I've been writing reviews of LGBTQ nonfiction for the New York Journal of Books. It's a fun gig, because I get to read the new books before they're released, and then I have a review copy when it's done. I find it a good way to keep up with what people are writing, and I've been fortunate to read some really interesting things.
I recently wrote a glowing review of Outrages by Naomi Wolf, a book that traces developing homophobia in nineteenth-century Britain. After I submitted my review, Outrages got into a controversy because of a possible historical inaccuracy.
In her book, Wolf discusses the execution of men who were found guilty of violating sodomy laws, and cites as her source court records that indicate "death recorded" as the outcome in several sodomy trials. Wolf concluded that the deaths had actually taken place, but in a live radio interview, BBC Radio host Matthew Sweet challenged her assertion. It seems that the legal term "death recorded," according to Sweet, "doesn’t mean that [a man] was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.” He went on to say, "I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
Is it too late to take my glowing review back?
Once I became aware of the controversy, I had to rethink what I wrote, and with some qualifications, I still believe that Outrages is a very fine book. If Wolf was indeed wrong about the meaning of the term, "death recorded," one of her arguments may have been destroyed, but it was not the only argument her book made.
Outrages takes a long and detailed look at the laws governing sex, gender expression, publishing, and art as they evolved over a fifty-year period. It opens with the promise of literary and sexual freedom made by Walt Whitman's first publication of Leaves of Grass, and ends with the trial of Oscar Wilde on the charge of "gross indecency." Even if nobody was executed--and let us hope that Sweet is right--plenty of men, like Oscar Wilde, were still arrested, tried, imprisoned, and sentenced to hard labor. Other lives were destroyed by public shame or by blackmail. Wolfe catalogs many of them.
Having written two books of LGBT history, I know that (if you'll excuse the cliche') the devil is in the details. There are minor points of fact that I got wrong in The Up Stairs Lounge Arson, and Out for Queer Blood, and several passages that I wish I had written differently because I now realize they are slightly inaccurate expressions of the facts, even though I've verified the essential accuracy of the facts themselves.
I'll give one example: in The Up Stairs Lounge Arson, I make a reference to a relief fund having paid the burial costs for one of the men who died in the fire. After the book was published, I received a telephone call from that dead man's brother, who told me that the family had paid for burial, not the relief fund. I apologized for the error, and later went back to the records to see how I could have made the mistake. What I found was that the National New Orleans Memorial Fund had not paid for the burial at the time of death, but had reimbursed the dead man's family for funeral costs several months later. So the brother I spoke to had, in fact, been correct; his family had paid for the funeral. But I was still essentially correct, in that the family later received a reimbursement from the fund. If there is ever a second edition of The Up Stairs Lounge Arson, I will want to alter the wording in that passage, among several others.
The lesson here is that History is an exacting taskmaster. Historical records are often imperfect and incomplete, and sometimes they are misleading. Who, outside of legal historians (or BBC hosts) would have thought that the term, "death recorded," meant that a death had not occurred? Our assumptions are always present, always tempting us to fill in this-or-that narrative gap, and always ready to ensnare us in our own preconceptions. We are none of us as unfailingly smart as we think we are. And when I speak in the first-person plural, I'm not merely addressing scholars and historians, but everyone. Who among us has not held onto a long-cherished narrative, despite factual evidence to the contrary? Who among us has not hated an opponent in an argument, because he or she turned out to be right?
Fortunately, there are correctives, in conversation as well as in writing nonfiction. One is to check, double-check, and (if possible) triple-check every fact, no matter how seemingly solid and fail-safe. Another is to acknowledge every departure from the documentary trail; there is nothing wrong with speculation based upon facts, as long as that speculation is acknowledged for what it is.