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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hampton Sides Speaks On The Art and Craft of Narrative History - A Historian's Perspective

Hampton Sides lectured this evening on “Telling Stories: The Art and Craft of Narrative History.” He explained that although that at an early age he met one of the most famous narrative historians (he was in a rock band with Shelby Foote’s son) and took a BA in history at Yale, he did not at first think he was a historian. He does not recall that the words “narrative” or “pleasure” were part of his historical education at Yale, and in the question-and-answer session that followed his lecture he said that in college we learn to use an unnatural voice in our writing and that history books tend to be topical and boring.

But after spending some twenty years as a journalist in Santa Fe, he became a historian with the writing of Ghost Soldiers, the story of a raid behind enemy lines in the Philippines to rescue prisoners of war, including the survivors of the Bataan Death March. Then followed Blood and Thunder, about the life and times of controversial frontiersman Kit Carson.

Mr Sides spoke on the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was natural that he spoke briefly about Hellhound on His Trail, the story of the assassination and the international search for James Earl Ray. He explained how much he benefited from the collection of materials assembled by Vince Hughes, who was working as a dispatcher at the Memphis Police Department the day Ray killed King.

Much of the lecture was devoted to the way Mr Sides went about researching his latest book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, to be published in August 2014. He began by asking how many persons in the audience had ever heard of the vessel; only two responded. He made it clear that although the voyage is virtually unknown today, it was one of the biggest events of the late 19th century.

It was an American attempt to reach the North Pole. Mr Sides explained that because the area was unknown at the time, there were all sorts of theories as to what would be found there, including the idea of Symme’s Hole — that there was a hole down into the earth (and a similar hole at the South Pole) with a civilization inside (see Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth), and another that Saint Nicholas had a workshop there.

Editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was working on the theory that the Bermuda Current in the Atlantic and a similar current in the Pacific through the Bering Strait merged at the North Pole to create a central lake. Bennett was eccentric in many ways, the most famous episode being his sponsoring the quest of Henry Morton Stanley to locate David Livingston, who was known to be in Africa but had not been heard from in some time. The polar expedition was similarly calculated to create a good story for the newspaper.

With a crew led by George W. DeLong and George W. Melville (a relative of Herman Melville), theUSS Jeannette in 1879 sailed through the Bering Strait and was soon caught in the ice pack near Wrangel Island. After drifting to the northwest for the next 21 months, it was finally crushed by the ice and sank. The men dragged supplies on three boats over the ice to be used if they could find any open water to reach the Siberian coast. One boat and crew capsized, but the other two, commanded by DeLong and Melville, managed to reach the Lena River delta, but at widely separated spots. Most of DeLong’s group eventually perished, but Melville’s managed to survive, giving the newspaper its big story.

In the question-and-answer session, Mr Sides was asked how a writer could create suspense in an account of what everyone already knows. He explained that we often know what happened, but not how it happened. He spends a great deal of time mapping out a book before writing and creates several threads of narrative. In the writing, he follows one thread all the way through, then another, until all have been described (some literary critics identify four threads in Hellhound on His Trail).  His guiding motif is “. . . and then what happened?” He had earlier told of someone asking Shelby Foote what the thesis of his volumes on the Civil War was, and Foote had said in effect that there was no thesis — it was just a good story. Mr Sides indicated that was the way to write narrative history.

Mr Sides searches for stories that were consequential and that have much primary material available, but which are obscure today. He stressed the importance of primary materials, such as newspaper accounts, letters, and diaries written at the time of the events. Interviews are very important, he said; we need to lose our fear of getting into people’s lives. He likes to visit the places where the events described in his book took place, even long after the fact.

He is an editor-at-large for Outside Magazine and has written for such periodicals as National Geographic (his interest in the story of the USS Jeannette grew out of an article on Wrangel Island, published in May 2013), The New Yorker, Esquire, Preservation, and Men’s Journal. His work has been twice nominated for national magazine awards for feature writing.

The lecture was an event of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities, co-sponsored by the River City Writers Series, the Department of History, and the Department of Journalism.

Maurice Crouse
Professor Emeritus of History

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