Thursday, December 5, 2013

Lincoln Mullen on Erksine Clarke's Latest

I bought a copy of Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic after reading Beth Barton Schweiger's review at The Journal of Southern Religion and Kelly Baker's review at Religion in American History.  When I read the way Schweiger and Baker described Clarke's style I said to myself: "That is how I want to write history."  Sadly, I have yet to read Dwelling Place.  So many books, so little time.

But after reading Lincoln Mullen's review of Clarke's newest book, From the Rivers of Water to the River of Dark Dreams, I have once again moved Dwelling Place near the top of my "to read" pile where it will now sit, hopefully for a short time, just above this latest offering. Here is a taste of Mullen's review of From the Rivers of Water:

As Erskine Clarke begins his most recent book, Paul, a slave, looks from a rice plantation across the Savannah River to the busy docks of the city of Savannah. Clarke describes life on the plantation and in the city for Paul, a carpenter, as Paul worried whether he would be sold away from the Bayard family that owned him and the other slaves on Hamilton Island. It is not until the end of the second chapter that we learn what has troubled Paul: the soon-to-be minister John Leighton Wilson's arrival in Savannah in 1832 and engagement to Jane Bayard, the woman for whom Paul was owned in trust. In a master stroke of suspense, Clarke thus manages to introduce his readers to the intertwined lives of several of the main people in his narrative.

Even in these opening pages, readers who have encountered Clarke's earlier book, the Bancroft-prize-winning epic Dwelling Place, will note the hallmarks of Clarke's signature style. As in that earlier work, Clarke reconstructs historical lives and places with minute attention to the details of relationships between people. But where Dwelling Place took place mostly in Liberty County, Georgia, Clarke's By the Rivers of Water follows the Savannah River---and John Leighton Wilson and Jane Bayard Wilson---into the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to missions in Africa. Leighton and Jane became missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Cape Palmas in Liberia, then later in the Gabon Estuary. What we get in this book is a history that follows the Wilsons, as well as freed slaves who traveled to Liberia, from South Carolina and Georgia to West Africa and back again to New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the United States, cutting across the histories of slavery, colonization, missions, nullification, abolition and opposition to the slave trade, and the Civil War.

Erskine Clarke may very well be the best writer of narrative working in American religious history. His method is what Clarke calls "disciplined imagination" (xiv). This discipline is above all to the primary sources. It would be strange to praise Clarke's work for depth in the primary works, since this is the minimum for acceptable work in the discipline of history. Still, Clarke's method is like intensive agriculture, turning up every bit of the soil and maximizing the yield. The other part of the discipline is immersion in the secondary works on American slavery and religion. Each paragraph of the work is as much indebted to that lifetime study of the secondary work as to the deep analysis of the primary sources. This work is, in short, a model of how to write narrative history that is not excessively dependent on colleagues' works but nevertheless uses them at every turn. This discipline serves his imaginative reconstructions of places and people, and above all of social interactions.