September 27, 2021
Drenched in the blood of the country’s leader, in a suit that has become iconic in American consciousness, Jackie Kennedy has long stood as a representation of American sorrow, of chaos, and of loss, planted in the silence of mourning. But who is Jackie Kennedy, really? What does it mean to be a woman so embedded in public imagination that your story can be told (and, importantly, mistold) by just about anyone? How can one regain control of a story stolen? The answer, author Caroline Hagood tells us in her novel Ghosts of America, is through haunting: the voices of the past returning to reclaim their stories. Indeed, Ghosts of America tells us that haunting, however fantastical, can be a deeply political act, an act of resistance, a way to rewrite a silenced story.
Ghosts of America follows Herzog, a male novelist inclined towards narcissism and misogyny who, on a transformative and peculiar night, is haunted by the ghosts of Jackie Kennedy and Valerie Solanas: women he has miswritten. Structured into three perspectives with chapters that rarely extend longer than two pages, a choice that allows the novel to read like a series of connected vignettes, Ghosts of America is a stirring feminist commentary on the danger of male dominated literature and female misrepresentation. Told with wry humor, historical accuracy, honesty, and breathtaking imagery, it is also a testament to the power of writing to resist and revive the erased voices of history’s women.
A lyrical, hybrid genre author with previous works such as Making Maxine’s Baby (2015) and Ways of Looking at a Woman (2019), Caroline Hagood is no stranger to feminist exploration and the examination of often unheard perspectives and narratives. In Ghosts of America, however, Hagood ventures into the realm of fiction, translating her talent for lyrical expression and feminist narrative into a genre which, in Hagood fashion, she makes all her own. The fictional aspect of the book allows Hagood’s aptitude for character to come to life. She inhabits the voice of Jackie Kennedy and Valerie Solanas with responsibility and striking sincerity, but perhaps the most arresting voice in this novel is that of Hagood’s fictionalized Herzog.
Herzog is a self-obsessed and sexist novelist whose voice throughout the book alternates between humorous and downright frightening, an effective tension which forces the reader into a claustrophobic relationship with the book’s central narrator – we hate him, but we cannot escape him. “Speaking of tension,” Herzog narrates in the first chapter, “suffice it to say of my old self, pre-transformation, that on Sundays instead of going to church I liked to stand in front of my full-length mirror and jack off. To the spectacle of Ms. Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. President to JFK in 1962.” This strangely prideful statement sets the tone for Herzog’s opening narration, wherein he transparently reveals himself as a misogynist and, in perhaps the most alarming story line of the novel, a Peeping Tom. Though this plotline is disturbing, Hagood deftly establishes in these opening chapters that this is a man who has a lesson to learn, a man who deserves to be haunted. Importantly, Hagood further identifies Herzog as a cog in a violently misogynistic social structure. Herzog is not an exception; rather, he is an echo, a perpetuator, of a dangerous rule.
He also happens to have a say in whose stories are told, how they are told, and what kind of narratives are accepted as true. “When you write about someone else,” Herzog says, “especially someone dead, you’re asking that the particulars of her life—that even she herself—may come back to haunt you.” And so they do. This is where the magic of Hagood’s novel comes to life – when she allows the dead women Herzog has misrepresented to speak, and to reclaim their stories in the face of male violence and literary falsehood.
While Hagood’s exploration of Valeria Solanas’ legacy is strong and evocative, her focus on Jackie Kennedy stands out as a piece of writing in which a face of American history is given a restructuring of narrative, a soul, and a sense of humor. Hagood sticks closely to historical detail, which gives her emotional and creative embellishments credibility and integrity. Instead of solely emphasizing the facts, however, Hagood takes a deep dive into Kennedy’s psyche, humanizing her and highlighting the injustice of her misrepresentation and gendered expectations. “I was a woman and destined for a certain kind of life,” Jackie Kennedy narrates. “I became a specialist in the genealogy of shadows.” Hagood here returns agency to Jackie Kennedy, allowing her ghost to defend herself within the context of imprisoning gender roles. She restores her voice through haunting.
Ghosts of America is an expressive novel that exists in the realm of ghostliness, irony, history, and feminist declaration. It finds power in the ability of the past to regain a voice in the present, especially from those who have been mistreated. It is also a crucial addition to the broader conversation surrounding the representation of women in literature. The book in itself serves as a kind of haunting of the problematic and oppressive history of literary spaces, taking control of narratives stolen and returning them to their rightful perspectives. “And here, my dear Herzog,” Jackie Kennedy says, “is where you have really been getting it wrong. I was not muse but writer.”