For six months Serial has been presented five days a week. That changes now. Hereafter, both A Writing Life and Serial will be presented four days a week.
I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.
Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.
But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.
Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.
A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.
Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.
Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.
It gets worse.
It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.).
Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.
What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.
John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.
Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.
History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.
*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.
Chapter one, continued.
“Mr. Lincoln been elected.”
It was like walking down a staircase and finding a step missing. I couldn’t believe it. But here was James with a message from my father that I had to obey.
It would mean war.
“The extra horse is for me?” I asked, and James nodded. “Well, the horses will need to rest and so will we. Go out and put them in the barn. You’ll find some corn in the feed box. Rub them down well, mind you. Then come up to my room and help me pack. You can sleep on the floor when we’ve finished.”
Mr. Harding had come in, looking a little sleepy in rumpled nightclothes. I said to him, “Sir, I am afraid I have to leave you. Congressman Williams needs me more than I need Latin, at least for the moment. I can’t say when I will return.”
“So I overheard. Well, Matthew, we all have our duties. Come back when you can. I’ll have Mrs. Brown prepare a breakfast about daybreak.”
“An hour before, if it is convenient. And now, if you will excuse me . . .”
I turned back up the stairs to pack. I had remained calm. I had kept my voice even and low, just as Father had taught me. But inside I was crying out at the shambles fate was making of my life.
James and I held the horses to a steady pace all the way back to Washington City. Father had rented a small house a few blocks from the Capitol. There were two house slaves and James took care of the horses. Otherwise, Father lived alone.
It was well past ten at night when we rode in, but Father was not alone. I could hear angry voices raised in argument in the formal parlor and the smell of cigar smoke rolled through the half open door. I knew Senator Jacobs voice – he was often a visitor at home at Waterside. The others were strange to me, but I could hear enough to know that they were discussing Lincoln’s election. Loudly.
I sent James upstairs with my bag and went to the kitchen. By the time I had finished eating, I could hear Father seeing his visitors to the door. When he returned from the porch, I was waiting in the hallway. He held out his hand and smiled.
I don’t think he felt like smiling, or that he had felt like smiling for a long time. I could tell that he was full of anger. I asked, “Father, why have you called me back?”
He led me back into the parlor and motioned me toward a chair. “You know Lincoln was elected. You know war is coming.”
This is not a thriller, so it can’t be started at a full gallop. The tone and pace of this opening chapter are correct for the kind of book Voices is setting out to be. Nevertheless, after reading it back at the end of the first day of writing, I knew that it needed something to hook the reader’s attention.
Also Matt isn’t much of a person yet. The reader is likely to give us a little time to correct that. Readers tend to like people named “I” until something happens to change their mind.
If you didn’t just start reading Voices today, you know that Matt is going to undergo some major changes in his outlook. Even a reader of the finished book would know something of that from the prolog. He doesn’t yet look like a candidate for that change, but his personality will unfold over the first few chapters, and readers tend to give us time to let that happen.
Even at this point in the writing, I knew I was going to need a prolog to hook the reader.
Today I want to share with you a book you are unlikely to see. Few libraries have it and it commands unreasonable prices in used books stores. It’s writing style is not artistic. Yet it is a moving book, because of its subject, its author, and its timing. The book is Gemini, by Virgil “Gus” Grissom.
Every American knows something about Apollo. Most have at least heard of Mercury, but the Gemini program has been largely forgotten. That is reasonable enough; youth looks forward. At the time, however, Gemini saved America’s faith in the space program at a time when Soviet advances had made us look foolish and hopelessly outclassed.
Here is a brief summary for the terminally young: the Mercury program, consisting of two sub-orbital flights followed by four orbital flights, put America into space, but the one man capsules – not yet called spacecraft, for good reason – were largely occupied rather than flown. Gemini was a two man spacecraft which could change orbits, meet up with other orbiting objects, and was fully under control of its pilots.
If Mercury was a Volkswagen and Apollo was a Winnebago, Gemini was a sports car.
Mercury capsules had windows in the hatch, only placed there at astronaut insistance. Astronauts could look out, but not forward. Gemini’s viewports were moved to a front facing orientation, like the eyes of a predator. It’s pilots had to see where they were going, because they were actually flying their space craft.
For Apollo to do its job, NASA had to learn to rendezvous, dock, and perform EVAs (extra vehicular activities – space walks) and provide a cadre of astronauts who had proven their ability to do these things. That was the purpose of Gemini.
Grissom was the second American in space and the command pilot of the first manned Gemini mission. He provides a first hand look at the program through it’s brief five year span. The book was written just after the last Gemini flight.
Speaking of 1965, Grissom says: ”We had put ten men and five spacecraft into space and returned them safely, performed EVA, and achieved rendezvous. It was a pretty good record for a program that only two years before had appeared to be foundering.” Eventually sixteen astronauts flew on ten manned Gemini missions.
Grissom’s book is an excellent summary. His style charmingly represents a working astronaut who is not a writer. Nevertheless, the book is haunted. We know that, in the words of Grissom’s editor and friend Jacob Hay, “Within weeks after completing the first draft manuscript of this book, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom was dead, killed with his colleagues Lieutenant Colonel Edward M. White, and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, in a flash fire aboard the Apollo spacecraft they were scheduled to take aloft in its first manned flight on Feburary 21, 1967.”
The launchpad fire occurred on January 27, 1967, forty-nine years ago today. For details, see Jay Barbree’s Live from Cape Canaveral (2007), especially chapter nine, ”I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Also see post 27, That Was My Childhood.
The book Gemini would have been hard to read when it came out shortly after the fire. It is even harder to read today, given our understanding of the incompetence that led to the disaster. Knowing that the primary cause was flammable materials in an all oxygen atmosphere, it is hard to hear Gus admit that, “For their part, the medical people weren’t really entirely happy over out 100 per cent oxygen supply.”
Still – the book is joyful, and clearly written my a man who loved what he was doing. Gus says he was writing the book for his sons, and the sons and daughters of the other astronauts, and for other sons and daughters throughout America. He meant me (I was senior in high school when the book was published), and he meant you, whatever your age.
Grissom’s book Gemini is largely forgotten, but what he and his fellow astronauts did will not fade from our memories.
On the evening of November sixth, 1860, I had studied Tacitus until almost midnight. I had just started preparing for bed when I heard the clatter of hooves in the yard. As I looked out the window of my tiny second story room and down upon the carriage house, I saw a negro on a lathered horse, leading a second horse with an empty saddle. He looked like James, my father’s groom, so I dressed quickly and went down.
At the time I was living with Mr. Harding, a thin, quiet man who tutored Latin, while I prepared for the Naval Academy at Anapolis. He had a windy old house off the main street of Baltimore where five students boarded. We all needed Latin, and he had agreed to drill it into us no matter how thick our skulls.
James was having an argument with Mr. Harding’s housekeeper when I came down the stairs. “Massa Matthew,” he said with some relief, “this woman won’t let me in. I told her I come for you.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Brown,” I reassured her. “James belongs to my father.”
“Massa Williams sent me,” James said. “He wants you to pack your bags and come to Washington City right away, tomorrow.”
“Mr. Lincoln been elected.”
It was like walking down a staircase and finding a step missing. I couldn’t believe it. But here was James, rumpled and a little scared, coming in out of the night with a message from my father that I had to obey.
It would mean war.
Yikes. Page one and I’m already in trouble.
These are the first few paragraphs of Voices in the Walls, as written. I’ve cleaned up any grammatical and spelling errors, but otherwise it is just as it came from the keyboard. And as it will stand, as well.
But it hurts my ears, grinds my gears, and makes my stomach ache. The problem is the word Massa.
For me, Massa is more offensive than nigger. You can call a man a nigger, but that doesn’t make him one. But if a man – or a character you are writing – says Massa, it is degrading. He is saying, “I am less than a man.” He is saying, “You’re the boss. Whatever you say goes, and I don’t have any say in the matter.”
But I can’t substitue a less offensive word for the one that would actually be used. I have a solemn compact with my readers to tell the truth.
Be sure to drop in to Serial where I am presenting a piece about a boy coming to grips with racism on the verge of the Civil War.
There it is, the N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. When Paula Deen admitted using it during her youth (at a time when everybody in the South was using it freely), they almost crucified her. Granted, a lot of people were just waiting for a chance, but that was their excuse.
I could write it out plainly. It’s my blog; nobody is going to censor me. I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, as if eveybody didn’t know what it meant. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.
I grew up whiter than white (see posts 46. and 81.), in a black-free community. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see?
Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes. I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear.
Black folks seeking freedom during the sixties taught my mind and my heart not to fear them. But the gut takes longer. Forty years later I wrote a poem to confront the fear that lingered.
I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.
In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.
Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.
When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.
Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.
It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . ., but I cannot!
I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.
If reading can remake our thoughts, writing can do even more. Making this poem a decade ago and facing my shame largely removed that inherited fear.
I don’t like dealing with the Civil War. I understand its pivotal role in American history, but I have no understanding of those who spend their career studying it or writing about so repulsive an event.
In Voices in the Wall I’m telling the story of one young man’s coming to terms with race, and with the way in which his understanding of the world has been wrong. If I were to set that during the Civil War, the blood and guts would get in the way. Voices is actually a hopeful story, and nothing hopeful came out of the Civil War. Slavery was ended, of course, but only at the cost of hardening the attitudes of the South and bringing about a hundred plus years of Jim Crow.
The novelist’s solution is to set Voices close to, but not during the Civil War. This was also a practical necessity, since the “voices” of the title are the voices of slaves escaping via the underground railway. So Voices is set in that brief period between Lincoln’s election and the attack on Ft. Sumter.
Unless you completely compartmentalize your visits to this website, you know by now that over in A Writing Life I am doing about six weeks on the subject of race. It is the American preoccupation, and my early rejection of racism set the tone for the rest of my life. I owe a lot to the people of the Civil Rights movement. I have said that repeatedly, and I will continue to do so.
Voices was my way of coming to terms with the racism of my childhood, just as A Fond Farewell to Dying was my way of coming to terms with religion. The fact that Voices stalled when it did, tells me I have some work left to do, on myself as well as on the novel.
I am sharing this for a number of reasons:
- Although it is not finished, even this fragment is worth reading for it’s own sake.
- It will become a tutorial on planning a novel. I taught middle school for twenty-seven years, and I can’t shake the habit of teaching.
- It will serve as a companion piece and counterbalance for the posts on race which are occurring over in A Writing Life.
- It will serve as a forum on the moral responsibilities of writing, including getting your facts right and not shooting your mouth off about things you don’t understand.
more tomorrow as we begin Chapter one
BIG SPOILER ALERT.
In about a month, you will get to the end of the fragment. You will not get to read the rest of the novel until I finish it – and I have half a dozen novels in the queue waiting to be written – and I’m 68 years old . . .
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.