Daniel Mason on the Weight of History

“The American experience for many people is the very act of questioning who we are.”

Courtesy Daniel Mason / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Daniel Mason’s new short story, “For the Union Dead.

“For the Union Dead,” a new story by Daniel Mason, will appear in his upcoming story collection, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth (available on May 5). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Daniel and Oliver Munday, a senior art director at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: You’ve primarily written historical fiction. However, “For the Union Dead” is set in contemporary San Francisco and uses a historical event—the American Civil War—thematically rather than as a backdrop. Can you describe how using history in this way informed the writing process?

Daniel Mason: While I’m very much drawn to history, my interest is less in reproducing a historical event and more in employing a different time and place to explore something that feels quite pressing. This story is part of a collection (A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth) that comes out in May; all the other stories from the collection are set further back in time, and farther away: a telegraph operator in the Amazon, a mother caring for an asthmatic son in polluted Regency London. But the goal feels the same: to use history to help me understand something in my life today. For some reason, I find that distance helps me think about what it means to be a person in this world. In the case of “For the Union Dead,” I think the motivating idea was the question of what it means to be an American and how people find identity in an adopted home.

It’s worth mentioning that the idea for the story came from another historical period. Last year, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I found myself watching a video about An-My Lê’s photographic series Small Wars, which had been exhibited there back in 2008. These explored the mock battles staged by Vietnam War reenactors in the forests of Virginia. It was clear from the photos that some of the men were too young to have ever served in the war. I was struck by the way that Lê treated them with gentleness and respect, while at the same time posing questions about the psychological need fulfilled by participating in these events.

Munday: Teddy, the main character in the story, is a refugee from World War II; he’s also a Civil War reenactor. Is there something specific to the Civil War that spoke to him?

Mason: Teddy chooses the Civil War, I think, precisely because of the profound Americanness of it. At least on the surface, the Civil War was a domestic conflict, the arch-American war. It made sense to me that someone grappling with belonging would be drawn to it. At the same time, it is such a complex field for patriotic sentiment; as we see today, its wound remains a very raw one. It would have been a less complex decision for Teddy to have been drawn to reenacting the [American] War of Independence. On some level, I think he knows this, knows that the history he wishes to claim for his own is fraught and painful.

Munday: “For the Union Dead” is narrated by Teddy’s nephew, who travels with his father (Teddy’s brother) to sort through Teddy’s possessions after his death. The narrator’s perspective often gives way to his father’s own stories of Teddy, which themselves contain the stories of others. Why use this technique of nested narratives?

Mason: I tried different voices for a while, before the first lines came to me and the rest of the narrative followed. I can conjecture why this voice worked for me while others didn’t. On a certain level, it is a story about a person who experiences life at a distance. The “wars” that Teddy fights in are not real wars, but—to use your term—nested narratives in his life. It is quite a lovely word for this story, actually, “nested”: not only in the sense of something “placed within,” but in the sense of making a home.

Munday: Teddy’s inner life remains elusive to readers, and also, to a large degree, to his family. The narrative acknowledges the futility of truly knowing someone as well as the need to try. Do you think fiction, as a form, can bring us close to intersubjectivity?

Mason: I hope so? Just as I hope it can bring us closer to knowing oneself, too. At the beginning of this story, Teddy is presented as somewhat of a reduced person, of interest to his nephew mostly for his television set. It is only as the narrative continues that his complexity begins to reveal itself. And yet, in the end, I feel that the narrator is left with the sense that Teddy is ultimately beyond his reach. In the same way, I think, the narrator doesn’t know himself. He begins by downplaying any relationship with his uncle, but as we learn more, we increasingly see moments of love shared between them.

This question reminds me of the previous one. A nested narrative, by definition, creates a certain emotional distance. When we tell stories about another person, much about them is lost in the process. Most people I know are familiar only with the barest outlines of the lives of their grandparents, even their parents. Often it is only when we lose them that we realize the great gaps that remain in their stories.

Munday: Teddy is described as unmoored, a man who lacks a home, having fled Poland as a child with his family after World War II. We learn that Teddy spoke “five languages, and none of them well.” Does this lack of a native tongue further Teddy’s isolation?

Mason: Among the many other forms of displacement, Teddy’s childhood is marked by a constant linguistic instability. Children are masters at learning language, and so he learns to speak the language of each successive home—Polish, Russian, Uzbek, French, English. But just as he is reaching the point that he might master a language, might gain the vocabulary and grammar necessary to articulate an inner life—he is torn from that place. This is true even of his name—we know it can’t originally have been Teddy, but we never learn what his real name is.

And then there is this particular connection between language and belonging. Teddy can dress like an American, and act like an American, but ultimately, when he speaks, he will betray himself as foreign: There is a reason that the root of shibboleth is the actual Hebrew word. What was most poignant to me in thinking about Teddy was how he has internalized the nativism of his new home. He worries not just that he will be revealed as a foreigner—but as an ungrateful one, who has not learned English perfectly.

As Teddy gets older, he tries on different trappings of American identity—literally, with the war uniforms—but in a way, and without his realizing it, I think one of the most American things about Teddy is this uncertainty. In this way, there is something profoundly American about Teddy that links him to the millions of us who have asked similar questions about what it means to call America home. The American experience for many people is the very act of questioning who we are.

Munday: You describe Teddy and his brother as an odd couple. Teddy enjoys Andre the Giant, while his brother loves Louis Malle’s film, My Dinner With Andre. Teddy is often described through the objects he’s accrued: commemorative plates from the U.S. bicentennial, Sears catalogs, and VHS tapes of old WrestleManias. Can you describe how these cultural signifiers function in the story?

Mason: I have always been fascinated by what the material world reveals of inner life. This may be a bit of a doctor’s bias (to use William Carlos Williams’s words, “no ideas but in things”), or just a personal love of the poetry of stuff. The quality of these objects that was most interesting to me here was how so many of them sit on the cusp between contemporary consumer good and historical artifact—between something disposable and something worth keeping. The secret joy in writing the story was looking at the junk of my childhood from the perspective of an archaeologist, with an eye toward a kind of restoration.

Perhaps at no time does the question of whether an object is junk or whether it is valuable become more pressing than upon the death of a loved one. One suddenly finds oneself surrounded by things filled with tension between meaningful and meaningless. Everyone who has lost a loved one has had to contend, at some point, with this register of their existence, the stuff: the sofa chairs that held a body, the artwork prized for some unknown reason, the medicine that kept someone alive until it didn’t. In this story, even something as useless, as risible, as a VHS tape of WrestleMania 3, becomes, in a different context, deeply meaningful: a form of connection between an old man and his nephew, a symbol of violence, even a thread of connection to an old existence—because in Teddy’s private world, Andre the Giant, however wonderfully cartoonish (and I will admit to being a great childhood fan), was also a Pole by extraction and thus a link to a place and heritage Teddy never really could possess.

The ritual of cleaning is thus, on some level, a vivid act of erasure. For when one dies, all this private meaning is lost.

Munday: Teddy’s affinity for Americana leads him to take part in Civil War reenactments. And yet as reenactors go, he’s a uniquely ineffectual one: lying supine in the field amid these simulated battles.

Mason: I agree that on some level, he is ineffectual, and yet at the same time, I think that Teddy inherently understands something about the theater of reenactment that the other reenactors don’t. The very archetype of patriotism is dying for one’s country. It is why I was drawn—why we are drawn—to Whitman’s images of strange vigils and Lincoln’s hallowed, consecrated ground, language that laces this story. These are all images and experiences that Teddy, perhaps without knowing, repeats. If we are to understand that the reenactments are on some level a rite of belonging, then I might say that Teddy, this seeming outsider, understands that dying is what ultimately might offer him a home.