Temporary Derangement – Literary Nonfiction?

For Christmas last month, my daughter gave me a copy of Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As most biographers do these days, Ms Goodwin writes in a genre called creative nonfiction, also known as literary or narrative nonfiction. [1] This genre describes real events in an entertaining way, using the craft of writers of fiction, especially the technique of point of view.

For instance, this is how Ms Goodwin begins the first chapter of Team of Rivals:

On May 18, 1860, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early. As he climbed the stairs to his plainly furnished law office on the south side of the public square in Springfield, Illinois, breakfast was being served at the 130-room Chenery House of Fourth Street. [2]

Ms Goodwin continues to describe Lincoln’s morning as she imagines he would have experienced it.

So, how did Ms Goodwin know what Lincoln saw and did that spring morning in 1860? From a variety of sources: newspapers, diaries and journals, letters, other document and accounts; and by personal observation, going to the square herself to get a sense of what it looked like that day.

I have used this genre (although not as skillfully as Doris Kearns Goodwin, of course) in the “Sufferers’ Land” story on this website, and more recently in last week’s post “Temporary Derangement.”

What did I use for sources for the latter story about the suicide of Calista Harris? Let’s take a look:

  • The title “Temporary Derangement” came from an obituary in the temporary-derangementNorwalk Daily Reflector article for April 24, 1906, the day after Mrs. Harris committed suicide.

  • The weather? I learned that from the Daily Reflector‘s April 23rd issue.

  • How about the address? Obituaries and other articles reported that Laura Joslin lived on Main Street, but I surmised the house number by consulting 1900 and 1910 Census records. Both had the Joslin’s living at 117 Main Street. I got an idea of what the house probably looked like in 1906 by looking at Google Maps. [3]

  • I learned what people in Norwalk were saying about the San Francisco earthquake from the Norwalk Daily Reflector and the Norwalk Evening Herald, and used the obituaries in those newspapers and the Sandusky Daily Register to piece together and account of how Laura Joslin found her mother’s body and her reaction (she fainted).

Is it a good idea to write nonfiction with the craft of fiction writers? It can get one in trouble if one plays too fast with the truth (David McCullough, for instance, has come under criticism for certain passages in his biographies: Truman and John Adams. And who can forget James Frey?).

What do you think of the literary nonfiction genre? Let me know in the comments below.

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The “Temporary Derangement” post generated the most traffic to my blog since the “Sufferers’ Land” days. In future posts, I’ll do what my best to make this site as entertaining–and as accurate–as possible. If you think I’m going to far, call me out for it in the comments.

Thanks for visiting. I am thrilled when people actually read what I write.

This is the last of the Sarah Barnett posts. Here are the previous posts about her and her Tuttle, Joslin, Barnett and Harris heritage:

Next up: The story of how Myrtle Woodruff‘s pioneer family were among the first settlers of the Firelands.

Notes:

[1] I prefer narrative or literary fiction. Creative nonfiction recalls to my mind that unfortunate term: creative accounting!

[2] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006, page 5.

[3] The house now standing on that lot is not the one the Joslins owned, it is too modern. But I can get an idea of the style by looking at the houses on neighboring lots from that era. When in doubt about the age of homes, I consult the tax records.

Thanks for visiting! Share and like this post below, and on Facebook. Let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

 

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One Response

  1. […] April afternoon in 1906? I believe it is close to the mark, and will tell you why I think that in a post next week. But next up–New Year’s Eve, 1906 in Norwalk, […]

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