A New World
Arthur Quinn, 1994

This was my fourth read through a book that I originally picked up from a New Releases table at Cody's, back when my OCD was strong enough that I couldn't handle the stains and dog-ears of library books. But even had I checked it out of the library initially, I'm sure I would have ended up buying a copy, because I loved this thing. It bills itself as "an epic of colonial America from the founding of Jamestown to the fall of Quebec," and as far as I was concerned, it was basically the perfect history book. A clue as to why can be found on the About the Author page. Quinn was a professor at Berkeley... not of history, but of rhetoric. His project here is not to deliver the most scholarly account of colonial America but the one with the cleverest phrases. When I was twenty I thought that was awesome.

Nowadays, I'm still fine with with academic rigor failing to rank high on a history book's list of attributes. I am a layperson and generally prefer to read history books that are pitched to an intelligent popular audience. But I mainly look for two things in a history book: compelling accounts of stuff that happened, and more importantly, compelling explanations for why that stuff happened. For instance, I found Quinn's rundown of the factors that led to Bacon's Rebellion — the Iroquois' war against the Susquehannas plus the advent of tobacco plantations plus the drop in the mortality rate among indentured servants — as interesting as ever. But this time around I could see that a lot of the book was fluff. Quinn will take a journal article's fleeting reference to the mosquito problem at a fort and spin it into an entire paragraph. Or an account in a ledger book that a colonial governor had sold some furniture will become a running joke throughout a chapter. This is the sort of thing that George Will refers to in the cover blurb as "historical writing that rises to the level of literature," and I used to agree with him. But it now seems to me that there is a key respect in which A New World doesn't qualify as literature.

John Searle and other philosophers of language have classified different types of statements as having different "illocutionary force" depending on their "direction of fit." For instance, take the news this week out of Penn State, where football coach Joe Paterno was fired after 61 years because it was discovered that for the last nine of those years he'd known that one of his assistants had raped a ten-year-old boy in the locker room and Paterno hadn't deemed this worth reporting to the police. Here are three utterances that might have been made at different points as the story unfolded:

  • Thursday: "Joe Paterno was fired." This is an "assertive," in which the speaker tells the listener that the propositional content "that Joe Paterno be fired" has been made true. Assertives have a "word-to-world" direction of fit; the speaker utters words that fit the state of affairs that he has observed in the world.

  • Tuesday: "Fire Joe Paterno!" This is a "directive," in which the speaker takes the same propositional content ("that Joe Paterno be fired") and orders the listener to make it true. Directives have a "world-to-word" direction of fit; the speaker demands that the world be changed to fit the words she is uttering.

  • Wednesday: "Joe Paterno, you're fired!" This is a "declaration," which is considered to have a "double direction of fit." This time the propositional content ("that Joe Paterno be fired") is made true by the utterance, assuming of course that the speaker does in fact have the power to terminate Joe Paterno's employment.

The first time I heard Searle lay this out, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this last category also encompassed fiction. Not so, Searle replied; fiction was merely a set of "pretended assertives." When Edward Bulwer-Lytton says that "It was a dark and stormy night," for instance, the illocutionary force of that statement is that there is a pre-existing world in which the story takes place, imaginary though it may be, and that Bulwer-Lytton has observed the torrents of rain, violent gusts of wind, and flickering flame of the streetlamps, and therefore feels safe in reporting that the night in question was both dark and stormy. In theory, a telepath could view the image in Bulwer-Lytton's mind and verify whether there is indeed a good word-to-world fit between the statements that constitute the narrative and the envisioned world.

The problem here is that, like, I have actually written some fiction, and when I say that "It was a dark and stormy night," I don't mean that I believe it to be a dark and stormy night based on my examination of the mental evidence. I mean that it is hereby the case that it was a dark and stormy night because I say so. When I write fiction I don't feel feel like I'm "describing" anything — I feel like I'm creating something, sentence by sentence, much as a sculptor creates a statue in the process of chipping away at a block of stone and isn't merely "describing" her vision with a hammer and chisel. I later learned that, as luck would have it, I have some powerful backup here: in Fiction and Diction Gérard Genette walks through Searle's explanation and deems it incomplete. When Searle called a fictional text a set of "pretended assertives," Genette contends, he didn't know the half of it. For when an author says that "It was a dark and stormy night," Searle is right that the author is only pretending that there really was such a scene for him to describe — but what Searle misses is that the author is also only pretending to describe it. What look like assertives are merely the clothing that, by convention, we drape over what are actually declarations: "I decree fictionally that the night was dark and stormy."

It seems to me that this is what distinguishes literature from other types of prose: a voice which summons a world into being rather than reporting on an existing one. And this is the voice that Quinn seems unwilling to adopt. When the historical record is sketchy, he'll dress it up with flowery language, but he won't flesh it out into literary narration. Maybe he thought that what he'd gain in richness and immediacy wasn't worth being shoved into the category of historical fiction. But I would argue that the fiction/non-fiction and history/literature axes are different. A fiction writer can adopt a very reportorial voice, enough to fool Searle into taking her declarations as mere assertives, and yet that doesn't change the fact that the events being reported on are fictional. So why couldn't another writer take on the role of the world-building literary author and yet still turn out a non-fictional piece? It's a subtle distinction, but it's the difference between "here is what the historical record says" and "this is what I say, as the creator of the world that lies between these covers, and the historical record agrees with me." I think you can make a case that this is what writing history ultimately amounts to anyway.

And maybe embracing that would have helped Quinn achieve his goal, which is why this strikes me as important. See, A New World is presented as a series of character studies, but they're just not very good. The big weakness of the book — aside from Quinn's occasional tendency to lapse into Aeneid fanfic — is that, however correct George Will may be in saying that the prose "sings and crackles," it doesn't add up to much where the people are concerned. At best they come off as flat, like the irascible Pete Stuyvesant, or the egomaniacal Louis de Buade. At worst, as with Samuel de Champlain, they end their chapters as ciphers. And I suspect that Quinn would have had better luck had he treated his subjects as the protagonists of a narrative, rendering them with the depth with which good storytellers endow literary characters. Instead, he chose to restrict himself to simply discussing these people, and while the discussion is lyrical and witty, it doesn't actually succeed in conveying more than a superficial sense of who these historical figures were.

comment on
comment on
comment on
return to the
Calendar page