Free «The Concept of History in David Bradley’s Novel the Chaneysville Incident» Essay Sample


The novel The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley presents a combination of literature and history; it offers rethinking traditional approaches to history and underlines the role of imagination in history research. As Hogue fairly notes, this work of fiction is designed to “problematize, or undermine seriously, our traditional conception of history” (111). According to Bradley, history is not a collection of facts and documents but a collection of stories of real people. He tends to combine traditional research and study of documents with the innovatory studies of folklore, music, legends and orally transmitted stories. Thus, the novel The Chaneysville Incident has a significance as not only the work of fiction but also as a work of historical research that teaches us to look at history from a different angle, from the point of view of people who lived in the past, this way acquiring deeper understanding of the spirit of the past.

The Author’s Personal Experience

The author’s personal experience has found its reflection in the novel. David Bradley once heard a story of thirteen slaves who escaped and asked to be killed rather than sent back to their masters. His mother once found thirteen unmarked graves. Bradley returned to this story during his postgraduate research at the University of London (Pinsker). As a historian and at the same time a writer, Bradley mixed the two fields of study and presented a work that combines both history and literature. As Hogue observed, this work “blurs the distinction between history and fiction” (112); and this gives it additional value. This attitude towards history was perfectly described by Bradley himself:

 I do not believe in a sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Most of my writing is grounded in real places and people. I always find myself "adapting" reality to the writing, as one might "adapt" a novel for a film. (Pinsker)

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John Washington as Bradley’s Spokesman

John Washington, the protagonist of the story, is an African-American historian just like Bradley, who grew up in a rural area and managed to become a professor of history at a Philadelphia university. It is important to note that he lives with a white woman, Judith, a psychologist. This fact plays its role in the story since the relationship between whites and blacks is an integral part of history that the author wants us to teach. Throughout the story, we observe the gradual transformation of John’s attitudes towards history. If at the beginning of the story he was a traditional historian, at the end he gets a sense of understanding by letting imagination into his research. Bradley puts his own words into the moth of John Washington, and speaks directly to the reader this way. The views of John are the views of Bradley; therefore, there is no fundamental distinction between the narrator and the protagonist in this novel.

Bradley’s Concept of History as Reflected in The Chaneysville Incident

Recourse to the Heritage of African Beliefs

Through historian John Washington Bradley “can raise issues about contemporary intellectual activity” and makes an attempt to uncover “the hidden, suppressed, and forgotten material of African American history” (Byerman 125). Washington outgrows the Western tradition and has recourse to the heritage of African beliefs thus creating “an alternative and heroic history” (Wilson 97). Indeed, the issue of historical heritage is given a significant importance in the novel. As Bradley notes in the novel, “a heritage is something you believe in” (212). The history of African Americans if often untextualized, and even when written, it is written mainly from the whites’ perspective. American blacks know very little of their history before they were captured by the white “civilizers”. Benito calls the historical texts of the blacks “either silent or wickedly manipulated”, and due to this reason they “can only claim a rather unverifiable heritage, something to believe in” (187); however, this unverifiable heritage may bring as much truth as the traditional history or even more.

The Notion of Violence

The notion of violence is a cornerstone of Washington’s (and Bradley’s) understanding of history. Washington says:

I specialize in the study of atrocities. . . . History is just one long string of atrocities . . . . You could say that history is atrocious. The best way to find out what they did is to find out where they hid the bodies. (186)

With a tone of irony, Washington calls history a dinosaur and even tries to define to what species precisely it belongs: “possibly it is a triceratops but most likely it is a brontosaurus, a large, grey-green thing” (Bradley 262). It leads us to the conclusion that Washington believes that it is not possible to understand history if this view of history as atrocity is not adopted. Understanding is possible only if history is viewed as trauma, as the great and undeserved suffering that can hardly be palliated. Washington looks at history with despair since it tends to repeat itself permanently, and this feeling of despair stirs up his lust for truth and desire to find out “where they hid the bodies”, as he says; and this expression acquires literal as well as metaphoric context in the story (Wilson 97).

Gaps in History

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John Washington sees his task in discovering the truth that has been forgotten or hidden; his role is a role of “revealer and debunker of the pretensions and myths of the past (and present)” (Byerman 129). To fulfill his task, Washington has to fill in the gaps of history of which he talks with a sense of social disparity. Similarly, Bradley sees the role of fiction in filling the gaps in the history of African American experience and slavery (Benito 181). Death creates gaps – when a man dies, “his story is lost” (Bradley 48).  However, what was lost by historians, these very gaps, are “the real power of history’, according to Washington (Bradley 48).

Washington also clearly sees the inequalities that fill the world and have their impact on history – or, at least, on the way it is written. These inequalities do not allow to fill many of the gaps:

The gaps in the stories of the famous are filled eventually; overfilled. Funeral eulogies become laudatory biography, which becomes critical biography, which becomes history, which means everyone will know the facts even if no one knows the truth. But the gaps in the stories of the unknown are never filled, never can be filled, for they are larger than data, larger than deduction, larger than induction. (Bradley 48-49)

Thus, the gaps between different social layers create the gaps in history, and it results in our knowledge of history as the chronicles of rulers and rich people, since only they had a chance to leave a trace in the history. Poor people lived their lives, died, and took their stories with them in their graves, often unmarked. Thus, we have a one-sided history that threw out thousands of stories that can hardly be recovered now.

Hatred Towards History

It is interesting that Bradley, being a historian, expresses his hatred towards history, and assigns this quality to his protagonist. Explaining how history was used in the novel, Bradley tells:

I hate history on account of my father, because my father refused to have any fun with the stuff. And it's . . . a style of black history, name history; you read a biography or a book, it consists almost entirely of names, no faces, no events, and you don't know what's going on. I mean it's boring. It was boring to me. I like stories. (Wilson 99)

In this speech, we see the same awareness of gaps that makes history meaningless – “name history”, as Bradley calls it. This history has little sense since it has little relation to reality, to the lives of real people. Bradley believes that history should reflect the reality of the past and not some distortions and chronicles of the influential people and fractions. Thus, he rejects the traditional concept of history. Similarly, Washington says to his live-in lover Judith that being a historian means “hating for things that still mean something. And trying to understand what it is they mean, so you can hate the right things for the right reasons” (Bradley 274).

The Concept of Imagination

However, Bradley’s critique of the traditional approaches to history is constructive. He does not simply reject the old understanding but offers a new one, and imagination plays a key role in this new concept. To him, only imagination can help fill in the gaps for which no textual evidence is left. Washington believes that his first experience as a historian was a failure because of lack of imagination; he could see many facts but could not compose a consolidated picture of them: “I simply could not imagine what I could see. Could not imagine what it was I was looking at part of” (Bradley 146). He states that a historian is impotent as a researcher if he cannot imagine: “… if you cannot imagine, you can discover only cold facts, and more cold facts; you will never know the truth” (Bradley 147). Thus, without imagination understanding cannot appear, though it contradicts the traditional concept of history research that prescribes a scholar to be as objective as he can and stay as cold as it is possible. For traditional history, “cold facts” are the objective, and feelings ought to be left aside. For Bradley, “cold facts” mean nothing until they are filled with real understanding and feeling.

John Washington’s Success in Acquiring the Ability to Imagine

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Finally, John Washington manages to overcome the traditional concept of history deeply seated in his mind due to his traditional education, and develops the ability of imagination. With the help of it, he imagines – and discovers – the story of his grandfather, C.K. Washington, who helped the slaves run away. As his descendent discovered, his death was a suicide – but not an act of despair and cowardice, as white researchers might argue without understanding of blacks’ traditions and beliefs, but an act of liberation and bravery. Thus, Washington turns from “a poor unimaginative fool” (Bradley 49), as he called historians, into a historian as a “teller of stories, a fabulator, a griot almost, who accounts for, as a traditional historian cannot, what has gone unrecorded” (Wilson 102).

Empathy as One of the Aspects of Imagination

Washington’s concept of imagination can also be understood as empathy, as Wilson fairly argues with the reference to Klaus Ensslen (105). Discovering the historical truth about his ancestors and the graves of slaves, John Washington demonstrated an ability of insight into the minds of people long dead (Wilson 101). Judith also got this sense of understanding and managed to imagine quite clearly what could Iiames feel and how he could act from the black’s perspective. She was astonished by the fact that Iiames, obviously, took time to find out “who loved who” and bury the slaves; amazed, she says, “But he was white” (Bradley 431). It would be quite natural for her to suppose that a white man could be good enough to act like that, but she looks at the event from the black’s point of view.

Cyclic Conception of Time

As Wilson notes, with this imaginative approach Bradley repudiates the Western concept of history, and brings into the understanding of history the cyclic conception of time instead of linear one characteristic of Western approaches (104). His story is a demonstration of a cycle – in a certain sense, John repeats the story of his predecessor. Some similarity in his relations with Judith can be seen. As Judith notes, “you want to be just like him” (Bradley 344). But she doesn’t know that she also is like his grandmother, C.K.’s common law wife. At first sight, there is no similarity between Judith, a white psychologist, and Harriette, a black woman who was a slave and escaped. However, there is some analogy – Harriette was half-white (Wilson 104).

Relationships with Judith as the Indicator of Inability to Understand

Indeed, relationships with Judith play an important role in John’s life and in the story as a whole. It reveals another gap – a gap in understanding; not understanding of history but understanding of each other’s feelings. Being people of different skin colors makes them too different, even though discrimination and slavery is a matter of distant past. Judith believes that John simply hates white people, and asks him why he is with her then. John’s response is that it is not that simple. With sarcasm, Judith notes, “I've got this horrible skin disease. I'm white”; and John replies, “That's it exactly. Only you don't understand what it means” (Bradley 73). Wilson argues, that inability to understand in this case is equal to inability to imagine: “Judith is unable to cross the gap to understand what her whiteness means to him” (102). However, there is another possible explanation for this misunderstanding. It was articulated by Hogue, who believes that John is simply trapped by the experiences of his personal past and his father’s views (133). It seems that truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle. They both are unable to understand and cross this gap because their personal experiences and their collective memory are too different. They can only find contact points in the present and not in the past. This leads us to another context of the novel – the call to connect history to the present.

Connection to the Present

It was most accurately noted by Byerman, who underlines that Bradley does not simply attempt to delve into the history of black Americans but primarily “speaks to his own time” (134). Though both John and Judith are trapped by the past experiences of their predecessors, they are required now to find a new consensus and change their attitudes towards each other in order to achieve understanding. It can be understood as a call not to overdemonize the past but to recognize its horrors and turn them into the tools of understanding the present. As Byerman puts it, “the point is not to be haunted but to be nourished for the tasks of the present” (136). Indeed, historical consciousness gives a possibility of understanding the present regardless of what our ethnical roots and experiences are, and this is, probably, the main social and educational role played by history.


Therefore, historical significance of David Bradley’s novel The Chaneysville Incident is not less that its literature significance. Maybe, Bradley did not make an outstanding scientific discovery as to the historical facts, but he did add much to the understanding of history as a science and of its methods. Bradley’s work is an example of what Linda Hutcheon called “historiographic metafiction” or “postmodern historicism” (qtd. in Hogue 112). Bradley underlines the role of imagination and empathy in studying history and objects the attitude to it as to the collection of cold facts. To him, history should reflect the real stories and not the manipulations of the ruling class. In this sense, as Benito notes, literature is not only historically produced but also historically productive (190).

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