Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Novel Historiography

I celebrated the end of the semester by cracking open Katherine Howe's delightful novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.

I picked up the book a few months ago out of curiosity. I'm only separated from Howe by a single degree of social distance, although our link is a loose one, and I do not know her personally. But I'd read on the book jacket this tidbit: "The idea for this novel developed while [Howe] was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams, walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem." That's what I call putting qualifiers to good use!

What's most interesting about the book, though, is the way it succeeds as an argument about historical emphasis. Set aside the plot (though it's a fine one) and all of the made-up stuff (you know, the "fiction") and you hold before you a historiographical essay. Apparently inspired by recent work in the history of science attempting to place alchemy nearer to the mainstream of early modern science than has been previously recognized, Howe argues for taking witchcraft and magic seriously as early modern ways of knowing and doing. And readers of this blog will be happy to see that this intervention into early modern science focuses on the Americas.

Gender lies at the center of the intervention. Alchemy, Howe suggests, has found some legitimacy more quickly because of its male adherents. Witchcraft, well---that's been women's work.

How many other historiographical essays succeed in advancing so intriguing an idea, while also holding a reader's attention? Even better: Howe's audience is already much larger than that of nearly any journal article.