- Searching for Caroline:"Disciplined Imagination" and the Limits of the Archive
Historians have been called lots of things, not all of them nice. "Broad-gauge gossips," according to Ambrose Bierce. "Unsuccessful novelists," in the eyes of H. L. Mencken. Tolstoy dismissed historians as being "like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them," while Guy de Maupassant quipped history was an "excitable and lying old lady." In turn, historians have been characterized as mere propagandists, fawning sycophants, and jingoists, out of touch with reality and interested only in arguing with each other. Whether pedantic and ponderous or maladroit and melodramatic, historians have received the ire of, well, history.1
At the heart of this criticism lies a problem with imagination. Either writers of history have too much of it or not enough. Most criticisms (at least the wittiest ones) lean toward the former. The historian-as-gossip/novelist/old lady deals in rumor and supposition, if not outright lies, writing fictions that pass as fact, too often on behalf of the powerful, the brave, and the beautiful. For others, however, good history requires some artistic license so that someone (other than the historian herself) might want to read it. In his novel about [End Page 345] a historian on an ill-fated quest to find a rare historical document, Anatole France put it plainly: "All historical books which contain no lies are extremely tedious."2
But it's not simply a question of whether or not we wish our work to be "readable." The problem is particularly thorny if the one is interested in the history of people who left little documentary record of their lives. If historians wish to know the answers to questions about these seemingly unknowable folk, then we must train our imaginations to read the scant documentation we have in different ways, using what Paula Fass calls "disciplined imagination."3 A hybrid of old school social history's focus on the details of everyday life, and cultural history's attention to narrative form and the importance of silences, gaps, and evasions in the archives, "disciplined imagination" reflects the best of both worlds. A disciplined imagination offers potential ways around or under or through the impenetrable thickets of time that separate historians from their subjects. Requiring us to dig deep into a wide variety of archives to find every scrap of evidentiary material that might shed light on the lost worlds of the past, this methodology is anything but unfettered or fanciful. And to be clear: this is not simply a search for more and more sources. In fact, as Marisa Fuentes points out, "the very call to 'find more sources' about people who left few if any of their own reproduces the same erasures and silences they experienced" in their own lives.4 In most cases, more sources simply do not exist. Instead, we must learn to view familiar sources with fresh eyes, new questions, and healthy dose of imagination if we are to write the history of subjugated people without replicating the ways that written records produced by those who subjugated them or were complicit in their subjugation presented them to history.
In this essay, I employ a disciplined imagination to begin to recreate the world of Caroline, a fugitive slave from Tennessee, who was [End Page 346] found guilty and then subsequently pardoned, of poisoning a white child in a Louisville household where she was living and working in 1863. Patrick Lewis and Matt Hulbert have outlined the details of Caroline's case—her arrest, conviction, and the campaign for her release—on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK) blog, providing important context for understanding how Caroline came to be in Kentucky, existing in a kind of legal limbo between slavery and freedom, which played an important role in why she found herself accused of such a heinous crime.5 This essay takes up where Lewis and Hulbert leave off, attempting to follow Caroline the day she was released from the Jefferson County jail, the point where her already meager paper trail abruptly ends. Where does she go? What does she do? What opportunities and...