Notes & sources (IV)

Most books are mostly made of other books. This story (“A Theatre,” published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies No. 336, August 12, 2021) is certainly no exception to that rule. Some people, and I’m one of them, can’t get enough of this sort of thing. Therefore, may I call you attention, Hypothetical Reader, to some facts, sources, and miscellaneous notes? To wit:—

Both Augustus Burnham and Enoch Crosby answered the call to arms after Lexington and Concord; possibly they met then near Boston. In any case, Crosby later enlisted in the Continental Army (I have moved his clandestine activities a few years later than they actually occurred), although there is no evidence that Burnham had any further military career. But then wouldn’t one expect secret service to be secret? (See Robert H. Burnham, Genealogical records of Thomas Burnham, the emigrant, who was among the early settlers at Hartford…, page 148; and H. L. Barnum, The spy unmasked; or, memoirs of Enoch Crosby, alias Harvey Birch, the hero of Mr. Cooper’s tale of the Neutral Ground….)

The advertisement of counterfeit currency that appeared in the New York Gazette is reproduced in facsimile in Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in colonial America. A secret circular describing the faults in various counterfeit issues (“Description of counterfeit bills, which were done in imitation of the true ones…”) is reprinted as Appendix K in John A. Nagy, Invisible ink: Spycraft of the American revolution.

My fictional purposes required the Neutral Ground to extend farther north than it ever did in reality. The main route through it, from the city of New York to Albany, is detailed in C.G. Hine’s The New York and Albany Post Road: From King’s Bridge to “the ferry at Crawlier, over against Albany,”…. Traces of the old Grape-Vine in Sparta (since annexed to Ossining) still remain as what’s now called the Jug Tavern, rebuilt circa 1885 and restored in the twentieth century; as does Saint John’s Chapel in Peekskill, although Crosby was never there; but Birdsall House was demolished in the nineteenth century to widen the street. Judging from the available pictorial evidence (such as the drawing on the bronze plaque at the site), however, Birdsall House was similar to Mount Gulian, near Fishkill, which still stands and may be visited by the curious. Crosby’s first escape from captivity—through the unlocked northeast window—was from the First Dutch Reformed Church in Fishkill, used at the time as a military prison, and also still standing and still in use as a church.

Thomas Waklee’s presence in the area is plain enough from his pension application (National Archives, pension file S40633), but the name of the town on his regiment’s muster roll for August 1780 is conveniently indecipherable. He married (23 February 1783) Anne Smith, of New York state, in New Milford, Connecticut (Samuel Orcutt, History of the towns of New Milford and Bridgewater, page 782); that they courted during his war service is pure conjecture. Sergeant Jeremiah Wood appears on the regiment’s muster rolls; apart from his name and rank I know nothing at all about him.

The countersigns for 3 August 1780 are recorded in that day’s General Orders preserved in the papers of George Washington ( Burnham and Crosby’s escape from Washington’s headquarters at Peekskill is based on, and at the end quotes from, Barnum, Spy unmasked. The moon at that time and place was actually a daylight waxing crescent (12%), not nearly full as described and the fiction demanded.

The list of tin goods in Murphy Steele’s wagon quotes from “A Yankee Lyric” by Hugh Peters (1807–1831), reprinted in Rev. Charles W. Everest (editor), The poets of Connecticut; with biographical sketches. Burnham’s joke about tin shoes also derives from that ballad. The slanders against the Yankee peddler with which Burnham chaffs Steel are from Memoirs of a Nullifier; written by himself, attributed to Algernon Sidney Johnston.

The sentence beginning “Joe-Pye weed…” is quoted, more or less, from New York Post Road, pages 44 and 47. Smith’s fever confession is based on, and quotes from, Spy unmasked, pages 67–69.

For period medical practices I am indebted to Lester S. King, The medical world of the eighteenth century and to Roy Porter, Quacks: Fakers & charlatans in English medicine. The names of Doctor Gordon’s cats are drawn from Guy Davenport, “The Dawn in Erewhon” in Tatlin!: Six stories, pages 232–235. He quotes from Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Partition I, Member III, Subsection II (page 171 of the NYRB edition).

The list of materia medica that Doctor Gordon rummages through is from William Buchan’s Domestic medicine, or a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines, quoted in Porter, Quacks, page 48. His use of metallic tractors is anachronistic, Perkins having announced his great invention only in 1796. For a photograph of the tractors, see William Snow Miller’s “Elisha Perkins and his metallic tractors” in the Yale journal of biology and medicine, vol. 8, no. 1 (October 1935), page 51. The electrical treatment was suggested by a footnote on page 23 of James Harvey Young’s The toadstool millionaires: A social history of patent medicines in America before federal regulation. The specifics of the treatment are derived (and partially quoted) from George William Francis, Electrical experiments; illustrating the theory, practice and application of the science…, Chapter XII: “Medical and animal electricity.” The formula for cephalic snuff is adapted from the same author’s Dictionary of practical receipts; containing medicinal preparations….

The tale of the giants and the water-rats is quoted, condensed, and paraphrased from New York Post Road, pages 46 and 48.

Murphy Steel’s petition to General Clinton, recording his prophecies, together with the few other biographical traces that can still be recovered, is printed in Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Black loyalists: Southern settlers of Nova Scotia’s first free black communities, pages 76–85. His visions actually occurred during the summer of 1781, not 1780. There is no evidence that he left New York City to deliver his divine message directly to General Washington—but neither is there any evidence that he did not, apart from the great unlikelihood of such an expedition.

I’ve sifted tidbits of Albany arcana from Joel Munsell (editor), The annals of Albany (10 volumes); the articles “State Street in 1792” (volume 1, pages 310–316) and “Maud’s travels” (volume 3, pages 58–76) were especially helpful. The dishes served at Lewis’s City Tavern can be found in Hannah Glasse’s The art of cookery, made plain and easy….

Philip Schuyler’s characterization of the Shakers is quoted from Victor Hugo Paltsits (editor), Minutes of the commissioners for detecting and defeating conspiracies in the state of New York: Albany County sessions, 1778–1781 (3 volumes), pages 452, 469, and 592 (and from which volumes I have also drawn at random for the names of minor characters). His religious scruples on war and revolution are quoted and paraphrased from sermons by Moses Mather, America’s appeal to the impartial world…; John Murray, Nehemiah, or the struggle for liberty never in vain…; Peter Powers, Jesus Christ the true king and head of government…; and Ezra Stiles, The United States elevated to glory and honor…. The description of the lamentation of dogs is approximately quoted from Jeptha Root Simms, The frontiersmen of New York:…a great variety of romantic and thrilling stories never before published, volume II, page 336.

Mrs McReynolds’s establishment, although entirely imaginary, is based on descriptions of similar haunts popular among certain populations in London several decades earlier; the documentary evidence is too extensive to rehearse here (but see the notes to my story “That We Maye with Free Heartes Accomplishe Those Thynges,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies No. 386, July 13, 2023 ).

Cadwallader Goldsworthy’s discourse is confected of snippets and dollops of Christopher Colles’s pamphlets Proposals for the speedy settlement of the waste and unappropriated lands… and Proposal of a design for the promotion of the interests of the United States…. For prices of food, drink, and lodging in Albany at that time, see Arthur James Weise, The history of the city of Albany, New York…, pages 377–8.

The conversation that Burnham eavesdrops on is based on one reported in the article “Goldsborough Banyar,” in Annals of Albany, volume 5, pages 278–282.

The persecution of early Shakers at Niskayuna, near Albany, is documented—from opposing points of view—in Paltsits, Minutes of the commissioners, and Rufus Bishop and Seth Youngs Wells (editors), Testimonies of the life…of Mother Ann Lee, and the elders…. The warrant to arrest Ann Lee (called Ann Standerren in the relevant records, a corruption of her married name, although she had several years earlier, with her husband’s eventual acquiescence, declared that marriage dissolved) and others was issued 24 July 1780 (Minutes of the commissioners, page 469). She was ordered transferred to Poughkeepsie on 26 August (ibid., page 504), and was finally granted permission to return 4 December (ibid., page 592). I have compressed the gap between her arrest and transfer.

The description of the Stadt Huys quotes from the articles “The Old Stadt Huys” and “Albany County Jails” in George R. Howell and Jonathan Tenney (editors), The Bi-Centennial History of Albany…, pages 346–349. The Shaker prisoners had first been kept in the Stadt Huys but were soon moved to the Albany Fort; I have preferred to have them remain at the Stadt Huys until Ann Lee’s removal to Poughkeepsie. Lucy Wright’s words to Ann Lee’s persecutors are from certain sayings attributed to Lee herself in F.W. Evans, Shakers. Compendium of the origin…, page 149. Ann Lee’s minor miracle is based on the “Testimony” of Rebecca and Mary Clark in Alonzo G. Hollister (compiler), Book of the busy hours, quoted in Priscilla J. Brewer, Shaker communities, Shaker lives, pages 10–11.

Valentine Rathbone (who actually spelled his name Rathbun) recounts his conversion experience, from a hostile perspective after his apostasy, in Some brief hints of a religious scheme…, pages 17–20. Some of the groups in his list of New Light sects actually flourished a little later than our period, and a few even after the turn of the century: see David M. Ludlum, Social ferment in Vermont 1791–1850, pages 238–244; Stephen A. Marini, Radical sects of revolutionary New England, pages 40–55; and John L. Brooke, The refiner’s fire: The making of Mormon cosmology, 1644-1844, pages 56–58. For biographical details on Valentine Rathbun, see David D. Newell, “‘Late recruits for Britain’: Anti-Shaker propaganda during the American Revolution” in American communal societies quarterly, volume 2, number 3, pages 103–114.

For the story of Shadrach Ireland, see Marini, Radical sects, pages 50–51; Richard Francis, Ann the word: The story of Ann Lee, female messiah, mother of the Shakers, the woman clothed with the sun (probably the best biography of Ann Lee available), pages 162–168; and Francis G. Walett, “Shadrack Ireland and the ‘Immortals’ of colonial New England,” in Sibley’s heir: A volume in memory of Clifford Kenyon Shipton (Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, LIX; 1982), pages 541-50. 

That the Niskayuna (all the variant spellings of Niskayuna I have used are attested in the historical record) Shaker settlement accepted Blacks is confirmed by Paltsits, Minutes of the commissioners, page 555; I’ve also taken Burnham’s pseudonym among the Shakers from there, pages 678 and 680. Caroline B. Piercy, The Shaker cookbook: Not by bread alone was very useful for details of Shaker foodways.

The description of early Shaker devotional practices is based on Rathbun, Some brief hints. The Shaker worshipper’s inspired gibberish is quoted from John Barth’s “Glossolalia” (pages 111–112 of the Bantam paperback edition of Lost in the funhouse), which is in turn quoted, or so he claims in his preface, from a certain Mme Alice LeBaron circa 1879. “They sing the song…” are Rathbun’s own words, as quoted in Thankful Goodrich’s “Testimony,” a manuscript source cited in Francis, Ann the word, pages 139–140. The song the twirling woman sings is from “Hymn of Love” printed in an untitled book in the Library of Congress’s rare book collection (BV442 .S53 1833;, page 18.

Little is known of Lucy Wright’s life before her appointment as Eldress, but see Richard Francis, Ann the word; Edward Deming Andrews, The people called Shakers: A search for the perfect society (which reprints the whole of the Millennial Laws (1845)); Priscilla J. Brewer, Shaker communities, Shaker lives; and Calvin Green, The biographic memoir of…Mother Lucy Wright… (which includes, in chapter 8, a description of her appearance). For my fictional convenience, I have given her the capacity of leader among the sisters at Niskayuna about a year before that responsibility actually commenced. She quotes from the opening lines (more or less) of David R. Slavitt’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In dreary actuality, Augustus Burnham had already married one Mary Stedman on April 12, 1771, her eighteenth birthday, when he was himself aged 19—an unusually early marriage which might suggest a story all of its own to those so minded.

For cheesemaking lore I have relied on Charles Millington, The housekeeper’s domestic library…, chapter XIII, “The dairy, &c.: Directions respecting the dairy and its management, and for making butter and various kinds of cheese” (note that this is the second chapter XIII, pages 363–369). Also very valuable was the video from Jas. Townsend & Son, “Cheesemaking in the early 19th century,”

Goldsworthy’s communications scheme is from Christopher Colles’s pamphlet Description of the numerical telegraph…; Ann Lee’s remark about wings is from Testimonies, quoted in Ann the Word; Rathbone’s calumny against the Shakers is quoted from Some brief hints; Lucy Wright’s instruction on folding the hands is quoted from the Millennial Laws, of which she was probably the chief author; the Virginian’s stream of abuse is lifted from the anonymous pamphlet The anatomies of the true physician and counterfeit mountebank.

The list of books and other dry goods derives from “Books in 1772,” Annals of Albany, volume 1, page 214. I calculated the stage-wagon fees from data in “Stage and mail routes in olden time,” pages 246–254. Trowbridge’s Coffee-House is called “the original stage office” in “Notes from newspapers,” in Cuyler Reynolds, Albany chronicles: A history of the city arranged chronologically, page 308. That book also locates Hugh Denniston’s Tavern, “the first stone house in Albany,” at the north-west corner of Green and Beaver Streets. The story that Burnham tells John takes some situations, names, and turns of phrase from James A. Pickering, “Enoch Crosby, secret agent of the Neutral Ground: His own story,” in Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, volume XLVII (1966), pages 61–73.

I have also gratefully consulted these resources:

John Bakeless. Turncoats, traitors and heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution.

 Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl. Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820;

Kenneth A. Daigler. Spies, patriots, and traitors: American intelligence in the revolutionary war.

J. R. Dolan. The Yankee peddlers of early America.

Melvin B. Endy, Jr. “Just war, holy war, and millenianism in revolutionary America,” The William and Mary Quarterly, third series, volume 52 (1985), pages 3–25.

David Kahn. The code-breakers: The story of secret writing.

Christian Kay, Marc Alexander, Fraser Dallachy, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels, and Irené Wotherspoon (editors). The Historical Thesaurus of English, version 4.21;

Elise Lathrop. Early American inns and taverns.

Richard M. Lederer, Jr. American colonial English: A glossary: Words and phrases found in colonial writing, now archaic, obscure, obsolete, or whose meanings have changed.

Heather Jane McCormick. “History of the Davids–Garrison/Jug Tavern property: A report for the Long Range Planning Committee, Jug Tavern of Sparta, Inc.”

Stephen Mihm. A nation of counterfeiters: Capitalists, con men, and the making of the United States.

Nathaniel Philbrick. Valiant ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American revolution.

W.J. Rorabaugh. The alcoholic republic: An American tradition.

Carl van Doren. Secret history of the American revolution: An account of the conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and numerous others drawn from the Secret Service papers of the British headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public.

Walter Richard Wheeler. “Vanished Vernacular III: The Schuyler-Staats House, Albany, New York,” in The Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture Newsletter, Vol. 21, No. 2 (April–June 2018), pages 2–15.

C. Keith Wilbur. Revolutionary medicine 1700-1800.

Richardson Wright. Hawkers & walkers in early America: Strolling peddlers, preachers[,] lawyers, doctors, players, and others, from the beginning to the Civil War.

“A Theatre”

Available for free now at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (q.v., by all means) is my new novella, “A Theatre.” Let’s say a few words about its genesis, shall we?

Where I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, there’s a cannon in the middle of the street.

If one braves the traffic to get to it, the marble plaques embedded in either side of the plinth may be read. The north side says:

This monument marks the trail taken by the army of General Braddock which left Alexandria on April 20, 1755 to defend the western frontier against the French and Indians. Erected by the Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia, May 26, 1915.

And the south side:

The Cannon used here was abandoned by General Braddock at Old Alexandria April 1755. The Cobble-Stones composing this mound were taken from the streets of Old Alexandria which were paved by legal enactment in 1785.

That’s to say, the cobblestones that were removed when the streets were repaved in more modern materials suitable for automobile traffic. Here’s what the monument looked like in 1915, newly built:

The fence and the house to the right are still there. To the left, on the east side of Russell Road, my own house would be built about five years later. I used to see that cannon all the time. Occasionally, someone would run their car into it (damaging the car much more than the cannon). At some point, the city made the curb around it taller. Sometimes, too, the city would have to send people out to scrub off the spray paint some vandal had adorned it with, apparently in celebration of a sports event of some kind. The paint was bright pink.

One day, in, I believe, April 2015, while I was walking home from Old Town on King Street, a sentence popped into my head unbidden, as they tend to do from time to time. Or, rather, three slightly different sentences—the first dozen words or so of the extracts below—that a little later rapidly evolved into three short passages. Here’s one:

The end of the world, brother—from here on out to yonder blue horizon, no taverns, no farms, no gates, no fences, no roads, no paths, only hills and foothills and mountains, only wastes and woods and savages.

Ephraim Magoon’s stomach did handstands and swoons.

…Savages? he asked. Mountains?

(He should never have come here. He should never have agreed.)

The local slapped him on the back and guffawed.

Did I member to say bears and wolves too? Good God! And cats big as dogs with teeth long as your fingers! And sharp.

And another:

The end of the world, brother—or at least the end of any part for your own poor self to play in it. Come now, come now, on your knees now, surrender, and show me if you be but a traitor, or traitor and coward also!

Steel pressed to jugular.

Enoch Crosby (if that was truly his name) dropped to the floor but laughed out loud.

O yes! he said. Yes indeed, we shall make a fearless spy-taker of you yet.

Don’t laugh, Augustus Burnham complained. A lax teacher spoils the student.

And the third:

The end of the world, brother—must it not look much like this?—these flames and tribulations, these blasts and trumps, and wretched, stumbling sinners longing to learn the right path?

The horizon south and west flared orange; distant cannon boomed. To the east, smoke. To the north, darkness and the rumble of troops and equipment. The whole world seemed in motion and on fire. Middleton Thompson could only hope that his own house and barn might not become part of the general conflagration.

Matthew Browne, his hired hand, laughed; a short, sharp bark.

And as these sentences coalesced out of wherever such sentences come from, I conceived of a story in three parts, or rather three separate stories set roughly twenty-five years apart that would be spliced and interwoven, and united by textual coincidences, passages that use the same words but differ wildly in context, such as those quoted above.

The action, or actions, would take place in three distinct places and times:

  1. Along the route from Alexandria, Virginia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as those places are now called (Braddock’s Road, now various streets so called and parts of U.S Route 40), June–July 1755;
  2. The Hudson Valley, from approximately Ossining, New York, to Watervliet, New York, near Albany (the Albany Post Road, now various roads named Old Post Road, and parts of U.S. Route 1), August 1780; and
  3. In and around Brookeville, Maryland (the route of American troops fleeing Washington, now parts of Georgia Avenue Extended and U.S. Route 29), August 24–29, 1814.

The main protagonists were to be Ephraim Magoon, Augustus Burnham, and Middleton Thompson, respectively. I thought the entire piece might be about 12,000 words.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that these antiquarian fantasias of mine feature in starring roles various of my ancestors. Augustus Burnham (1751–1823) was one of my thirty-two great-great-great-great-grandfathers, as was Middleton Thompson (1780–1863); Ephraim Magoon was one of my sixty-four great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers—or so I believed at the time. The records concerning Ephraim are more than a little meagre and confused (and confusing), but more and better research has demonstrated that he simply can’t be the hero of the story I’d planned for him. He hadn’t been born yet, for example.

In any case, it soon became clear to me that I couldn’t advance all three narratives in lockstep, as I had wished to do; so, arbitrarily, I took up the second one. Which eventually—in fits and fallows, starts and stops, over the next five years—grew to over twice the length of the projected whole, some 26,800 words. Clearly, if I kept to the original plan, what I had on my hands was not a story but a novel. Or a book-length prose fiction (BLPF, pronounced blimpf), as I prefer to say, partly out of a sort of superstition not unrelated to the prestige of the novel as a literary form, and partly out of a fussy punctilio about its definition. I did not (and do not) want to write a BLPF. 

But at least I now had this new novella in hand. Last July, I queried Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies about submitting a manuscript so much longer than the guidelines’ maximum word-count. He generously agreed to look at it, and over the next nine months persuaded me, with the most gentle and gentlemanly of arm-twisting, to cut out large chunks, especially over-long lists and stale japes; rework or delete dull stretches; add signposts, memoranda, and other way-finding aids for the reader; and make an entirely new ending—all of which changes had the net effect of making the story about a thousand words longer.

I still have not been able to decide if I want to (or can?) write the other two narratives and complete the original plan. One at a time, I suppose. One thing at a time.

Still not dead yet

And in fact I have a new story coming out soon in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Titled “A Theatre,” it’s about espionage and counterfeiting and prophecies and prophets (true and false) and 18th-century medicine and the American war of revolution (you know—the one with George Washington et al.) and bodies changing into other bodies. Among other things. Most of all, it’s about making the world better—or not—and how one might do that, and why.

I can’t say more than that for now because I don’t know more than that.

UPDATE: The story will be published in the issue of August 12, 2021 (No. 336). It’s available now by subscribing to the e-book edition.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The story is available to read now.

On being purple

Nabokov calls them “bravura passages.” Somebody else somewhere else says “tours-de-force,” which is French for “feats of strength.” Same thing. The “purple patches” version is Horace’s—that is to say, Quintus Horatius Flaccus’s:

Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis
purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
adsuitur pannus, cum lucus et ara Dianae
et properantis aquae per amoenos ambitus agros
aut flumen Rhenum aut pluuius describitur arcus;
sed nunc non erat his locus. Et fortasse cupressum
scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat exspes
nauibus, aere dato qui pingitur?

Ars Poetica, lines 14–21

Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana’s grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?

The Art of Poetry, lines 14–21

Stuffy old Horace seems to disapprove. I believe we’re misunderstanding him, though; it’s not the purple he objects to, it’s the patches, the patchiness. Purple itself is the good stuff.

In the Roman world, purple signified prestige, power, wealth: senators wore togas with a broad purple stripe, the triumphing general wore an entirely purple cloak, late in the imperial period the emperor wore a purple toga, and in Constantinople the heir to the throne, le porphyrogénète, was born in the Purple Room, lined with porphyry, or purple marble. Why? Because the dye was so very costly—and so was the marble, imported from a single quarry at an isolated site in Egypt’s eastern desert, discovered in C.E. 18 by a Roman legionary named Caius Cominius Leugas; a dedicated road, the Via Porphyrites, was constructed from the quarry westward to the Nile, dotted with specially dug wells to make the journey survivable. As for the dye, the famous Tyrian purple, the color of “clotted blood” when pure (it was often adulterated with cheaper dyes to produce a violet color), its extraction required vast numbers of snails and substantial labor, some twelve thousand carcasses of Murex brandaris yielding no more than a gram and a half of the pure dye, enough to tint the trim of a single garment. Pliny the Elder described the production of Tyrian purple in his Natural History:

The most favourable season for taking these [shellfish] is after the rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency: this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers’ workshops, although it is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein [i.e. hypobranchial gland] is extracted, which we have previously spoken of, to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius [about 20 fl. oz.] about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphorae ought to be boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling, the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by way of making trial; but until such time as the colour is found to satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the colour.

The Natural History, §62: “The Natural History of Fishes”

Oh, sorry, where was I? I’m so easily distracted.

Purple prose! That’s right.

I suppose if you can’t do it, or can’t sustain it, yourself, you might well consider it a vice. But let’s listen in on Mr. William H. Gass being not merely purple, but blue:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentees of Heaven (in Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that’s empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky’s turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese. . . the pedantic, indecent, and censorious. . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it’s stood for fidelity. 

On Being Blue, pp. 1–2

Thus the first sentence (the ellipses are Gass’s, not mine). If that sentence doesn’t leave you breathless with delight, well—what’s to be done with you? And in this case the writing, this higher conjuration, goes on for a lot longer, an entire (brief) book, in fact. It takes work for the reader to keep up, and some readers, I suppose, might complain—but of what, exactly? Certainly not of an ungenerous author. When such writing’s successfully sustained, the strain of reading at so continually high a pitch is tiring. So take a rest. Get some sleep. Books are patient creatures; good books throw prizes at the reader, who needs only to reach out a little to catch them; and great books heap treasures up, up above one’s head, try not to drown in them.

It seems to me that what’s faulted as purple prose is better called simply bad prose; that purple may curdle, that prose can be, and often is, bad is no serious charge—authors might fail at all kinds of efforts and effects, and frequently do. Failure is no real vice. This is why your pencil has an eraser on one end, which usually wears out sooner than the lead, and why your computer keyboard has a DELETE key. Some have two. Surely to make no effort at all is a worse fault; mass-extruded styrofoam prose (or verse, for that matter) is tedious stuff. Give it some life, give it some color!

Now, and finally, I must touch on the subject of pretension, for that is the most common charge against the purple pen. But to pretend is to lie, and therefore the fault is falsehood, not highly colored prose qua prose. Q., we may fairly say, E.D.

Soundtrack (II)

I got a $50 iTunes card for my birthday. (Thanks, Dad!) Amazingly, I did not buy any Stravinsky this time. But I did buy:

Pierre Boulez. Le marteau sans maître. I’ve been revisiting the music I loved as an adolescent. I still love it! The Laurel library shelved its audio collection—twelve-inch vinyl albums, naturally—next to the stairs to the atomic fallout shelter, with its curious yellow-and-black symbol, paired with another of black silhouettes hurrying down zigzag steps.

Charles Ives. Holidays symphony. Ives was another adolescent passion of mine. Was I a strange teenager? I suppose I must have been. Perhaps I’m still a little strange…?

Charles Ives. Sonatas for violin and piano. This album actually has a music video! Imagine that—what is the world coming to? I hope that their lungs didn’t suffer too much from that smoke machine.

Witold Lutosławski. Symphonies three and four. After the wars (take I and take II), eastern Europe’s music-making was dominated by the Soviet apparatus, which was just as beneficial to it as it was to art and literature. But some genius did bloom despite all that, and despite the foolish notion of musical progress that gripped both eastern and western Europe.

Witold Lutosławski. Cello concerto. Beauty that astonishes (the best kind). At first, the cellist plays alone, a virtuoso solo part, for a long time, taking the breath away, and the heartbeat, and the thinking mind….

John Adams. Violin concerto. Speaking of foolish notions, I hope that we can also stop prattling on about minimalism, new complexity, and all the other so-called schools of current compositional practice. Why not just listen to the music?

John Adams. Shaker loops. I have to confess, it was the Shaker connection here that first drew me to Adams’s music. In my early twenties, I was fairly obsessed with the Shakers—I blame Michael Dirda’s review of his Apples and pears for this—

Eliot Carter. String quartets two, three, & four. I wonder what’s wrong with the first string quartet that prevented its inclusion here.

Olivier Messiaen. Catalogue d’oiseaux, livres 1–6. For solo piano. What it says on the tin—eccentrically, weirdly even, harmonized renderings of bird calls, nature’s first music (humanity providing nature’s second).

Capacious: In defense of digression

Literature is capacious; it enfolds multitudes. (It unfolds multitudes.) And if, indeed, one aspires to depict the world (c.f. mimesis), how could lengthy digressions be avoidable?—because the world itself is all digression, and nothing but.

Digression, in short, is joy.

Look at Tristram Shandy. A book-length digression made out of piled-up asides, jokes, rants, meditations, character sketches—why, it takes the narrator a hundred pages just to get himself born. Sterne planned to keep on extending the game further and further, and he did, sequel after sequel, but then he died. Death, the ultimate digression.

Or Moby-Dick, which I read a few years back, after a lifetime of unaccountable aversion towards it (why, oh why?)—what a baggy, shapeless, capacious, astounding book. Treatise on cetacean taxonomy? Check. Meditation on why the color white is terrifying? Eubetcha. Etymology of whalers’ slang? But of course. Why not? A sermon about Jonah? Yes please. Playlets and monologs and lyrical set pieces—it’s a world, a whole world, bound, somehow, between two covers. In my edition, black ones, with gilt ornaments. Some critics argue that there’s a subtle structure underneath, ordering and controlling the material. I’m unconvinced; bookbinder’s glue suffices. And why did no one ever tell me that this book is funny?

Let us now praise Avram Davidson. There is a great and subtle art to letting a story wander, as if haphazardly, as if pointlessly, while actually secretly leading the reader by the nose. Oh! you say at the end, that was not a trackless forest, it was a topiary garden! No greater master of this sub rosa subterfuge ever lived than Our Avram. —Item, “Manatee Gal, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” Which felt—to that skinny kid who gripped like a treasure, like a lifeline, the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that had (at last, at last!) appeared in his rural-route mailbox—like being struck by lightning. Also later, much later, reprinted in ¡Limekiller! I defy anyone to answer in fewer words than the text itself the question what is this story about.

So I won’t attempt it here.

(The which is not to say that there is no place for concision or shapeliness in literature.)

But every one of these masterpieces, if newly writ today, would soon find itself fallen into the limbo of the unpublishable. Exercise for the reader: Why?

Not dead yet

No, I am not dead yet. I can’t blame anyone for thinking so. (Did anyone wonder? or notice?—likely not.) In the traditional first-blog-post-after-a-long-hiatus, the blogger apologizes, sometimes offers an explanation, and always promises never again to allow such a lapse. You, O Hypothetical Reader, will find here no so such apology, nor explanation, nor promise. We all know that they’re lies.

I’m not sorry for the gap. It happened—unfortunate things happen all the time—; and on any rational scale of misfortune, my blank blog is not so much as a blip.

I won’t explain. Because there’s nothing to explain.

And I certainly don’t promise not to let postings slip again. In fact, inevitably I will, if only due to my actual death (long may it delay).

So here we are again, you and I, H.R. and feckless author. Anyone want a drink?

Notes & sources (III)

The childhood home of John Washington Steele, better known as Coal Oil Johnny
The childhood home of John Washington Steele, better known as Coal Oil Johnny

So did you read it?

Of course I’m talking about the new story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and now I’m here to tell you all about where it came from and whatnot. What a lucky reader you are today!

Now, Frank Tarr was one of my great-grandfathers, and George Tarr, his brother, a great-great-uncle. The family story goes like this: one winter, when they were in their early or middle teen years, they built themselves a log raft and rode it all the way to Pittsburgh, where they shot a man who tried to steal it from them; and they were banned from that city for life.

Is it true? There’s no evidence at all apart from the tale that’s come down to me, and those who tell it can’t have been much more than children when the two of them died. I’ve scoured the crime columns in Pittsburgh newspaper archives, found nothing. Still, I have no reason to doubt the gist. My off-the-wall version assumes that the story that the boys told when they got back was not entirely the whole truth.

And I, too, have not entirely told the truth: Frank’s name was actually Franklin Washington Tarr (1863–1942), and George’s (?1866–1948) middle name is not known to me. They had two brothers never mentioned in the story, Ulysses S Grant (1870–1933) and William (1875–?), as well as a sister, Mary Melissa (1872–1969). Their father, Martin, died in 1876; their mother Caroline M. Bemiss (1837–before September 1914) remarried, to George M. Staley (c. 1825–1896), before 1880.

My great-great-grandfather Martin — who according to his Civil War draft record stood five-foot ten, blue eyes, light hair, light complexion, farmer, 35 years old — served briefly during the siege of Petersburg, participated in the fall of Richmond and the pursuit of Lee westward, and was present at Appomattox: hence, no doubt, the name of his third son.

Little Hope, Pennsylvania, was (and in a sense still is) a real enough place; I am uncertain if Raymond’s General Store existed so early as circa 1880, but I haven’t let that prevent me from placing it there then.

I’ve drawn most of the rafting lore from J. Herbert Walker (editor), Rafting days in Pennsylvania. Oil Creek is not actually a section of French Creek but an independent watercourse that joins the Allegheny at Oil City, which French Creek itself then joins at Franklin. Much of the oil region is now a state park, well worth a visit; don’t miss Coal Oil Johnny’s house! The small museum at the site of Colonel Drake’s first well is excellent. The well itself is still producing, but not in useful quantity.

I don’t know why Martin Tarr removed from Venango to Greenfield just before the oil rush began. I’ve answered the question with my best guess. I’ve also exaggerated the difficulty of Venango farmland.

The Prince’s tale of the great well fire conflates accounts of several lesser fires. The descriptions are adapted from S.J.M. Eaton, Petroleum: A history of the oil region of Venango County, Pennsylvania. Its resources, mode of development, and value: Embracing a discussion of ancient oil operations; with a map, and illustrations of oil scenes and boring implements (which quotes in turn Austen Henry Layard and Robert Pollok) and Charles H. Harris (writing as Oof T. Goof), History of the Venango oil regions: showing where petroleum is found; the production of petroleum; the effect of the repeal of the government tax on crude petroleum; the location, depth, average production, and ownership of all the wells on the Central Petroleum Company, Boyd, Hyde and Egbert, Stevenson, Tarr and Wood Farms, Bennhoff, Pioneer, Great Western, Bull and other Runs; together with sketches of Petroleum Centre, Pioneer City, Shaffer, Titusville, Pleasantville, and territories, and other places of note in the oil regions.

I’ve extracted additional oil miscellanea from J.H. Newton (editor), History of Venango County, Pennsylvania, and incidentally of petroleum, together with accounts of the early settlements and progress of each township, borough and village, with personal and biographical sketches of the early settlers, representative men, family records, etc., by an able corps of historians, with illustrations descriptive of its scenery, private residences, public buildings, farm scenes, oil derricks, manufactories, etc., from original sketches.

(You’ve just got to love those nineteenth-century titles. They want you to know exactly what the whole book’s about.)

The Prince’s account of his life is adapted from John Washington Steele, Coal Oil Johnny: His career as told by himself, plus additional anecdotes of various oil-region figures as related by Hildegarde Dolson (see below).

The second half of the paragraph that begins “The ship’s side was worked all over…” is adapted from Mark Twain, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter twelve. The disappearance of the Chinese boat at the end of that same section is adapted from Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale, chapter CXXXV.

Charles-Valentin’s remarks on his art of nauscopy are quoted from a short treatise in E. Littel et al. (publisher-editors), The museum of foreign literature and science, volume XXIII, August 1833, pp. 140-144.

The Pirate Queen is based — very loosely; her actual life was far odder than what I’ve shown here — on Zhèng Yī Sǎo, or Zheng’s Widow, a prominent female pirate in middle Qing China. The names she uses for North America and San Francisco are borrowed from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The years of rice and salt. You should read it, it’s very good!

The epigraph has been cut down to size without any editorial markings of the omissions. Go ahead and consult the source — it’s available online — if you want to know more about this fascinating subject. (All direct quotations and close paraphrases are from works in the public domain.)

Additionally, I am indebted to these secondary sources:

Robert J. Antony. Like froth floating on the sea: The world of pirates and seafarers in late imperial south China.

Mike Dash, “Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,”, October 13, 2011.

Hildegarde Dolson. The great Oildorado: The gaudy and turbulent years of the first oil rush: Pennsylvania, 1859-1880.

Peter T. Leeson. The invisible hook: The hidden economics of pirates.

Dian H. Murray. Pirates of the south coast, 1790-1810.

Joseph Needham. Science and civilization in China. Volume 4, Part 3: Civil engineering and nautics.

Thomas J. Schlereth. Victorian America: Transformations in everyday life, 1876–1915.

Alan Trachtenberg. The incorporation of America: Culture and society in the gilded age.

George & Frank Tarr, Boy Avencherers, in ’Beeyon the Shours We Knowe!!!!’

Like most writers, I suspect, the last piece I finished is always my favorite. So it’s great to announce that my favorite story, “George & Frank Tarr, Boy Avencherers, in ‘Beeyon the Shours We Knowe!!!!’” is scheduled to appear in that epitome of publications, that model of magazines, that acme of anthologies, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, edited by the nonpareil Scott H. Andrews.

New issues are available to subscribers before the rest of the sluggardly world gets a chance to cast eyeballs at pixels, so why not subscribe today?

More soon, including the smash-hit that’s sweeping the nation, “Notes & sources (III).”