In the Archives

When I was working on my life of Lorca, I often asked myself the question Lear asks, late in Shakespeare’s play, about Cordelia: “Have I caught thee?” It’s the biographer’s essential question: have I managed to transcend time and circumstance and geography to know what makes/made you tick?

I find myself asking it again as I try to make sense of my forebears—the Scarletts of Georgia, who built a small fortune using the labor of human beings they bought and hunted and enslaved. I’m especially curious about the man who started it all—Francis Muir Scarlett, my great-great-great grandfather, who fled from England to Georgia in 1799 and by 1812, at the age of 27, was a plantation overseer, and within another decade, a planter, slaveholder, and state legislator.

He’s a squirrely guy. I’ve got one photograph of him, above, undated. He left little in the way of a paper trail—mostly legal documents and ads for runaways. But last month I got a tiny glimpse of Francis Muir Scarlett in action.

I was trawling the Journals of the state legislature at the Georgia Archives, outside Atlanta, and found multiple references to Scarlett. One, from 1826, showed him in action, in his “room” in Milledgeville, demanding to know why a fellow legislator—a Mr. Powell, from Darien—had published a private letter. The back story is complicated and involves bank business, but the description of Scarlett caught me:

Mr. Scarlett then rose, got the document, and handed it to Mr. Powell, who read it and made no remark about it, nor evinced any surprise.

There he is, my ancestor, fleetingly alive and in action. I can see him in a firelit room, dark suit and white shirt, black tie, as he brandishes the incriminating letter and confronts his peer. It’s a rare moment.

The state legislature Journals reveal other details: that Scarlett was more interested in infrastructure (canals, bridges, ferries, roads) than in questions of slavery or Native American rights (both of which preoccupied lawmakers in the decades he served). Tto my delight, I learned that Scarlett voted in favor of divorce every time he was asked to weigh in. (For a married couple to divorce, both houses of the state legislature had to authorize it.)

But have I caught Francis Muir Scarlett? No way. Try to fathom why he embraced the slavery business, and I’m stumped. Was it simply circumstance? Geography? Need (or greed?)

Could he have said no? I go round and round, wanting to understand how and why he did what he did. It’s clear he wanted to be wealthy and powerful, and it’s equally clear that in early-19th-century Georgia, those tended to go hand-in-hand with enslaved labor.

And what about the women—Scarlett’s wife, daughters, daughters-in-law? Women confined to parlors and birthing rooms, for whom marriages were arranged and dowries compiled, for whom legal rights did not exist. (When Scarlett’s daughter Mary Ann became a widow, her vast inheritance passed directly to her father.)

Unlike the Grimké sisters or the actress Fanny Kemble, who published a chilling eyewitness account of the appalling conditions on her husband’s Georgia plantations, my female ancestors did not, so far as I can tell, speak out. They clung to the family business, it appears, and to their comforts—as I fear I would have done in their place.

I’m working, still, to catch all of them.

Lost Causes

I’ve been reading Faulkner: Sound and Fury a couple of weeks ago, now As I Lay Dying. (When I mentioned him earlier this year to the undergrads in my first-year seminar, one of my Chinese students groaned. “Faulkner!!! He’s impossible.” Tough enough for a native English speaker, I agree. I can’t imagine grappling with him if your first language is Mandarin.)

But the wonderfully self-contained Sound and Fury sheds obscurity as a dog does its coat in spring. Once I’d finished the novel, I circled back to the beginning and reread that astonishing first chapter in Benjamin’s voice. The plot and characters emerged from hiding. I was thick in the Compson fold.

It strikes me that Faulkner was of the same generation as my grandmother (b. 1898) and of Margaret Mitchell (b. 1900). I associate Mitchell, of course, and to some degree my grandmother, with the infamous Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Mitchell’s paean to that fantasy is well known. Reared on the same post-war brew of regret and recrimination, my grandmother shared Mitchell’s reluctance to forgive. While her Missouri-born husband reveled in histories of the Civil War, my Georgia-born grandmother shunned any such reading and repeatedly warned me, “There are some things we don’t talk about.”

I doubt she read Faulkner. But I’ve got my grandmother’s 1936 copy of Gone with the Wind on my bookshelf, and I remember her mentioning—proudly—Mitchell’s use of our family name (Scarlett) for her heroine.

It’s instructive to remember that Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom! just a few months after Mitchell’s novel came out. Faulkner’s novel sold around 7,000 copies, as compared to Mitchell’s millions, and then more or less vanished from bookstores. “I seem to be so out of touch with the Kotex Age here,” he complained. His only other pronouncement on the GWTW  phenomenon was that “no story takes a thousand pages to tell.”

Today, of course, Faulkner’s thorny novel holds up far better than Mitchell’s. Morally, socially, politically, it’s a much more digestible read—although Mitchell’s storytelling still slides easily down the throat.

I was intrigued to learn this year that few of my 18-to-21-year-old students are familiar with GWTW. They know of it, that is, but unlike earlier generations, most haven’t seen the movie, let alone read the book. That strikes me as good news. For too many decades, going back to my grandmother and her peers and extending well through my own generation, readers—especially women—have warmed to Mitchell’s facile tale of chivalric masters and loyal slaves battered by vulgar Yankees.

Faulkner’s the one we need now. “What is it?” he asked of the ideology we associate with the Lost Cause:

Something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens’ children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas?

Faulkner knew Mitchell and her ilk—they were, after all, his contemporaries. He knew where their obsessions led. We need only look today at the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in places like New Orleans to know that in the second decade of the 21st century, Mitchell’s vision breathes on.

Snow, Unpublished

“Publication,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1863, “is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”

… We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Words of commerce—merchant, sell, parcel, price—mark this small poem (# 788). The implication is clear: to publish is to sell out, to enter the marketplace.

I’ve just spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan in what was once a department of “external relations” and for the past several years has been a department of “marketing and communications.” The obsession today is with our “brand,” with selling and promoting that brand, something universities are increasingly wont to do.

I’m glad to be getting out of the selling game, though I’m not in truth getting out. This bit of commercial property, for example: lesliestainton.com. What does that represent, if not myself in the marketplace? My “brand”?

We brand animals. We have branded people whom we regarded as property. So if we “brand” outselves, who owns us?

Dickinson urges that our “thought” belong “to Him who gave it,” not to the marketplace. To publication.

In the age of Facebook and all the rest of it, how quaint, the writer in her garret.

Here sit I in mine, gazing out the window at this week’s latest gloss of snow. Think of it falling, how it quiets the world, blots, sharpens, defines (memo to self: reread The Dead this Christmas). How beautiful the cardinal and woodpecker look against its erasures. How it brightens, makes things new, makes us new. Takes my breath, literally, away.

That’s what Dickinson proposes: don’t turn this stuff into commerce. (Of course we do: we blacken our snow as quickly as we can. We scrape it away, and if not, pay a price here in Ann Arbor, where there’s a law requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within 24 hours of its falling.)

How to use this image to strengthen writing? To remind myself it’s not about publishing—it’s about going out into that snowfall and wallowing in its revelations. The sudden blessing of idea, of language. Old thought wiped clean; that clarifying plunge in temperature. Dwelling in this, rather than shoveling it up the instant it lands and heaving it out into the street.

Unmasked

I’m struck by pictures of Hillary Clinton these days: hair unstyled, face free of make-up, lines and circles visible (though the smile is still radiant). The Times ran a small piece about this yesterday, accompanied by selfies taken with the former candidate in places as ordinary as the woods near her home and an indie bookstore.

Her performance—at least the one conducted over the past two years—is over, the long run ended, the star shorn of props and costume and setting. I find myself wondering whether, had she won, we’d still be seeing the helmet hair and military pantsuit. (Never mind the Kevlar vests.)

There’s so much theater here—so much about the way women, in particular, must gird themselves for the stage(s) of public life.

Just as 19th-century actresses were treated with a contempt and suspicion far beyond anything to which their male counterparts were subjected, so this woman warrior—this actress impersonating a man (did she ever appear in a skirt?)—endured a level of scrutiny her male competitors were spared.

When Victoria Woodhull ran for president in the late-19th century, she suffered accusations and attacks that would have felled someone of lesser mettle. The feminist Woodhull persisted, convinced of her calling. She dressed not unlike a man. When she appeared onstage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1874, she wore a plain black dress with white cuffs and collar. Still, critics reviled her. “We do not clearly see what manly privileges Mrs. Woodhull wants that she does not enjoy,” one charged.

Black performers knew something of what Woodhull experienced. I think of Bert Williams, the brilliant, turn-of-the-20th-century, mixed-race performer from the Caribbean who found he was most successful when he performed in blackface. And so he went with it—and died with it, collapsing onstage one night in Chicago and being carried off, his face still caked in burnt cork, never to return.

Why was his real face less appealing—less lucrative?

What truths about Woodhull did people not want to see?

Why did Hillary feel she needed to arm herself with highlighted hair and airbrushed skin?

Perhaps it’s their humanity which, like our own, we know to be flawed. Rather than confront their (and our) mortality, we ask our stars to be larger than life, more resolved, higher-definition.

Williams was profoundly saddened by the discrepancy between who he was and who he pretended to be. He knew that audiences were more comfortable with a cartoon black—a man who knew his place and his limits—and he hated it.

A century later, here was Hillary, masquerading in whiteface. It’s nice to see her dispense with it so quickly post-election. May she persist.