The Woman in Memoir

Earlier this month I took advantage of Barnard’s awesomeness by attending the Athena Film Festival. It’s a four-day celebration of women in movies, with features, shorts, documentaries, discussions, and panels that are all wonderfully accessible to students. One of the documentaries shown this year was Rebel, the story of Civil War soldier and spy Loreta Velazquez. I’m from northern Virginia, where we pretty much breathe the Civil War whether we want to or not, and an early exposure to the Battle of First Manassas gave me an enduring affection for the subject. So you can bet I was there for Rebel.

What stuck with me wasn’t any new understanding of the Civil War. This is, after all, an area of longtime obsession interest for me. What was more interesting was the movie’s discussion of historical storytelling. We know of Velazquez through her memoir, The Woman in Battle, which was popular in her time but delegitimized immediately after it was published. Its erasure from historical canon is due in large part to the criticism of Jubal Early, a Confederate general who controlled the depiction of Southern history in the wake of Civil War defeat.

Since then, The Woman in Battle has been a subject of contention for historians. Director Maria Agui Carter has carefully corroborated Velazquez’s story with other historical sources wherever possible. I love the boldness of that pursuit. What pushes me to the edge of my seat is thinking about a woman in the present writing anew the self-told story of a woman in the past.

Lots of people are fond of the phrase “make history.” They usually use it to mean “do something impressive or interesting.” I’d rather use it to mean “write it down” or “write it over again.”

The words spoken from Velazquez’s point of view in the movie are not entirely hers. After the movie, Carter spoke of how difficult and flowery the language of The Woman in Battle is to a modern moviegoer, which I respect. This is an interpretation, a retelling, made powerful by supporting research and the advantage of a long backward glance. With dedication and respect, we the people of the present have the power to do this with the stories of the past.

I left the screening feeling like I owed it to Loreta Velazquez to find a copy of The Woman in Battle to read for myself. Then in my preliminary research I discovered that the full text is online, but in print it comes to about 600 pages, which is a little heavy for me right now. I’m not ruling out the possibility of reading it eventually, though. An abiding topical obsession interest can take you far into madness. But I decided that what I really owed to Loreta Velazquez was to write my story. We won’t all be women in battle, but if we write we will all be women in history.

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