Monday, January 22, 2018

Lust, Seduction, Incest, and Suicide—First American Novel Had it All

The Power of Seduction: or, The Triumph of Nature, first edition with a sensational front piece. 

When The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was issued anonymously in Boston on January 21, 1789 the publisher, Isaiah Thomas & Company, promised that the book was, “Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life.”  And sure enough the book was salted by pious admonitions to virtue and all of its sinners met disastrous ends. 
But perhaps the readers snatched up copies for another reason—the plot of what is considered the first American Novel was “ripped from the headlines,” a Roman à clef on a still fresh and juicy scandal involving Perez Morton’s incestuous seduction of his sister-in-law Fanny Apthorp who became pregnant and committed suicide, while Morton escaped legal punishment. And, hey, who wouldn’t want to read about that?

Perez Morton, the real life weathy cad who ruined a woman, drove her to suicide, betrayed his wife, and walked away with no legal consequences.
The author, William Hill Brown happened to be Morton’s neighbor and knew all of the juicy details, but the case was gossip fodder in Boston.  Brown was the son of a famous clock maker—the one who built the big clock for the steeple of the Old South Church.  He was born to the craftsman’s second marriage in 1765 and was always sickly.  He was encouraged to take up literature by his older step brother, the artist Mather Brown.  He would go on to have a romantic story, Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation published in the first issue of Massachusetts Magazine later in the year.  He would follow those up with a play based on the capture and execution of Major Andre in the Benedict Arnold West Point spy case, a series of verse fables, Penelope a comedy in West Indies style, essays, and a short second novel about incest and seduction, Ira and Isabella, all published posthumously.   

Sarah Wentworth (Althorp) Morton, the agrieved wife and sister to the disgraced and doomed mistress.
Later in 1793 Brown went south to study law in a climate more suited to his health.   He died of tuberculosis in Murfreesboro, North Carolina on September 2, 1793 at the age of 28.  His literary reputation did not long out live him.
Of course not putting his name on that novel didn’t help.  Novels, which were coming into vogue in England, were considered trifles for bored housewives and probably dangerous to their morals.  The women of Boston were snatching up copies practically from the docks.  Preachers thundered condemnation of them as salacious, seductive, and sinful.  And of course most were, which was their appeal.
Gentlemen read lofty thingsendless volumes of sermons from the leading divines, bare knuckle partisan newspapers, the classics in Greek and Latin, philosophy in French and German, and, of course, poetry both epic and lyrical.  They could not deign to read such trash.  But if truth be told, late at night safely locked in their studies, I suspect many more than would admit it found themselves aroused and titillated by the popular tales of lust and just retribution.  

It is natural then that throughout most of the 19th Century The Power of Sympathy was popularly supposed to be the work of a woman, as were so many of the English titles reaching America shores.  When Arthur Bayley, editor of The Bostonian, republished it in serial on its centennial, he attributed it to Sarah Wentworth Morton, a poetess and the wife of Perez Morton and sister of Frances Apthorp.
It did not take later scholars, however, too much digging to uncover the true author.
As for the novel as an art form, it took decades to shuck its reputation—and in the loftier precincts of the New England elite never quite did.  As many remember banning books in Boston—mostly novels—was still a big deal into the 1950’s. 
Slowly in the 19th Century British imports from Austin, Dickens, Thackeray, et al raised the level of respectability among the middle classes—but still mostly women.  James Fennimore Cooper in America began popularizing more masculine novels as adventure stories, broadening the appeal.  Serious writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville began working in the form—Hawthorne bringing a new depth to the traditional tales of the wages of sin and Melville having a hard time making a living peddling adventure yarns with, you should pardon the expression, depth.  Julia Ward Howe became the first American to have a run-away, must-read best seller with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that blended the novel’s traditional shocking themes with a searing abolitionist message.
It was not until the second half of the 19th Century that the novel really took off as a popular and literary art form in America and not until the early 20th Century that it finally blew poetry out of the water to become the pre-eminent literary form.

The Penguin paperback edition is just one of several reprints available of a book almost no one has read.

The book that started it all, The Power of Sympathy, being out of copyright and therefor cheap, can be found today, if you look very hard, in paperback editions, including a Penguin Classic edition. 
 I never found any one who read it.  And neither have I.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Murfin Verse Old and New—A Bitter Day and an Inspiring One

Protests in Washington on the day of the Inauguration in 2017.  Some thought it was rude.  It was.  Good for rudeness.

Yesterday was the bitter first anniversary of the Trump inauguration.  No matter how bad we imagined it would be, it has been worse—a catastrophe picking up victims like mud on a rolling boulder.  I won’t go into the litany of abuses, outrages, and insults.  But you already know them by heart, don’t you.
The day after the Electoral College certified the disaster I wrote:
Electoral College/Solstice
December 2016

What if this time the fading Sun
            does not heed the beacon fires,
            the prayer pyres,
            the incantations,
            the invocations? 

What if a conclave of warlocks
            and necromancers
            have found a new God
            and armies
            more powerful
            than the Light?

What if day by day the new God
            consumes the Sun
            and all upon it shines
            until Darkness is total?
Then, my friends,
            we take up our yew bows
            and from the fastness
            of the deepest, darkest forests,
            light the eternal night
            with our flaming arrows.

We gather kindling and fuel
            far and wide,
            haul it stealthily
            to the foremost alp
            and bide our time.

We seek out the allies
            from the corners
            of the gloom shrouded earth,
            learn alien tongues,
            make brothers and sisters
            of strangers,
            build leagues of comrades.

We find new prayers,
            we fashion with our own hands
            new amulets, totems, and fetishes,
            forge new singing swords,
            invent our own magic.

We carry in our hearts
            the sure knowledge
            that no darkness
            can ever be truly eternal,
            no god or demon can survive
            if we no longer give him
            power over our imagination.

Now has come the time, my friends,
            to set out in our own
            epic saga.

Take heart and make it so.

—Patrick Murfin
From Resistance Verse, a homemade chapbook, 2017.

We did take heart from the very beginning, greeting his residency on the first day with the largest inaugural protests in the street of Washington, D.C. in history.  Then we followed it up with the massive Women’s March on Washington and scores of record breaking Sister Marches, including one in Chicago I was privileged to participate in.  But many thought we would get bored, discouraged, or intimidated and would give it up after a tantrum or two. 
But we persisted.  There were giant marches all over the country to defend reproductive rights and health care; to protest the Muslim ban, deportations, and to defend Dreamers; a March for Science; actions to protect voting rights and ballot access; to demand sane gun policy and an end to senseless domestic carnage; we marched because Black Lives Matter and White Nationalism and its symbols suck.  

We marched on Earth Day, May Day, and any damned day we pleased.

And we invaded the Halls of Congress in wheelchairs and with prayers; stormed state capitols and city halls; hunted and haunted the Republican Congressional fronts for the oligarchy who try to hide from the Voice of the People.  And were have been ready for thousands of local actions organized in rapid response to any outrage by ordinary citizens many of whom had never before organized anything more dramatic than a bake sale or spaghetti dinner.
And more.  We have registered, walked precincts, circulated petitions, and run for office.  Tens of Thousands of women, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Gays, Transgender and non-conforming, the disabled, progressives of every sort—even White men and—gasp! Atheists.  And we have won!  Race after race, state after state even in the deepest red bastions.
The Resistance grows stronger day by day.
And it was evident in the Women’s Marches held yesterday and today that shattered even last year’s records.
I marched in Chicago with 300,000 of my closest friends.  This morning, after recovering from the beating on my old body and with a few moments to reflect after an overnight shifts and brief nap before church I scribbled this on a scrap of paper:

I may not look like it but today I am a Woman!

Today, I Am a Woman
After the Chicago Women’s March
January 20, 2018

Today, I am a woman—
            a put-a-bag-on-her-head-woman,
            a never hit on by Cosby, Weinstein, or Trump woman,
            a lumbering lummox of a lady,
            a barren womb non-breeder,
            a hairy-legged horror,
            a gawky, graceless girl,
            a disappointment all around.

But Sisters, today, I am a woman—
            if you will have me.

Tomorrow I will be just another prick.

—Patrick Murfin                                                                                                           

Friday, January 19, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe and the Birth of Popular Literature Genres

Edgar Allan Poe in rare deguerotype.

He may be the most influential American writer ever.  He is certainly among the most widely read.  More than two hundred years after the birth of Edgar Allan Poe on January 19, 1802 he is easily the most widely read writer of the 19th  Century, and not by just captive college students but by ordinary readers who continue to plunk down hard money for collections of his stories and poems.  

He is credited with inventing the modern detective story.  In The Murders in the Rue Morgue his hero, C. Auguste Dupin was a brilliant eccentric who undertook the investigation of the grisly and baffling murders of a woman and her daughter after reading newspaper account. He had a tenuous, testy relationship with the police but worked as an outsider. The story of his investigation was narrated by an unnamed friend and associate.  Dupin used keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning to unravel the case.  He also used crude forensic evidence—a hair found at the crime scene that proved to be nonhuman.  He revealed his final, shocking conclusion and then explained to the exasperated Prefect of Police his methodology in uncovering the truth.  This set the pattern for detectives like Sherlock Homes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, and Spenser.  In recognition of Poe’s importance, the Mystery Writers of America named their annual prizes the Edgar Awards.
Poe's stories like The Murders in the Rue Morgue have lent themselves to comic books and graphic novels.  Many of my generation first encountered him in Classics Illustrated comics like this.

Poe is even more famous for his horror stories.  These, too, were an innovative breakthrough that invented a genre.  His were not just tales of monsters or ghosts told around a campfire.  His horror was psychological, the creation of the human mind as in The Tell Tale Heart.

And his work presaged and influenced the development of science fiction.  His famous hoax The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall, which he wrote for the Southern Messenger in 1835, fooled the people of New York City when he reprinted in a newspaper there nearly a decade later.  It was about crossing the Atlantic in a balloon.   Several of his other stories also had elements of science fiction which were picked up Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs among others.

All of these are “only popular genres.”  You can almost hear the serious professors sneer the words, “not serious literature.”  But in creating these tales for the infant medium of the popular magazine, he also helped create the modern short story as a distinct form.  Now that magazines are disappearing and short stories only get printed obscure literary journals, the guardians of our culture revere the form and wring their hands at its tenuous survival.

Poe is surrounded by images from his most famous work in this stunning illustration by Fransisco Francavilla.

And then there are the poemsPeople who do not read poetry—almost everyone—know and love The Raven, Annabelle Lee, and The Bells.  America was awash with poets—many great ones—but no one was writing with such power, such lyricism, and such groundbreaking unconventionality.  Despite their strong rhythms and rhymes they seem more modern and accessible than lofty sentiments by William Cullen Bryant or James Russell Lowell.

Of course Poe’s enduring popularity owes a great deal to his image as the tortured soul who married his teen age cousin and lost her to consumption, drowned his sorrows in brandy and perhaps opium, and died penniless in Baltimore after being found insensible in a saloon at the age of only 40.  Books, plays, and films have been made celebrating that persona.

His physical image is as recognizable as any movie star.  Only a handful of photographs were taken in his life.  The most iconic, taken within a couple of years of his death, shows a handsome, if dissolute man, with dark flowing hair, high forehead, a neat mustache, intense dark eyes with bags below hinting at a night of excess before the sitting. It decorates posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads.
Just one of hundreds of items available graced with Poe's iconic visage.

How can heavy weights like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, or even handsome Nathaniel Hawthorne compete with that?

Yet Moby Dick routinely tops lists of important books that no one reads, while even pimply-faced, basement dwelling, gamers of the supposed dumbest-generation-ever have read and loved Poe.  Oh, the injustice!

Ironically, Poe may have even invented one form a prose that the literati worship—textual criticism.  Beginning with his tenure as editor of the Southern Messenger and continuing as he tried to cobble together a meager income as one of America’s first free-lance writers, he wrote hundreds of columns of literary criticism.  He was among the first, if not the first, to focus primarily on the effect of style and structure in a literary work and to analyze symbolism.  He could also be very harsh and personal in his attacks on authors whose work offended him.  That included many members of the established, mostly New England based elite.  He famously savaged Nathaniel Hawthorne among others.  Of course, when he was writing for a predominately Southern audience, this went over well.  It proved less popular as he placed pieces in New York, Philadelphia, and other Northern publications.

One of the men he offended got his revenge.  Rufus Griswold was then a well-known writer, editor, and anthologist.  Poe ripped him a new one.  As soon as he got word of Poe’s death in Baltimore, Griswold rushed to be the first to print an obituary in New York.  He painted Poe as a maniac drunkard, practitioner of incest, and literary fraud.  He quickly followed up with a biography elaborating his charges.  The book sold well and cemented Poe’s public image.

But if Griswold thought his character assassination piece would bury Poe’s reputation and work, he was mistaken.  Instead, the country grew more fascinated by himPosthumous sales of all of his works soared.  Just like James Dean or Jim Morrison, it seems that even back then there was a taste for wild, romantic, talented, tragic bad boys who died young.

The official Poe Museum web site argues that while Poe did drink and battled depression, Griswold’s characterization was a wild exaggeration.  Perhaps so.  It even says that his sordid and lonely death attributed at the time to congestion of the brain and long assumed to be caused by either alcohol poisoning or advanced cirrhosis of the liver, may actually have been caused by rabies.  Who knows?
Roses and brandy left at Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore grave for the 58th year in 2007

But we do know that for many years a woman bundled in black and heavily veiled came annually to Poe’s grave and left roses and brandy.  It was an annual newspaper story for decades.  And every time it happened, libraries and books stores experienced a run on Poe.

Anyway, here is a sample of what some of the excitement was about.

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
   I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
   Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
   Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we--
   Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
   Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea,
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

             --Edgar Allan Poe