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Why We’re Drawn to Tragedy

The story of the Dakota War of 1862 — a six-week clash between Dakota warriors and white soldiers on the Northwestern frontier that left hundreds of settlers dead and culminated in the execution of 38 Native Americans on the day after Christmas, the largest mass execution in United States history — is grim. Its troubling outcome reverberates all the way up to the present, especially for the descendants of the thousands of Dakotas who were forced out of Minnesota in the war's aftermath. And though whites in 1862 claimed victory (and quickly claimed vacated Dakota lands), many had seen their neighbors or family members murdered and their communities ripped apart, while later generations of Minnesotans have gradually come to understand that thorny issues of indiscriminate revenge and insufficient justice remain difficult to reconcile with origin stories too-often scrubbed clean of most difficult, and important, questionsthorny issues of indiscriminate revenge and insufficient justice remain difficult to reconcile with origin stories too-often scrubbed clean of most difficult, and important, questions.

Anyone writing a book like 38 Nooses must, at some point, ponder our endless appetite for tragedy. I've chosen, after all, to make myself the bearer of much bad news. Still, from the earliest days of my archival research on the subject, I found it curious how often editors and reporters of the era would use the word "excitement" to describe the horrors of war: "We have received news of a great excitement along the Indian frontier," and so on. Meanings do change over time, but still the word stuck with me, posing a crucial question: Why, in the face of overarching awfulness, do such stories make our hearts race and even lift them, dreading or knowing as we do that we're headed for the bitterest of ends?

I'm hardly the first writer to note that for as long as humans have told stories, we've understood the intense attraction — the "excitement" — of watching a series of ever-escalating events move headlong toward an irreversible fork in the road. In one direction lies acceptance, happiness, redemption, or catharsis; in the other, resignation, sadness, darkness, or death. Tragedy, comedy, romance, adventure, farce, epic: all find their forms only after the story's final turn, which, if handled properly, satisfies (I won't say "rewards") an emotional investment in the tale that is, some linguists argue, hard-wired into our brains. The history may seem inexorable, the end result fearfully fated, but the story should never seem so, not least because those in its middle can't see outside of their own experiences.

And that, of course, is forever our own condition. It's no coincidence that some of the narrative histories I enjoy most — Adam Goodheart's 1861 or Fergus M. Bordewich's Bound for Canaan, to provide two examples also set in proximity to the Civil War — work the hardest to reconstruct that sense of the provisional nature of experience, the absence of certainty about what comes after the story's conclusion. To remind us of the present while writing about the past is a double-edged sword, one that needs to be wielded carefully, and sometimes not at all.

We also read and tell such stories to place ourselves in one constellation of a very wide and brilliant sky. Tragedy snaps us to attention; it causes us to stop and to take stock of how much it all mattered. Events along a winding, picturesque river valley in southwestern Minnesota — events so keenly remembered and so often told in homes and between friends by the descendants of white settlers and once-exiled Dakotas, but so rarely noticed by other histories — are indeed an important part of the great moral arc of national and world history.

It's easy enough to say that had the Civil War not been raging far to the south and east, with battles called Bull Run and Antietam claiming thousands of lives in a few hours' time and threatening to demolish the young American Union, the Dakota War would now be studied alongside such recognizable moments as Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. But widen the lens even further: the Dakota War is, in fact, one notch on a continuum that runs from the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans to the present day. The story of race during the Civil War, and in America more generally, did not occur along a single axis of black and white; that story is better charted as an equilateral triangle — white, black, and Native American — a truth that didn't disappear simply because North and South were engaged in a war over the future of slavery.

Tragedy imparts knowledge, whatever its cost in pain. The descendants of the Dakota combatants carry that knowledge in ways familiar to any people who have been branded by history as the losing party in ethnic or sectional strife — the Irish, Jews, African-Americans, and even, somewhat ironically, Southerners — through carefully kept and guarded memories, written down or transmitted orally, keen on the particulars, and distrustful of outsiders. For non-Dakotas, as with any victors in war, there are still many reasons to seek out stories of the past: to maintain innocence or to assuage guilt, yes, but also to place one's gaze in a different vantage point, or to wipe away received notions of "how it happened," or, most optimistically, to open up lines of communication that have been closed. Underneath all these motives, though, lies a similar foundation: the desire to know how we became who we are today.

And beyond tragedy's more sober function of truth telling, there is, certainly, the "excitement" of discovering that life can be so much more extreme, in its own particular ways, than myth or legend. It's true in my experience, at least; nonfiction is always stranger than fiction. The real continues to bound on ahead of the made up; indeed, a certain logic states that nonfiction must be stranger than fiction, that the imagined must always fit itself within the boundaries established by the known. In any case, tragedies allow us to expand our view of the world and assimilate that view at the same time, and they allow us to bear witness to events and say, This Really Happened.

All of this is a bit lofty, and understandably so, for tragedy is a lofty subject. But plenty of baser instincts enter in as well. Sometimes our urge to gawk is powerful and prurient, unflatteringly so, yet at some level it's universal and therefore forgivable.Sometimes our urge to gawk is powerful and prurient, unflatteringly so, yet at some level it's universal and therefore forgivable. Our relationship to tragedies, told as stories, changes according to our proximity or involvement in events; often as readers, distance matters, just as driving past an accident on the highway is very different than reconstructing our own involvement in the wreck.

But this urge to stare, for lack of a better word, goes beyond vicarious fascination; it also speaks to our desire to feel more alive and to our amazement at how close to the bone our predecessors lived. Some days, modern life feels like no more than a concoction of amber: we feel immobilized, numbed, at the mercy of unknowable technology, ever-growing populations, irreconcilable politics, and vast impersonal administrative systems in which our roles seem ever more insignificant. In contrast, history of the kind I write about in 38 Nooses can seem so raw, so immediate and ungovernable, that it's like standing at the end of a dock before an approaching hurricane long after it would have been prudent to go inside.

Finally, though, I think we read tales of terrible events not to see what happens to people but to find out who they are. Tragedy uncovers character, in the sense that it introduces new people to the historical record and also provides a greater, keener, and more complex understanding of their lives. Without the Dakota War as a backdrop, how would we fully "read" erstwhile Dakota leader Little Crow or Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple or captive settler Sarah Wakefield or even, yes, Abraham Lincoln? And by doing this "reading," we take one final, crucial step, as we hold our beliefs about our own character up to the mirror of their conduct and choices. In the end, the lives we seek to understand are our own. In the absence of these events and the stories we tell about them — with their amazing, awful power to focus our attention — how would we more fully understand ourselves and our own messy, complicated, and contradictory humanity?

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Scott W. Berg holds a BA in architecture from the University of Minnesota, an MA from Miami University of Ohio, and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Post.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and...
    Sale Hardcover $10.98
  2. 1861: The Civil War Awakening...
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  3. Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of... Used Trade Paper $7.50

Scott W. Berg is the author of 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End

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