October 15, 2014

The Washington Post would like to see your sources, ladies


Belle Boyd: kicking asses, wearing antimacassars. Image via the "House Divided" site, Dickinson College.

Belle Boyd: kicking asses, wearing antimacassars. Image via the “House Divided” site, Dickinson College.

If you’re a Civil War historian, and you’re female, you better both know your bonnets and cite them appropriately from the Encyclopedia of Civil War Bonnetry and Bonnetology, 6th edition.

That, at least, seems to be the (unnecessary) lesson from a recent Washington Post review by Jonathan Yardley of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a new book by historian Karen Abbott about four female spies in the Civil War.

It was a lukewarm review from the start. When, after summarizing the contents of the book, Yardley began to give his opinion, the line “Abbott obviously has a strong interest in women who decline to accept the roles society tries to force them into” did not bode well. A objection could not be far behind.

Yardley started by criticizing Abbott’s prose:

“At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a woman’s magazine.”

To back this up, Yardley quoted a passage in which Abbott describes Confederate spy Belle Boyd riding out from Martinsburg, West Virginia, one morning, a description that included details about what Boyd was wearing and what the conditions were like in Martinsburg that day. He then moved from criticizing Abbott’s style to bringing Abbott’s credibility into doubt, raising questions about her sources:

Maybe that’s actually how it happened, but maybe not. Abbott’s notes refer only to “Martinsburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter” and “busy building earthwork fortifications along its perimeter”; the sources for the rest of that very specific description are not identified.

What’s dubious about this critique is that Yardley appears to focus specifically on Boyd’s clothing, implying that Abbott’s description of it doesn’t have the same historical grounding as the rest of the passage. It’s obscurely, doubly insulting: it seems to both accuse Abbott of frivolousness (Those Lady Writers, obsessed with clothes!) and improper scholarship, if not outright invention (“Those Lady Writers, incapable of grasping the historical method,  just inventing stuff off the top of their pretty little heads!”).

There is a case to be made against pop history writing, which I think may have been Yardley’s ultimate point. It can be awkward and tin-eared about the way it incorporates research. This is the paragraph Yardley is talking about:

“One January morning Belle donned her green riding dress, accessorized with a lieutenant colonel’s pair of shoulder straps and a wool felt hat, a feather pinned to its crown. She saddled Fleeter and, riding astride, began galloping through the streets, defying both social convention and Martinsburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter. Confederate soldiers, currently in control of the town, were busy building earthworks fortifications along its perimeter, stabbing at the frozen earth with shovels and picks and piling woven bundles of brush. Waving, she continued, crossing the arched stone bridge over Opequon Creek and plunging into the valley.”

It’s possible to use better verbs, to shy away from phrases like “defying social convention,” to give more space to the idea that Boyd was knowingly breaking the law, maybe not to add that “waving” bit. There’s a speed and patness to such writing that can seem trapped in the modern writer’s time, rather than more thoughtfully responsive to the period.

But that has nothing to do with suggesting a writer can’t be trusted because she includes a detailed description of a woman’s clothes. Also, it’s only women’s clothes that appear to be the problem here. Jia Tolentino of Jezebel contacted Abbott about the review and got this response:

In an email to me, Abbott wrote, “My guess is that he objected to my describing the spy’s clothing—which, as I point out in my letter, was relevant, since women’s clothing was a key component of their espionage work (in fact, one Lincoln official posed the question of what to do with ‘fashionable women spies’). And I think he particularly objected to the fact that it was women’s clothing. Later in that same chapter, I spend twice as much time and space describing General Stonewall Jackson’s appearance—passages I assume he didn’t find objectionable?”

Tolentino also effectively took apart the “women’s magazine” comment. That “dare I say it?” should have been a tip-off, a pretty good rule of writing being that if you find yourself writing “dare I say it?”, you are probably asking to be excused in advance for saying something you know is problematic. 

Abbott, meanwhile, wrote the Washington Post a nicely sarcastic letter, pointing out something important, especially when it comes to “domestic” details:

Thinking I might have something to learn about proper nonfiction scholarship, I read Yardley’s biography of author Frederick Exley — and was shocked to discover not one endnote, which he dismissed as “clutter.” Passages about Exley’s mother’s dieting habits and dinner menus are presented as fact, with no documentation.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.