. . . we can behold
Remote things well, for so much light does He
Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled
When things draw near us, and our intelligence
Is useless when they are present. . . .
Dante, Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky)
. . . we can behold
Remote things well, for so much light does He
Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled
When things draw near us, and our intelligence
Is useless when they are present. . . .
Dante, Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky)
. . . which I wrote in the days before e-mail. Two names have been changed.
Have you ever lost your voice? I have an infection of the throat that has caused me to cancel social engagements to avoid hurting my voice. No phone calls, no talking to the cat, no casual conversations on the street . . . But isn’t voicelessness a natural condition among educated people? In writing workshops students are taught to find and then cultivate an “authentic” voice. What could be less authentic than such a practice? Over the course of our education, we are taught to write five-paragraph themes, personal letters, fairy tales, detailed descriptions of events, things, and places, reminiscences of our summer vacations, lists of things to buy, persuasive arguments, book reviews, and class notes, each of which requires a different voice. And then they expect us to come up with an “authentic” voice after all this? There is no such thing. We are all voiceless.
I imagine you have some thoughts on all this, being a professional ventriloquist yourself. (I hope my metaphor for as-told-to autobiography doesn’t offend you.) Is it easier finding an authentic voice as an as-told-to oral historian than as a writer? Has it ever occurred to you to write someone’s autobiography in the order of the telling rather than in the order of his life? Ask somebody to start telling you stories and write them down; chronology will be thrown to the winds. On a blind date one normally talks about the recent past first, then gradually delves into the distant past. The events one relates first are the superficial ones; as acquaintance deepens, the more apocalyptic events surface. Why shouldn’t this be the way books are written too, rather than beginning with the event that changes one’s life, or worse, beginning with one’s birth, an event that one cannot remember?
As usual, my life reads like a very contrived first novel that will never be published. I read somewhere that there are about fourteen million aspiring novelists in the U.S. Maybe the internet is a good thing because it’ll suck up some of the energy that would otherwise go into writing bad novels. Do you think the fact that fewer people are reading books is a good or bad thing? It might be good: fewer people might then write books. Even better, writing workshops might shrivel up for lack of applicants. Maybe only the books that people really care about will start to sell, since only serious readers will be left. Because the readership will be less fickle, book prices will quadruple, thereby insuring that publishers will be more willing to take chances on unknown writers. Therefore I say to the electronic media, More power to you!
Your prompt reply will be most appreciated (said Yuval in an authentic voice).
I received your affirmation of conventional views of writing with mingled joy and disappointment. The joy came from the receipt, and from your finely-crafted prose; the disappointment from my feeling that you simply affirm established “truths” about writing without questioning them.
You claim that each of us has an authentic writing voice, which can vary like a spoken voice. I think the proper comparison here is to handwriting, which is as physical as the vocal cords; each of us has an authentic handwriting, which can vary a great deal, but yet which can still be identified. But once one takes away the physical manifestation of our writing and encases it in type, all writing becomes anonymous. By imposing our “authentic voice” on this anonymous writing, we label it as ours, we claim possession of it, we become authors. Authorship is constructed, not intrinsic. Many writers—Keats comes to mind—have viewed authorship as a quasi-mystical channeling of a divine force; others—e.g. whoever writes the back of cereal boxes—view writing as a task motivated only by capital. In many pre-modern and non-Western societies, the quality of art and writing was judged by how faithfully it resembled certain models; originality was considered a fault, not a virtue. In fact, with enough study, almost anyone of intelligence could produce passable imitations of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway, and Melville (provided one limited oneself to a specific work). Children are taught the five-paragraph theme form, and for many of them, that is the only writing they have ever done. Is this their authentic voice, then? Do they subsequently discover their authentic voice, or do they invent it? Is there really any difference? And once it is discovered/invented, what is to stop them from changing it radically? If one did not know that Melville was the author of Moby Dick, Pierre, The Confidence Man, and Battle-Pieces, is there anything in the works themselves to conclusively point to one author for all four of them? Each is written in an entirely different voice. An author is defined by his voice; the voice is defined by the work; therefore the author is defined by the work. Without knowing biographical details, and without attribution, each of those Melville works would define substantially different authors, about whose lives conjectures would vary widely.
Your notes on finding George’s voice simply reaffirm these thoughts: you are constructing a voice particular to this book. Doubtless George’s previous autobiographical work, written with a different coauthor, is in a different voice; and doubtless were he to actually set pen to paper and compose a memoir himself, it would differ substantially from yours. Then consider the possibility that he might want to write fiction, rather than a memoir; or poetry; or pop song lyrics, or legal treatises. You define George’s voice in your joint text as consisting of words which he could have possibly said. But there is nothing that he could not have possibly said. Had he learned French and subsequently gone mad, he could have possibly said, “Je ne suis pas mort; je monterai un cheval blanc; et à la fin, vous me trouverez trés loin d’ici.” Aren’t you, in fact, constructing a written voice for George, one which cannot claim authenticity? Isn’t your construction entirely dependent on how you want George to sound to your readers? Why not admit that, instead of calling it “finding George’s voice”? Is he incapable of finding his own voice?
I’m sorry if this letter is too earnest, testy, and argumentative. You know me. My next letter will be nothing but bad jokes . . .
I’ve come to the conclusion (if one can really come to a conclusion—it sounds so utterly final) that the only true written literature consists not in novels, not in poems, not in short stories, but in letters. Give me enough letters and I will have no need of anything more. All other literature suffers from a peculiar lack—that of an addressee. Have you ever read a book written specifically for you? Who are books written for? Are they letters to oneself? If so, they would read, “Dear Me, dear me”—and many of them do. Are they letters to the world? If we subtract books addressed to oneself and books addressed to the world, we are still left with the large majority of books, whose addressees are unknown—or perhaps consist of certain groups of amateurs, such as sci-fi buffs, Civil War buffs, mystery buffs, future professors of English. None of this is specific enough for me. I want my reading to address myself, impinge upon me on purpose rather than by accident. Reading a book that someone has published for anyone to pick up is like getting junk mail. Who does this author think he is, writing me in such a fashion? one thinks. How did literature arise? Does it make sense to write a book? Pre-literary communication, I assume, must have all been directed. Who came up with the idea of writing an unaddressed communiqué? I suppose first there were chronicles—the idea of saving some heroic remembrance for posterity must be ingrained in all humans—followed shortly by the words of gods. Such documentation strikes me as quite legitimate. But a novel? How did the documentation of oral history get transmuted into such a peculiar thing? Stories are social acts, and impart a peculiar kind of knowledge we have long ago lost sight of. This is narrative knowledge, and is not information; it cannot be boiled down to a short statement. This kind of knowledge is best imparted orally, to a small group sitting around a campfire, or in a friend’s living room, perhaps, around a fireplace. I leave that to the storytellers. The novel departs from all that—it is a non-social communication, a shot in the dark. I can’t read the damn things anymore. What has this country come to, Billy? I would estimate that 20% of the populace consider themselves writers. All this writing—where does it go? Perhaps it’s useful to compare novels to birdsongs—they establish a certain territory—they are fenceposts for the property of the mind. Thankfully, letters sail over those fenceposts indiscriminately. You and I both partake in this free-floating disease, this aspiration to write, which is really an aspiration to publish (even if that publication succeed our demise), and I’m certain that if either of us ever does publish anything, it will be of much more literary worth than the stuff that’s in our letters. So what? Those published pieces will be barren in comparison. All the emotion, all the urgency, will have been drained from them. Literature departs from us like a package placed at an anonymous doorstep. We think we know what that package contains—a bomb, perhaps, or a baby—but we have no idea when and whether it will be opened—and if it is opened, whether the bomb will explode, whether the baby will live. And if it explodes, will the bomb harm the right people? And if it lives, will the baby bring joy to idiots or savants, misers or paupers? Letters reach those who deserve them. You deserve mine, Billy. Take that as retribution or reward according to your estimation of your desserts—and of my letters.
I’d rather not hear that your letters were “too ordinary to send.” First, that seems improbable, even from your point of view; second, letters are by nature quite extraordinary, especially the ones I receive, since they arrive so seldom. Reading a letter is never an ordinary event; the event imparts something out of the ordinary to the letter itself.
I must defend my position on correspondence. You wrote, “All flirtation imparts counsel.” How can a novel be flirtatious? Doesn’t flirtation imply a person with whom one flirts? One can’t very well flirt with a thousand people at once. That would be entertainment, not flirtation. Let’s put it another way. In telling a story, the teller can observe the reactions of the audience; the same is true for an actor on stage. Letters are always written with the expectation of reciprocation. But novels are written in a vacuum. One is advised when writing fiction to ignore any possible audience, to write for oneself alone. Indeed, John Stuart Mill once stated that true poetry is comparable to monologue. This has been an essential part of literary discourse since the late eighteenth century. I ask you, does it make any sense to publish something that is written for oneself alone? Is there any reason why a reader should be put in the position of an eavesdropper on an internal monologue? Perhaps, as you put it, “I’ve driven off the road into the bushes.” The road, in this case, is modernism (broadly defined to include the last two hundred years); the premodern bushes I now inhabit are quite accommodating.
You hesitate to follow me when I head somewhere strange. That’s OK—I hardly need followers. As Neil Young put it in an interview with Greil Marcus, “I know that the sacrifice of success breeds longevity. That’s an axiom. Being willing to give up success in the short run ensures a long run.” Some ideas of mine work, some don’t. Whether they work or not, I’d rather test out new ones than stick with the old. Right now I’m interested in how writing is directed, how it functions as writing. I’m trying to understand how fiction works, how it can exist, how it can be defended. I’ve come to the point at which I have a very hard time getting past page two or three of any fictional work I pick up (unless it’s an epistolary novel). Too many problems present themselves to me. For convenience, let’s use Moby Dick, frequently called the greatest novel in the English language, as an example. “Call me Ishmael.” This presents the problem up-front: I have been issued an imperative, one that the author knows I will never obey, not only because I have no reason to call the narrator of the novel “Ishmael,” but because the author’s name is not Ishmael. All right, let’s forget about the latter, and pretend that an actor is on stage, directing us to call him Ishmael. Does the audience then respond, “Hi, Ishmael!”? Or does it sit in silence, as we do when confronted with these words? What kind of language is this, where a clear imperative is utterly ignored, with the implicit consent of he who issued it? If I wrote you a letter that told you to “Call me Ishmael,” you would either respond, “Dear Ishmael,” or, Bartleby-like, “I’d prefer not to.” But here we somehow take it for granted. Now I realize that this imperative says more than that—it says, in essence, “My name may not be Ishmael, but for the purposes of this narrative, I’d prefer you to know me as Ishmael.” Melville cleverly begins his fiction with an admission by the narrator that he is not entirely trustworthy. The second sentence reads, “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” That “never mind how long precisely” again admits the untrustworthiness of the narrator. So we are facing a fiction within a fiction, a tall tale told by a narrator who does not exist. The key thing is that this distancing strategy is necessary if we are to swallow this whale of a tale whole. It is a variant of “This is a story my father told me, and it was told to him by his father.” The novel no longer claims to be representative of reality—it becomes simply a story.
But something peculiar happens halfway through (and not only there, but in the prefatory material as well): this story, which has been presented to us as pure fiction, begins to require reams of documentation. Melville gives us hundreds of pages of facts—interpreted facts, but still facts. Why? What has happened here? When a traditional storyteller tells his tales which he has heard from his father who has in turn heard it from his father, no facts are necessary, we have left behind the factual world and exist in the realm of pure story. But the novel, at least after Balzac, requires the influx of information, requires provability. What is the point of the profusion of detail in the novel? To enhance the illusion of reality. But what is the point of that illusion? Why should we be deceived? And how do we allow ourselves to be deceived by realistic descriptions when we have not allowed ourselves to be deceived by “Call me Ishmael”? In my last letter, I argued that the very existence of novels made no sense; now I support that argument by saying that the way novels are written and presented makes no sense. There is nothing more futile than the imitation of the real, as Plato pointed out in The Republic. Pure fiction (as in the folk tale), pure communication (as in letters), pure documentation—all these things I can understand. But the novel—this unholy mixture—baffles me.
I no longer write letters. I write novels.
Perhaps only Glenn Gould was audacious enough to rush through Bach's exquisite fifth partita in under ten minutes. But what an exciting and sublime ten minutes, so full of joy and compassion! Recorded in 1957, this was the first partita he recorded, but he hated the recording. He commented in 1968, "It was absolutely my favorite Bach partita. So favorite that I played it on virtually every program. When I would first play in Leningrad, that would be the feature work of the first half of the program, ditto in Moscow, et cetera. When I came back from that tour I decided to record it, and it was, I swear, the worst Bach recording that I've ever made. It was also the most pianistic. It was perhaps the one that the connoisseur of the piano would like best; it's the one that I like least, because it's least Bach, it's least me (vis-a-vis Bach in any case). it's full of all sorts of dynamic hang-ups; it's full of crescendi and diminuendi that have no part in the structure, in the skeleton of that music, and defy one to portray the skeleton adequately." Gould apparently disdained the fire and passion, the impetuosity, with which he imbued this recording.
Listen and decide for yourself:
A baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused, charged with modulations and dissonances, the melody is harsh and little natural, the intonation difficult, and the movement constrained.
Understanding Baroque architecture . . . mean[s] freeing the mind from classicist conformism, accepting daring, fantasy, variability, intolerance of formalistic canons, variety of theatrical effects, asymmetry, disorder, the symphonic collaboration of architecture, sculpture, painting, gardening, and jeux d'eaux.
—Bruno ZeviFrom the 1540s to at least the 1720s composers in a preponderant share of their music strove for the expression of affective states, whether or not inspired by a text. It is this striving that led to the extravagances that were first deplored as "Baroque." Irregularity, amplification, strangeness, and grotesqueness, qualities inherent in the word, were often the very products of the search for expression.
—Claude V. PaliscaIn all styles of baroque, whatever period, whatever country, improvisation was always present, integrated into both the melodic and harmonic fabric of the music. To decorate, to supplement, to vary, to embellish, to improve, as it was often called, was an accepted part of being a performing musician.
The word "baroque" originally meant irregular or misshapen--particularly with reference to pearls.
Much has been written about mystery in twentieth-century American popular music. But what about nineteenth-century German classical music, with its hundreds of unsettling songs, full of shadows and ghosts? This one is unusually subtle, with an addressee who shifts identity from verse to verse: it's a poem from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprentice (1796) that Robert Schumann set to music in 1849.
Know’st thou the land where lemon-trees do bloom,
And oranges like gold in leafy gloom;
A gentle wind from deep blue heaven blows,
The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows?
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there,
O my belov’d one, I with thee would go!
Know’st thou the house, its porch with pillars tall?
The rooms do glitter, glitters bright the hall,
And marble statues stand, and look me on:
What’s this, poor child, to thee they’ve done?
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there,
O my protector, I with thee would go!
Know’st thou the mountain bridge that hangs on cloud?
The mules in mist grope o’er the torrent loud,
In caves lie coil’d the dragon’s ancient brood,
The crag leaps down and over it the flood:
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there
Our way runs; O my father, wilt thou go?
The new Harper's features a short essay entitled "The Necessity of Agriculture," in which Wendell Berry says that it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the love of farming. "No doubt there are people who farm without it, but without it nobody will be a good farmer or a good husbander of the land. We seem now to be coming to a time when we will have to recognize the love of farming not as a quaint souvenir of an outdated past but as an economic necessity."
But Berry fails to acknowledge the social reality of farming. Agriculture used to be fundamentally penal in nature (and prison farms still exist). When God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, he said, "Cursed be the ground because of you. In sorrow you shall eat from it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistle shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." Farming has always been the work of slaves and serfs.
Among the 6,000 people of Ur in 2000 BC, 2,500 were agricultural laborers. Of these, a number were overseers and supervisors. Only the lowest in social rank actually tilled the fields. This has remained constant for about 4,000 years now. Why did the manorial economic system, the system of serfdom, remain in place from early Roman times through the late middle ages? It is because farming ranked as one of the least pleasant of tasks.
Berry quotes a marvelous passage from Goethe's Faust in which Mephistopheles praises farming as "a natural way to make you young." That is, indeed, the devil speaking, for God certainly never said anything like that. It's a very attractive and romantic notion, hatched by eighteenth-century idealists, and quickly put into practice in farming communes throughout Europe and the United States. The Amish and the Mennonites still live by this creed; so do, to a lesser extent, the Israeli kibbutzim. Long may they prosper and increase! I buy locally grown food, I love to visit farms like these, and I certainly sympathize with Berry's points.
But why doesn't Berry praise mining instead? After all, metal has been fundamental to human life just as long as agriculture, both mining and farming have been the tasks of the lowest ranks of humans, and both were successfully industrialized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to reduce the proportion of the population employed in these degrading tasks. But do you ever hear about the love of mining?
Farming may long remain a chore which few people can love. More power to them. Perhaps they'll win in the end, as Berry and I hope. But if history has anything to say about the future, most farming will remain a task performed by slaves, serfs, peasants, and machines.
And moon-tailed orioles roost wing to wing
With mocking-birds that only dream they sing . . .
—James Whaler, from Green River: A Poem for Rafinesque (1931)
I can't for the life of me figure out where I first came across these lines, but it was many years ago, and the second one stuck with me. So I obtained a copy of Green River, a justly forgotten book-length poem as unrestrained, romantic, and crazy as its hero. That hero is Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), who was born in Constantinople and did his most valuable work in Kentucky. He apparently fancied himself not only the premier American naturalist (his work influenced Darwin's theory of natural selection), but also an expert on American Indian history, and was responsible for publishing the Walam Olum, a specious creation narrative of the Lenapes, and for finding hundreds of ancient earthworks in the Ohio Valley. He fascinates me, and I hope to learn more about him. The Wikipedia page devoted to him is quite interesting, but to get a better picture of the man and the problems that researchers face, examine amazon.com's page devoted to Leonard Warren's Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness. It includes a remarkably eloquent publisher's description of the book (and of its subject) followed by a terrifying 3,500-word review, the longest amazon.com review I've ever read, that lists every single error the author and publisher made—a truly fascinating and obsessive document.
As for the poet, James Whaler appears to have been equally obsessive—his book Counterpoint and Symbol: An Inquiry into the Rhythm of Milton's Epic Style is apparently chock-full of mathematical diagrams and discussions of numerical progressions. Americans who strove for fame yet produced nothing but obscure and flawed works marked by mania, hubris, and a confusion between fancy and scholarship, both Rafinesque and Whaler are, in a sense, "mocking-birds that only dream they sing."
God, you are my God;
I seek you.
My soul thirsts for you,
my flesh longs for you,
in a parched and thirsty land without water--
thus to have beheld you in the sanctuary,
to see your might and your glory.
For your kindness is better than life;
my lips shall praise you.
Thus shall I bless you all my life;
in your name I shall lift my hands.
As if my desire were sated with suet and fat,
I sing praises with joyful lips,
when I call you to mind upon my bed,
when I think of you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
in the shelter of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul cleaves to you;
your right hand supports me.
May those who seek to destroy my soul
enter the depths of the earth.
May they be gutted by the sword;
may they be prey to jackals.
The king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall be glorified
when the mouth of liars is stopped.
—Psalm 63 (my translation)
What makes men read. Man reads for many reasons, but one is far stronger than all the rest. That one is the desire to deepen and expand his comprehending of other men. THE TURQUOISE has the power to add to this comprehension. That is not because of its ugly-beautiful heroine, its unpredictable compromises with the logic of life. It is not because the book spans the continent from southwest to northeast. It is not that it covers a rich period of 75 years which end with the years that many who read this book will just remember. It is not that half a dozen races are mingled in its plot to make the gaudy yet subtle pattern which is America. It is that knowing the places and the people, the author has found the power to live in the age and the circumstance and in the hearts of her characters and to communicate the intimate knowledge of that living to the reader.
This is the entirety of the back jacket of Anya Seton's The Turquoise,
published in 1946 by Houghton-Mifflin, exactly as it appears. (For a plot summary of the book, read Edmund Wilson's Classics and Commercials; the book itself has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Anya Seton's novels--of which my favorite is Katherine.) So much
for publishing's good old days. If you've seen anything worse, I'd love
About a dozen years ago, while annotating slave narratives for an anthology I edited called I Was Born a Slave, I came across this passage in James W. C. Pennington's 1849 Fugitive Blacksmith: "He cited to me various instances of coloured persons, of whom I had not heard before, and who had distinguished themselves for learning, such as Bannicker, Wheatley, and Francis Williams." I knew who the first two were: Benjamin Banneker and Phyllis Wheatley; but who was Francis Williams?
It took many hours of research to find out that almost all we now know of Francis Williams is contained in a repulsively racist book written by Edward Long and published in London in 1774, entitled The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island: With Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. Long devotes an entire chapter in the second volume (out of three) to Francis Williams; he begins:
I have forborne till now to introduce upon the stage a personage, who made a conspicuous figure in this island, and even attracted the notice of many in
England. With the impartiality that becomes me, I shall endeavour to do him all possible justice; and shall leave it to the reader’s opinion, whether what they shall discover of his genius and intellect will be sufficient to overthrow the arguments, I have before alledged, to prove an inferiority of the Negroes to the race of white men. It will by this time be discovered, that I allude to Francis Williams, a native of this island, and son to John and Dorothy Williams, free Negroes. Lewis was the youngest of three sons, and, being a boy of unusual lively parts, was pitched upon to be the subject of an experiment, which, it is said, the Duke of Montagu was curious to make, in order to discover, whether, by proper cultivation, and a regular course of tuition at school and the university, a Negroe might not be found as capable of literature as a white person. In short, he was sent to England, where he underwent a regular discipline of classic instruction at a grammar school, after which he was fixed at the university of Cambridge, where he studied under the ablest preceptors, and made some progress in the mathematics. During his abode in England, after finishing his education, it is said (I know not with what truth) that he composed the well-known ballad of “Welcome, welcome, brother debtor, &c.” But I have likewise heard the same attributed to a different author. Upon his return to Jamaica, the duke would fain have tried his genius likewise in politics, and intended attaining for him a privy seal, or appointment to be one of the governor’s council; but this scheme was dropped, upon the objections offered by Mr. Trelawny, the governor at that time. Williams therefore set up a school in Spanish Town, which he continued for several years, where he taught reading, writing, Latin, and the elements of the mathematics; whilst he acted in this profession, he selected a Negroe pupil, whom he trained up with particular care, intending to make him his successor in the school; but of this youth it may be said, to use the expression of Festus to Paul, that “much learning made him mad.” The abstruse problems of mathematical institution turned his brain; and he still remains, I believe, an unfortunate example, to shew that every African head is not adapted by nature to such profound contemplations. The chief pride of this disciple consists in imitating the garb and deportment of his tutor. A tye perriwig, a sword, and ruffled shirt, seem in his opinion to comprehend the very marrow and quintessence of all erudition, and philosophic dignity. Probably he imagines it a more easy way of acquiring, among the Negroes, the reputation of a great scholar, by these superficial marks, which catch their eye, than by talking of Euclid, whom they know nothing about.
In the next paragraph Long attributes Williams’s genius to the northern climate, and quotes the philosopher David Hume, who says, “In Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” Long then continues:
In regard to the general character of the man, he was haughty, opinionated, looked down with sovereign contempt on his fellow Blacks, entertained the highest opinion of his own knowledge, treated his parents with much disdain, and behaved towards his children and his slaves with a severity bordering upon cruelty; he was fond of having great deference paid to him, and exacted it in the utmost degree from the Negroes about him; he affected a singularity of dress, and particularly grave cast of countenance, to impress an idea of his wisdom and learning; and, to second this view, he wore in common a huge wig, which made a very venerable figure. The moral part of his character may be collected from these touches, as well as the measure of his wisdom, on which, as well as some other attributes to which he laid claim, he had not the modesty to be silent, whenever he met with occasion to expatiate upon them. . . . He defined himself “a white man acting under a black skin.” He endeavoured to prove logically, that a Negroe was superior in quality to a Mulatto, or other cast. His proposition was, that “a simple white or a simple black complexion was respectively perfect: but a Mulatto, being an heterogeneous medley of both, was imperfect, ergo inferior.”
His opinion of Negroes may be inferred from a proverbial saying, that was frequently in his mouth; “Show me a Negroe, and I will show you a thief.” He died, not long since, at the age of seventy, or thereabouts.
In my subsequent research about Williams I found little that I did not already know, for Long's book was the primary source for information about his life. W. J. Gardner's History of Jamaica (1873) repeated Long’s history, then attempted to explain Williams’s character as follows:
In estimating (so far as imperfect information will permit) the character of this man, the prejudices of the times in which he lived must be taken into consideration. The race to which he belonged was then almost universally despised, and the temptation to curry favour with the whites by denouncing the negroes was too great for him to resist. He was simply tolerated, and even if he had possessed that nobility of character which constitutes the ideal, by making him willing to suffer for a proscribed people or cause, his career would soon have been cut short. His disposition, too, was soured by the contemptuous way in which his abilities were spoken of, even by men removed from the influence of colonial prejudices, as well as by those who were personally acquainted with him. Self assertion may have seemed to him the only way by which to meet the unfair depreciation of his real ability. Compared with his own race, he was unmeasurably [sic] the intellectual superior of any who then lived in Jamaica.
I also found a portrait painted of Williams around 1735, in which, dressed to the nines and wearing a generous wig, he stands in front of a bookcase full of works by Newton, Locke, Bacon, and others; his hand rests on Newton’s Philosophy, which sits open on a table next to a celestial globe, an inkstand, and some compasses; on the floor is another globe inscribed “The Western or Atlantick Ocean.” His face, however, seems to be a caricature.The Alumni Cantabrigiensis has no listing for Francis Williams; nor is he mentioned in any histories of eighteenth-century England. As for the Duke of Montagu, the British Dictionary of National Biography gives us the following:
MONTAGU, JOHN, second DUKE OF MONTAGU (1688?–1749), courtier. . . . In 1709 he succeeded his father as second duke. . . . The duke appears to have been a man of some talents, but with much of the buffoon about him. He was the originator of the famous hoax at the Haymarket Theatre of a man squeezing himself into a quart bottle. Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, wrote of him to Lord Stair: ‘All my son-in-law’s talents lie in the things natural to boys of fifteen, and he is about two and fifty. To get people into his gardens and wet them with squirts, to invite people to his country house and put things in their beds to make them itch, and twenty other such pretty fancies.’
What does this all add up to? It is important to recognize that Williams seems to have been the first Jamaican scholar of note, not just the first black Jamaican of note. The racist views of Long (and Hume) are widely known; and as late as one hundred years after his death, Williams was still being cited as proof that blacks could attain to the same level of genius as whites. Indeed, Long reprints in its entirety an ode Williams wrote in Latin to welcome a new governor to Jamaica, and it displays no mean proficiency in the language. If Long’s worst claims about Williams are to be believed, one may more readily attribute his failings to his highbrow British education than to his race.
But after reading about Lord Montagu, I wondered: did he take Williams from Jamaica for solely philanthropic reasons? Did he really wish to prove the equality of the races? Or, since he was a prankster, did he do it to win a bet or as part of a more involved practical joke? In that case, had Williams perhaps learned something from Lord Montagu, and was his conceitedness part of an extended joke? Could his dress and behavior have been a parody, “signifying” on those of his British teachers? Being a genius, could he have deliberately played the fool?
Perhaps. But at least in his poetry, Williams considered himself a white man in black skin. In an attempt to show that Williams’s Latin, while impressive, conveys pretentious sentiments, Long translated Williams’s ode into English, appending it to his chapter on the man. I quote from Long’s translation below (from the context, Williams is clearly referring to himself as the black muse here; the “Caesar of the West” is the arriving governor):
Oh! Muse, of blackest tint, why shrinks thy breast,
Why fears t’ approach the Caesar of the West!
Dispel thy doubts, with confidence ascend
The regal dome, and hail him for thy friend:
Nor blush, altho’ in garb funereal drest,
Thy body’s white, tho’ clad in sable vest.
Is a black man who calls himself white praising or condemning himself? Or simply playing a part?
Complicating matters, I have now learned from this post that Williams inherited from his parents a number of black slaves, and that by the time of his death he owned fifteen of them. The post also calls into question many of Long's other assertions. It is based on an article by Vincent Carretta, a scholar whom I greatly respect.
I like to think of Williams as a kind of inscrutable clown, who masks his arrogance with pretense in order to make his genius less threatening to his oppressors. But I could be wrong. History—as usual—conceals the answer.
These days, when the merit of fiction tends to be measured by the currency of its subjects, a confessional element in the work helps establish credibility. Reviewers try to square the antics of a writer's life with the antics in the fiction. Even satirical verbal play is too often read and admired as autobiographical expression. And thanks to the democratic exposures of the web, it's easier than ever to document private experiences and divulge the most intimate secrets. Confession doesn't leave much room for imagination except to demand its allegiance to the personal, which may leave readers less inclined to find value in the extravagant lies of fiction.
—Joanna Scott, from her article on Isak Dinesen in this week's Nation