign portrait of slavery in the ante-bellum South than the exaggeratedly moralistic one it had in fact presented. A few months later, The Economist got an even more severe bombardment for publishing a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books) which made much the same point — and subsequently made the career and fortune of Mr Baptist when the review had to be withdrawn (though you can still see it in a segregated "special page" of the website "in the interests of transparency") with a groveling apology from the editors for having run it in the first place.

A few weeks ago, the Times Literary Supplement (pay wall)— which once employed me as its American editor — got around to publishing its own review of Mr Baptist’s book by Ari Kelman, the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Battle Lines: A graphic history of the Civil War, to be published next month. Professor Kelman begins by recounting the story of The Economist’s dreadful faux pas and then proceeds to demonstrate, as he was clearly well-advised to do, that he has no intention of making any similar mistakes himself.

The firestorm greeting the Economist review revealed a publishing landscape re-oriented by ubiquitous social media, a US political climate superheated by several high-profile cases of police and vigilante violence against African Americans, a cultural moment in which critiques of capitalism were gaining renewed purchase, and a surprisingly deep engagement among some readers with the historiography of slavery. What the reaction to the Economist’s pan of Baptist’s work failed to do was enlighten observers about the content or quality of The Half Has Never Been Told, a book unusual, even courageous, for its enormous ambition and admirable breadth, but also occasionally confounding due to the author’s rhetorical choices.

And, of course, he would know all about courageousness. He then summons up the ghost of William Archibald Dunning, the long dead historian and apologist for segregation as if his ideas were the only possible alternative to those of the radical tradition, in which Mr Baptist is working, of historians who "locate slavery at the core rather than on the periphery of the American experience." Not surprisingly, Mr Baptist agrees with the radicals. "He argues that the ‘peculiar institution’ should not be understood as a vestigial organ, an appendix or spleen waiting to be cut from the body politic on the eve of the Civil War, but as the beating heart of the United States’s economic development. Armed with reams of data from scores of archives. . ." etc. etc.

The implication is that the reams of data and the scores of archives justify such an extraordinary (and, I should have thought, self-evidently false) assertion as that slavery was "the beating heart of the United States’s economic development." He does not actually say so, however, preferring merely to hint at the sort of criticisms the Economist’s reviewer made ("Other onlookers were upset that the Economist questioned Baptist’s reliance on qualitative rather than quantitative evidence: stories recounted by former slaves.") Huh? what about those reams of data and scores of archives? Did that all amount to no more than a collection of anecdotes? Well, he’s not going to say that either, only that "like many scholars working in a post-colonial context, he lets survivors of bondage speak for themselves."

By consulting "thousands of personal narratives", he promises a layered interpretation. "One story fills in gaps left by another", he explains, "allowing one to read between the lines." The alternative would be granting slaveholders monopoly rights on their history, relying exclusively on the oppressors to depict the practices of oppression and the people they oppressed.

This, too, is self-evidently false. The only two "alternatives" he allows for are relying only on slaves’ or only on slaveholders’ accounts when a careful historian would pretty obviously want to use both together to get at the truth — not the emotional truth that can be used for political purposes, including the preposterous one of morally invalidating the entire American national experience, but the truth which announces itself by being complicated and difficult and uncongenial to the childishly simple division of the world into good guys and bad guys, victims and their oppressors.

Then there comes just the soupçon of a hint that maybe The Half Has Never Been Told relies on composite portraits of its victims — or, as Professor Kelman prefers to put it:"some of the vignettes told from the perspective of enslaved people incorporate not only the specific content of the historical documents cited, but also details from other sources, as is the custom with evocative history." Oh, is that what you call it? Evocative history? One has seen this "custom" before, of course, but one didn’t know the technical name. But Professor Kelman would not have us think that there’s anything wrong with that: "Some readers will be grateful for this unorthodox stylistic choice, which Baptist repeats throughout his book, allowing his portraiture in these cases to approximate photorealism. Others may wonder if some of the verisimilitude that marks The Half Has Never Been Told strays closer to surrealism."

Others may wonder! That’s as near to criticism as he allows himself to get before hurrying on to a ringing endorsement of Edward Baptist’s view that police killings of black criminals or Trayvon Martin’s killing by a man he was beating up are all part of "the legacies of slavery." In his final sentence, he slyly adds: "For its defenders, then, The Half Has Never Been Told has offered the historical backdrop for the stirring declaration ‘black lives matter’" — not that he is necessarily one of its defenders! Well, I suppose we should thank Professor Kelman for pushing so far towards what must be the very outer limit that scholars are henceforth to be permitted for criticizing the work of those wonderfully "unorthodox" evocative historians who can claim a victim’s privilege for their moralizing — and so showing us where that limit lies.


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