A Novel History

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval BY Saidiya Hartman. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 304 pages. $28.

The cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

At the end of Alice Munro’s short story “Meneseteung,” which reconstructs in painfully intimate detail the life of an all but unknown woman poet in a small Ontario town in the late nineteenth century, Munro’s narrator discovers the poet’s grave, overgrown and forgotten a century later. “I thought that there wasn’t anybody alive in the world but me who would know this, who would make the connection,” she says. “But perhaps this isn’t so. People are curious. A few people are. . . . You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time. . . . And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong.”

Saidiya Hartman has always been one of the curious ones. In her first book, Scenes of Subjection (1997), she bypassed the well-known literature about atrocities committed against enslaved people in nineteenth-century America, and instead sifted through the everyday evidence of dehumanization and terror revealed in plantation diaries, records of popular theater, freedmen’s primers—ephemeral texts that survived out of sight, in historical-society libraries and municipal archives. Scenes of Subjection altered the landscape of American cultural history by detailing how emancipation led to a “travestied freedom,” in which the psychic and social effects of enslavement continued to permeate black life long after 1863; in Hartman’s words, “racial slavery was transformed rather than annulled.” As part of a movement of scholars bringing Foucault, Derrida, Freud, and Marx to bear on black studies—Fred Moten, Angela Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley, Hortense Spillers—Hartman helped lay the groundwork for the critiques of white supremacy embodied in today’s progressive movements, from prison abolitionism to Black Lives Matter.

Two stills from Oscar Micheaux’s Swing!, 1938.
Two stills from Oscar Micheaux’s Swing!, 1938.

In chronological terms, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments picks up exactly where Scenes of Subjection left off, in the first decades of the Jim Crow era and the beginnings of the Great Migration—the 1900s to the 1930s—and moves north, to Philadelphia and New York, at the moment when black urban life begins on a large scale. There the continuity mostly ends. Wayward Lives, like Hartman’s 2007 Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, doesn’t engage explicitly with critical theory or philosophy. Here Hartman draws on the same type of archive she used in Scenes—letters, diaries, brief newspaper clippings, haphazard images, snatches of songs—but she has another goal in mind: to re-create the lives of forgotten, idiosyncratic, marginalized people through speculative reconstruction. “The aim is to convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life,” she writes in a preface, “A Note on Method”: “I employ a mode of close narration . . . which places the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation.”

In other words, Wayward Lives is, in part, a work of fiction—what Munro calls the practice of maybe getting it wrong. The characters are young women and girls whose names appear briefly in the historical record (often with adjectives attached, like “incorrigible”) and then vanish, as if they never existed. There’s Harriet Powell, arrested while dancing at midnight at the Palace Casino in New York in 1918, supposedly for “vagrancy”; an anonymous black girl, photographed nude by Thomas Eakins; Mamie Sharp, a young woman striving to make a living in Philadelphia’s tenements, who gets caught in a love triangle with near-fatal results; May Enoch, whose husband defends her against a violent arrest by a white plainclothes detective, setting off one of the worst race riots in New York’s history:

When the police appeared at her door, May told them that the white man never said he was the police. . . . How was she supposed to know? Was she to treat every white man like he was the law? Nothing she said made a difference. . . . They asked her who did the cutting. She hadn’t seen the fight, but she knew it was Kid. He was the only one interested in her; the only one who cared if a white man tried to drag her off the street or send her to jail because every black woman was a prostitute in the eyes of the law. Didn’t she have no rights?

Why do it this way; why not limit this investigation to the record itself, which, in many cases, is evocative enough? In a short meditation on the word wayward, Hartman puts it this way:

The unregulated movement of drifting and wandering; sojourns without a fixed destination, ambulatory possibility, interminable migrations, rush and flight, black locomotion; the everyday struggle to live free. The attempt to elude capture by never settling. . . . Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight and captivity.

It’s impossible not to read this as a manifesto for a practice of writing that moves, consciously and intentionally, between observation and the imagination: the move to fiction Maxine Hong Kingston makes in The Woman Warrior when her mother refuses to explain why No Name Woman drowned herself in a well. The inner lives of the most resistant and unacceptable people—the ones we most want access to—are exactly the ones least likely to be captured in any detail in historical accounts. That’s the cramp in the creative act (because it is a creative act) of bringing these lives into focus. Looking at photographs of young black women around the turn of the century—mostly staged portraits of wealthy families, or pictures of slums taken by white Progressive reformers—Hartman writes, “I grew weary of the endless pictures of white sheets draped on the clothesline, leaking faucets, filthy water closets. . . . The surveys and the sociological pictures left me cold.” What she wanted were images of ordinary life among young black women at a time when freedom was available but frustrated at every turn: a collective portrait of women who could not be understood in the language of their own time.

In this sense, Wayward Lives is a profound and painstaking act of reconstruction that renews our understanding of an era now largely faded from public memory. One of Hartman’s most moving chapters captures W. E. B. Du Bois’s first attempts at surveying the growing slums of turn-of-the-century Philadelphia, where Du Bois becomes an awkward, unforgettable character, stiffly and elaborately dressed, unsure of his own blackness, and stymied by the refusal of young black women to answer the (apparently) simple question “Are you married?” Wayward Lives, more than anything else, is a meditation on what it meant to love and have sex freely when marriage for poor black couples was all but impossible, when migration for work could mean months or years of separation, and adequate health care and birth control were inaccessible. Writing about Esther Brown, whose life is preserved only in a few reports in her prison file at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Hartman describes a young woman whose every choice—rejecting jobs for low wages or poor treatment, dating and hanging out, struggling to find an affordable place to live—was shadowed by the Tenement House Law, the Women’s Court, and the Vice Squad. “Esther’s inability to give an account that would justify and explain how she lived, or atone for her failures and deviations, was among the offenses levied against her,” Hartman writes. “She readily admitted that she hated to work. . . . She was convicted because she was unemployed and ‘leading the life of a prostitute.’ One could lead the life . . . without actually being one.”

Where is a life like Esther’s supposed to persist? What kind of imaginative act is required to do it justice? One answer lies in Wayward Lives’ notes, a line-by-line account of Hartman’s archival research, references, and source texts that stretches on for sixty densely written, encyclopedic pages. At one point, referring to a dramatic passage based on the diaries of a white urban reformer in Philadelphia, Hartman writes,

Helen Parrish wrote that Fanny Fisher cursed and used obscene language. Parrish didn’t record the obscenities in her journal, however. The dialogue is recreated based upon Helen’s detailed account of the exchange. She often paraphrased her conversations with tenants. . . . I have transcribed this indirect and reported speech into direct speech. My speculative and imaginative approach is based on archival research and a rigorous attention to sources.

There’s nothing new about the practice of writing fiction based on a rigorous attention to sources: In the late nineteenth century, Zola went so far as to describe his novels as extensions of the scientific method. But I found it a little disconcerting to encounter Hartman insisting that readers could verify Wayward Lives through its sources, when at many other points in the text she expresses, so vividly, her need to say what the sources do not. This led me to wonder: Is the relationship between Wayward Lives and its archive so different from the relationship between Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the historical records of Margaret Garner; Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and the scant traces of the life of Buddy Bolden; John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire and newspaper accounts of the MOVE bombing? What matters in all these texts is the imaginative hunger that prompts the writer to create new vocabularies for speaking about history. The archive is part of the process (and sometimes part of the text), but in the end, in the reader’s eye, it almost vanishes—it is, so to speak, overwritten.

In another note, Hartman refers to the concept of “thought in deed” as a key aspect of radical black feminist practice, in which lived experience is an ongoing political experiment that can later be turned into a set of principles or theories—but not the other way around. “The young women in this book,” she writes, “are thinkers and radicals in this tradition”—meaning they embraced a kind of freedom that would wait almost a century to be accepted and validated, to the degree that it is, even now. But “thought in deed” is also a way of thinking about the relationship between theoretical inquiry and artistic practice; as Brian Massumi and Erin Manning put it in their book Thought in the Act, it’s a way of asking “what writing can do to make thought-felt.” Reading Wayward Lives, I often sensed that Hartman wanted to ask this question but didn’t necessarily want to answer it. This may be part of a lifelong process, common to all artists, of investigating one’s materials and one’s relationship to them. Wayward Lives is a bravely wayward, unflinchingly hybrid book, perhaps best described as halfway between the novel and documentary history, but more than anything else it leaves me curious about where Saidiya Hartman’s thinking will take us next.

Jess Row is the author of the novel Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014). His first collection of essays, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, will be published in August by Graywolf Press.