Sunday, September 30, 2007

Historical Truth vs. Historical Gossip

Since I began taking university level history courses (and note it was not until that point) it has been ingrained in me that there is no one historical truth, but many historical interpretations. Still, I cannot help but search to find guidelines that will help me to create the most accurate historical interpretations that I can. Elena Cherney addressed some of these issues that have been occupying my thoughts in her article “The Tell-All that Doesn’t” which was featured in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. [i]

Cherney illustrates that over the years biographers of the famous pianist, Glenn Gould, have collectively kept his lover’s identity secret; it was literally not until a few weeks ago that an article in the Toronto Star identified Cornelia Foss, the wife of the famous American composer Lukas Foss, as Gould’s lover. This article was only written because Foss chose to finally come forward and let the world know that she was the woman who had participated in this great affair. This is the crucial part of the story, because it was Ms. Foss, not the biographers, who finally decided to present the whole story on this public figure.

Cherney makes her opinion on the matter clear as she states, “The unexpected account highlights the striking decision by most Gould scholars to keep his lover’s identity quiet all these years. Ms. Foss’s willingness to be identified opens new avenues of research for Gould scholars that could have been probed years ago – when more sources were alive.” When probing biographers about why they would make this decision, most responded that they refrained from including information that would hurt a living person. This idea was reinforced when the authoritative biographer of Gould, Kevin Bazzana, who shared a wealth of unflattering material on Gould, but left out Ms. Foss and other lovers’ names, explained that he “...did it out of niceness.”

I understand where these biographers are coming from; while one of their subjects is alive it would be hard to be the one to expose their secrets to the rest of the world. At the same time, however, Cherney makes a very good point when she states that the biographers concern about hurt feelings is, “at odds with the biographer’s duty to history: If a name is excluded out of kindness, a piece of the puzzle could be lost forever.”

As much as I understand the biographers' anguish, I agree with Cherney. For one thing, even if the subjects are dead, by revealing a person’s sexual secrets, the writer is always at risk of upsetting family members or descendants who are still living. I think the better way for biographers to decide where to draw the line, is by analyzing whether they are revealing lovers for the sake of a true historical account, or to sensationalize their story. This article made it clear that in today’s society biographers are encouraged to tell all, because it makes their story more marketable and interesting. If the objective, however, is to create an honest historical account, the truth needs to be told, without turning the story into a malicious gossip column.

[i] Elena Cherney, “The Tell-All that Doesn’t,” in The Globe and Mail, Print Edition 22/09/07 Page F9

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