The Fecund Past: Sarah Knott’s ‘Mother’

This post is a response to Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History which is the subject of our next online discussion at 1pm (GMT) on 12th September. Find the discussion on Twitter at #StoryPast and #MotherIsAVerb. You can also read some of Rachel Moss’s thoughts on the book here.

Sarah Knott’s new book will change how historians think about maternity, gender, sexuality, childhood, and families. I hope that it also changes how historians write, not just about these topics, but about all kinds of history.

I won’t try and sum up the ideas in the book. Instead I will limit myself to commenting on two possible implications of her approach and method: the match between form and function, and the fecundity of the past Knott envisages.

The relationship between form and function is spelled out most clearly in the postscript to the book, ‘A Note on Method’.

Knott writes that she has embraced three ‘unconventional’ methods that have shaped the book: anecdote, being ‘verb-led’, and the use of the first-person. Together these three principles explain many of the features of the book that set it apart from most other histories (the brief chapters, the present tense, and the meditative voice).

You should read Knott’s own explanations for these choices in the postscript, but I want to draw an even wider point from what she says about how form matches function.  She writes of how a history of mothering relies on anecdotal sources, and anecdotal narrative frames. It is a history of how people have mothered children, of specific verbs, and not just a history of the constructed ideals and exemplars of motherhood as an identity. It is about experiences that are variable, diverse, individual,  historical and autobiographical. She says all of this much more eloquently, and I could write a whole other blog post on the importance of anecdote and short fragments alone.

But the even broader question is this: if these are the methods and forms that best lend themselves to writing a history of mothering, what forms of writing and presentation do other topics, or fields demand?

Historians know the value of conventions. Most exist for clearly-defined reasons of academic verifiability. And there is at least the illusion of a level-playing field if we all agree that academic articles should be roughly 10,000 words, that monographs should have footnotes, that academic history is written in prose, rather than verse, or hypertext, or non-textual forms. But is there not also a depressing regularity to book structures, to chapter lengths, to the language, similes, and metaphors many of us share (or refuse)?

For me, one of the most important challenges the book presents is to take seriously the problem of finding the right forms for different histories. This is, of course, always an ideological question: what forms will allow historians to explore the views of the poor, women, children, the enslaved, the colonised?

The second implication I want to draw from the book is about what Knott calls the ‘fecundity of the past’.

There is the literal fecundity of mothering, the material substance of the book – which I uneasily realise is largely submerged or repressed in my abstract response to Knott’s ideas. I am thinking of the teeming emotional, sensory, and experiential diversity of the past and present, the smells, textures, and feelings of mothering that Knott work to recover (102-3), to document in her own experience, and to imagine, where the evidence fails (see 5, 43). With no recent up-close experience of maternity myself, I glimpse unfamiliar continents of conception, quickening, miscarriage, labour, and nursing.

The diversity of experiences and actions of mothering Knott discusses is, then, literally fertile, plural, multiple:

There are no everychildren any more than there are everymothers – just the verbs for mothering, a grabbed-at pile, each with its own distinctive history… mothering is plural and specific to time and place and situation (259)

But Knott also links this to a more figurative sense of a necessary fecundity in the writing of history, when she writes: ‘The changing present calls forth changing histories.’ (19) For Knott, then, history is a space of radical possibility:

Historical curiosity lets us fly, I am reckoning, allows us to get free of ourselves. To doubt, and to reimagine. To own more fully our own times, discerning in the contours what they are or might become. The past can burden us, or the past can release. (xv)

Would it be too much to contrast this view of history to another, which I think is common among academic historians, that deep-down, when you really think about, the historical enterprise has always been about the fear of death?

In this widespread understanding, history dwells in nostalgia, absence, and mourning.

The ‘fecundity of history’ is a reminder that the past is an open-ended field of possibility. Mothering, sexuality, and gender roles have always been diverse and varied.

Perhaps all historians could do more to think about the work of history less as a labour against death, and more as a work of mothering?

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