Grand Challenges: Blurring Fiction and Reality
This post is for the January blogging carnival hosted by Doug’s Archaeology. The topic is: “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”
I think the grandest challenge in my archeology (aside from trying to decipher my own handwriting) is figuring out where to draw the line between fiction and reality. Sometimes that also means figuring out where the line might be blurred. Delving into the historical archaeology of the commercial sex industry in North America has, for me, been nothing if not an exercise in trying to understand the gray areas.
In the process of writing my dissertation proposal last spring I discovered complications in some of my documentary data sets that inspired a shift in the way I thought about the project. I began to understand that Storyville was and still is as much an ongoing legend as it was a tangible place. Historian Katy Coyle said that New Orleans has “repeatedly sought to erase and exploit” the District since it closed in 1917 (quoted in Powell 2002:30). Exploitation and erasure have both vastly affected how Storyville has been researched, remembered, and presented. As a socially disgraceful tourist attraction, this was true when Storyville was open for business as well.
I left for my summer fieldwork armed with new questions that led to abundant documentary data, but no immediately satisfying answers. Archaeologists are used to putting together fragments and reading between the lines to create a complete picture from frequently sparse evidence, but I suddenly had the opposite problem—a fully realized picture of the past from primary and secondary sources. However, I soon came to understand that I had the enormous task of trying to muddle through a world in which fiction and reality were not clearly defined categories.
The first and perhaps most illustrative hint that my approach to the documentary evidence of Storyville had been naïve during preliminary research came when I stumbled upon a review of a source I had initially found very exciting: Nell Kimball’s memoirs. Kimball was supposedly a madam that worked in Storyville, later drafting her memoirs in the 1920s and 30s, which were then edited by Stephen Longstreet and published by Macmillan in 1970. The book contains a wealth of information on how women lived in brothels, including meals and daily activities…with key passages most certainly plagiarized from The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury (1936) according to an analytical review by James Wunsch in the Journal of Social History (1972). After many months of archival research in New Orleans, I personally have yet to see evidence that Kimball was anything but a character in a this curious novel.
One of the important questions Wunsch raised in his review was how and why did this book succeed and fool so many people? Part of the answer he proposed was that, initially, it was largely ignored by the academic community, yet enjoyed the attention of popular publications like The New York Times Book Review. Since then, the book has occasionally resurfaced through citations in reputable academic publications that generally take Longstreet’s work at face value. The fact that several exceptional scholars have uncritically cited “Kimball” is one way that fiction and reality become blurred in the process of researching Storyville. Longstreet was clearly exploiting American historical memory for an American audience, though to what end we cannot be sure. Undoubtedly an accusation of plagiarism in the 70s fits right in with the production of Storyville as part of a sordid past. That Longstreet was paraphrasing his text from a source Wunsch considers to have some credibility further complicates matters. Are works such as the Kimball memoirs completely valueless in archaeological research, or can they tell us something about the role of fiction in the exploitation and erasure of historical memory? From my experience with the book, I’m inclined to think that they do have something to say when we look beyond the works themselves to see their impact on academic research, as well as Storyville’s memory and presentation over time.
Asbury, Herbert. 1936. The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, NY.
Kimball, Nell. 1970. Nell Kimball: Her Life As an American Madam, by Herself, Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Longstreet. The Macmillin Company: New York, NY.