History’s Gravity

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Chronology is history’s gravity. That’s what Jill Lepore said on her podcast. I took note. I sensed the truth of her words, yet I wondered, How are they true? Chronology is the force that holds narrative together? The force that draws the most pertinent information to the center of meaning? As a writer of history, I have done my part to resist the chronology’s tyranny. I have looked for ways of organizing information other than dates. My critique partners usually resisted my resistance. They questioned sequence; doubted clarity. So, when I heard a presenter at a children’s writers’ workshop aver that chronology was always the default organizing structure for historical narratives, I took note. And again, a few years later, when I heard Jill Lepore’s astro-physics trope on The Last Archive. I often revisit that note in that accessible file in my brain as I continue to read and write history.

Hence this post. The issue feels especially pertinent after reading (for the second time) Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes. What were his reasons for eschewing the chronological default mode? Did he succeed in resisting its gravitational pull? Was it worth the effort?

“One day in early 1917…” begins Fagone’s section on the Hindu separatist-German bomb plot that the Friedmans, William and Elizebeth, helped to foil. It is one of their early adventures, almost the beginning of their careers in cryptology, careers that had dropped, unbidden, in their laps. Fagone begin this chapter on the world war with some context. He reminds us that the Zimmermann Telegram was revealed to President Wilson on February 27, 1917, and that Congress declared war on April 6. Focusing more narrowly on his subject, Elizebeth, he tells us that her mother died of cancer that same month and that her employer at Riverbank Laboratories, George Fabyan, made overtures to the War Department, offering it his cryptologic capabilities, such as they were. By April 11, we learn, Fabyan’s Riverbank cipher bureau is receiving cryptograms from the military to solve. Elizebeth and William, to this point in the story, have had experience with but one cryptologic system, the biliteral cipher of Francis Bacon. Fagone devotes the next eleven pages to the state of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the United States military. Chronology is not so important here. He is giving the reader background on the art and science of cryptology, circa 1917, necessary understanding to better appreciate what is to come.

Except that the last three pages include the transformation the Friedmans will help bring about during the next three years, “between 1917 and 1920.” This is not background at all, but a peek into the future of the narrative, which is disorienting. Following Lepore’s metaphor, it is like experiencing zero gravity , making awkward movements to orient oneself. What is gained? Fagone is foregrounding their collaborative cryptologic working relationship. But might that not have been better be shown as it was actually happening, in the chronology?

This is when (“One day in early 1917…”) we get the heavyset man from Scotland Yard showing up at Riverbank with an attaché case full of secret messages–enciphered, perhaps encoded, too. William’s biographer, Ronald Clark, uses almost the same sentence construction with a different chronology to introduce the event: “One morning in the autumn of 1917….” Neither he nor Fagone provide any more dates surrounding the bomb plot episode: Friedmans’ decryption of the Hindu nationalist messages or William’s appearance at the infamous trial that followed. Frankly, this was frustrating for me. I understand that dates can clutter up a narrative. Yet, as a reader, I feel most comfortable when the gravitational grounding of dates are not spaced too far apart.

Fortunately, I live in the era of online digitized historical newspapers. The story of the Hindu-German bomb plot seems to have broken around the beginning of March, 1917. It makes sense that the Friedmans would have been brought into the investigation before it became public knowledge, “in early 1917,” say February . The trial began in San Francisco in late November. The dramatic courtroom slaying of a conspirator-turned-government-informer occurred on April 24, 1918. The conviction and sentencing of twenty-nine conspirators followed shortly on May 1. None of this information was available in the two biographies I read, which is not a trifling matter because, in the Fagone book, many prior events will come later in the chapter and even in the next.

But first another dive into cryptological backgrounding/foregrounding and the cryptological working relationship of William and Elizebeth. Fagone shares another “now-famous story about how they thought about their own differing brains.” It is the one where William, trying to break the British Plett cipher, identifies the first of its two key words. (Cipher, of all things!) He asks Elizebeth, who, on another cryptogram at the time, free-associates the word machine. And she was right. Husband and wife solved it together. What a great team! So mutually complementary! All this is cool, as far as it goes, except…WE DON’T YET KNOW THEY ARE MARRIED!

The rest of the chapter steps back from codebreaking and examines the more basic, sexual relationship between the two cryptanalysts. Fagone ends it with the words: “…the two codebreakers at Riverbank were about to become lovers.” Again, this is both astonishing and disorienting, for the dozen pages of exploits we have just read happen after they had become lovers and then married partners. Fagone’s over-arching purpose appears to be to establish the primacy of the Friedmans’ working relationship over their sexual/marital relationship. Yet, the two aspects aren’t so easily be separated out. They both developed together within the inescapable gravitational pull of time.

The next chapter follows the sequence of events during the war, though at variable pacing. The narrative jumps ahead quickly from the couple’s wedding in May, 1917, with a short sentence: “Their work started to dry up in the summer and fall of 1917.” The Army, we learn, had established its own cryptological unit, MI-8, which replaced the one the Friedmans had established. Clark describes Riverbank’s obsolescence as occurring more suddenly: Their work “lasted only a few weeks. On June 10 the Cipher Bureau–Military Intelligence 8–was set up in Washington under the direction of Herbert Yardley.” Fagone’s description is likely more accurate. Nothing happens quickly in the Army. The transition from Riverbank to MI-8 likely took place over time. Still, his comment twenty pages earlier that the Friedmans’ Riverbank team, “for the first eight months of the war, did all of the codebreaking for every part of the U.S. Government [State, Army, Navy, Justice]” cannot be credited. It is contradicted by his own statement that “the War Department had recently launched a codebreaking unit of its own.” That this statement comes with no date, leaves the reader afloat to make his own inferences and likely reach inaccurate conclusions.

“One day in 1925, when her daughter was two…” another mysterious stranger showed up to deflect the trajectory of Elizebeth Friedman’s life. This visit led to her dozen-plus-year career as cryptanalyst for the Treasury Department. Am I asking too much for a month and date of said visit? Three hundred sixty-five days is a long period of time. Elsewhere, Fagone tells us that FDR gave his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, though that fact is easily found in a Google search. The date gives us a sign-post–a gravitational touchpoint–yet we already know the narrative doesn’t adhere to strict chronology, so what follows may not be in April or May, or even in 1933 at all.

We do move generally forward in time to George Fabyan’s death in 1936. The occasion gives Fagone opportunity to discuss William’s interest in his former employer’s collection of cryptological documents and books, as well as to make an apparently seamless segue into the next section on Herbert O. Yardley’s perfidious The American Black Chamber: “And by now, the Friedmans and their colleagues were struggling to manage the consequences of the biggest leak of cryptologic secrets in the country’s history.” Yet that “by now” is misleading at best because Yardley’s tell-all book (perhaps not all and certainly not all of it truthful) was published in mid-1931. The Friedmans had been “struggling to manage” the fallout for five years at that point. To me, historical truth (or at least a clear understanding of what transpired) is here sacrificed to narrative art.

Strict adherence to chronology can be a stultifying way to tell stories: less narrative drive to be enjoyed, less meaning to be gained, less understanding to be retained. Background, context, extenuating circumstances, and, yes, narrative demands often require doubling back and working forward to the point left off. Lives, events, and trends are not as neat and orderly as skilled biographers and historians can make them seem. Jill Lepore, herself, employs plenty of time-shifting in her New Yorker and Last Archive storytelling. But people read for different reasons. As a researcher, I want facts more than artfulness. Other readers may give more weight to creative storytelling.

In his endnotes, Fagone has left a steady trail of crumbs leading to the story behind his story. I will be forever grateful for the extensive archival work he has done, even if I was sometimes frustrated by his creative flouting of history’s gravity.


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