In our most recent post, I surveyed a divide in writing about family history. On one side is fairly recent history where you knew the people you are writing about personally or have had an opportunity to talk with people who did. You can simply tell their stories as they were told to you. On the other side of the divide lie ancestors accessible only through written records, documents, and family artifacts. To reconstruct the stories of those more distant ancestors a family historian may choose to rely on the tools of creative nonfiction, employing techniques used in literary writing to bring ancestors to life.
In today’s post we’ll look at how Paul David Pope did just that in his recent family saga, The Deeds of My Fathers. Early in the book he presents a scene in which his grandfather, Generoso Pope discusses emigrating from Italy with an agent selling passages to America. Listen to the brief audio segment describing the conversation. (Click on the link at the bottom of the text to hear it.)
There is no indication that there is a record showing that this was an actual conversation. Pope draws upon facts readily available in the historical record. There were agents selling passages to America all over Italy at the turn of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Italians, including Generoso, did cross the Atlantic. Details of what a man like the agent would probably have worn are in the pages of any book on the history of costume, right down to the “supple leather” of his shoes. Written descriptions, maybe even photographs, of Generoso’s hometown can be found in local histories. Collections of pictures of New York like those the agent showed Generoso are plentiful.
These facts give a ring of authenticity to Pope’s description of the scene, but much of what happened is speculative. Pope seems on solid ground assuming that Generoso’s sister was receiving letters from her husband who was already in New York. The dialogue, however, is created. It’s what we might expect such a conversation to sound like. It certainly fits the factual scene Pope has set. More importantly it dramatizes Generoso’s decision to leave Italy.
In our next post, we’ll look at Stacy Schiff’s recent biography of Cleopatra to see how an author is able to combine solid factual research with judicious speculation to bring the fabled Egyptian queen to life.