By Gregory Betts
We all know the pleasure of a good story, but what happens when the messiness of history is streamlined for the sake of a yarn? It is an abstract question, but the consequence of telling history is tangible, and in Niagara increasingly material. Sherman Zavitz is a local historian who has worked as a local tour guide for the past 25 years in Niagara Falls and the region. He writes a regular column for The Niagara Review with quick sketches of historical lore. He presents a wide-ranging collection of anecdotes collected no doubt in his efforts to amuse, shock, and flatter visiting tourists. The best samples from his column have been distilled and collected in a smartly designed new book by Niagara Falls publisher Grey Borders Books called It Seemed As If 100 Men Where Pounding My Head.
The publishers were wise to keep the newspaper design prominent for there has been no effort to transform the columns into a unified book or to increase its historical or critical heft. Each of the 45 entries is a discrete, self-contained anecdote of a daredevil, a war-hero, eccentric, or visiting royalty (real and American). If you have any interest in regional history — Lundy’s Lane this, Fenians that, barrels, honeymoons, wire-walkers, suicides, and the mob — rest-assured that the digested details of your interests are amassed in this book. It is easy reading, a rush through the past that entertains by the speed and cleanliness of its sketches. You Should Buy It! For not once will the reader be troubled by the class warfare, imperialism, and racist superstructures that underpin each gleefully rendered event. Like a morality play, the sadness that surrounds every triumph has been absolved.
In the abstract, I admire the anecdote as a genre. It is the point where conversation meets history, where history is distilled down to raw ideology and passed from one wedding guest to another. Always amusing, by definition, anecdotes are brutally efficient instruments of creed. Indeed, the revealing asides in Zavitz’s stories can be so devastating, proving that Niagara is a dangerous spectacle of crushing power and North American depravity. Zavitz revels in the decadent efforts of its victims for each human or animal desolation might be another five minutes in a tour, another column, a chuckle or amused gasp. There is an element of industry at work in the churning out of these stories.
I admire the historical anecdote’s illusion of self-containment, marvel at the effortlessness by which it discards the complexity of history and affirms basic narrative foundations of triumph, tragedy, and travesty. Ethical quagmires be damned: heroes are heroes because they are called heroes. Heroics happen outside of conflict for the purpose of edification. A leader from the American wars against aboriginal peoples is left unblemished, cheerfully hurrahed for bravery. Describing the ex-President of the Confederate States being warmly received in the region after their Civil War, Zavitv renders it a colourful curiousity rather than a recidivistic embarrassment. Desperately poor cads who risk all for a few bucks are admired for their chutzpah, without any pause to consider the horror of staged tragedy as entertainment. The odd suicide, Indian village burnt to the ground, or murder of an innocent are the gothic details that create a sublime backdrop equal, in a way, to the massive, wasteful Falls themselves. Without either employment in the region would suffer. Without them, our own degradations, losses, and suffering would seem overwhelming. Perhaps enough to demand change. Anecdotes as with natural spectacles offer some kind of cultural palliative.
The flipside of the historical anecdote is the personal lyric which details the human consequences of ideological apparatus. Grey Borders Books, which tends to edgier less popular fare than It Seemed as If 100 Men Were Pounding My Head, also recently published three chapbooks that delve into the messy, ugly, uncertain experience of lived history in the region. Thus, Jordan Fry begins his clunky collection Rotting Fruit with the image of a cop crushing a worm, with all sympathy to the worms. James Millhaven’s moribund book Thirty documents the desolation of systemic poverty in “the post-industrial gasp”, which markets the wonders of art while perpetuating constant humiliations upon its denizens. Keith Inman’s Layers of Limestone, meanwhile, depicts with simple cheer a raft of characters who glow with not a drip of history’s spit. They live quietly, discover that sometimes “the best place is where you are” unselfconsciously. These books strive for no ennobled, sterilized past. They are hungry, angry, seeking settlement.
Combined, the four books give a rather prescient representation of the emerging drives of the region. There is the service industry, catering to the passersby, seeking to reel in the commuters from another city (across the drink), serving up the glossy spectacle of power to those who might have it (or fancy themselves so endowed). Then there are those who insist on the fact that the region had a history that was neither lustrous nor spectacular but fundamentally determined by material conditions. Both, though inverted reflections of each other, are equally alienated.
The books discussed above are all available through greyborders.com