Saturday, February 06, 2016

Reading Austin Reed

More than one hundred and fifty years ago, Austin Reed, an African-American inmate of New York State's Auburn State Prison, wrote a book-length record of his life, which to that date had included several terms at Auburn as well as earlier period of confinement, as an adolescent, in the House of Refuge, a juvenile reformatory in New York City, which he first entered in 1833 at the age of ten. His manuscript was clearly intended for a potential reading public, and he apparently showed it to at least one prison official, a chaplain named Benoni I. Ives, some time around 1859; the author's handwritten note to Ives, on a tiny slip of paper, still exists.

After compiling the manuscript (some of which was written on Herman Melville's favorite writing paper), Austin Reed spent several additional years in the state prison system, receiving another conviction in 1864, but was eventually pardoned. As late as 1895 he was still alive and corresponding with the superintendent of the House of Refuge about his case records, some of which by that time would have been more than sixty years old. What became of him after that is unknown. The manuscript, still bearing the little slip of paper addressed to Ives, first surfaced a few years ago in Rochester, New York (Reed's native city), and was acquired by Yale University's Beinecke Library, which has posted it online. Caleb Smith's edition of the text, which includes a substantial introduction explaining how Reed's identity was determined and his account largely corroborated from other sources, has just been published.

The historical importance of Reed's narrative is, of course, immense; it's believed to be the earliest prison memoir by an African-American, and as a record from a "free" state, it provides useful comparison with contemporary memoirs by former slaves like Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass. As a literary document it resists simple readings; it blends a protest against the brutal treatment he and others received at the hands of the keepers of both of the institutions he describes with a warning, couched in the language of 19th-century evangelism, to others who might follow him down the path of crime. The outlines of the story he tells, including the details of his whippings and other punishments, and the names and fates of his fellow inmates, can be verified from existing records (the institutions were nothing if not thorough in their record-keeping). At other times, particularly of his activities during the brief periods when he was free, he evidently embellishes liberally; he was clearly familiar enough with the tropes of a variety of popular literature of the day to imitate them (though he professed a vehement loathing for novels), and here and there he plagiarizes brief descriptive passages. The essential veracity of his account seems well-established, but does not exhaust the reasons for reading it.

Because it remained unpublished until recently, the narrative was never censored or "improved"; it preserves, for instance, Reed's lengthy diatribe against masturbation, which would presumably have been suppressed by a contemporary editor. Smith has normalized punctuation and corrected the spelling of some words, but has let Reed's grammatical and other errors stand. (All of the emendations are recorded in an appendix.) The edition provides essential background and annotation, but I have no doubt that the coming years will see additional clarifications and re-interpretations of both Reed's life and the text.

There is a brief interview with Caleb Smith on the website of WXXI radio.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

On Novels (Austin Reed)

"I despise the looks of a novel. The cursed infernal things, I can't bear the sight of one. They are a curse to every one that reads them. I never could bear the looks of them. They are pack full of lies. They are a store House of lies. I never could take any comfort in reading them. Give me the history of some great and good man who is laboring for the welfare of his country, like Wm. H. Seward, who is fighting against the world of enemies every day for the promotion and benefit of his country, and laboring with a strong arm for to crush vice and crime and morality under the feet of the world. That is such a book which I love to read. Novels are books that will bring many a young man to a gloomy cell, and many a weeping mothers to their graves."

Austin Reed, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, edited by Caleb Smith.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


I grew up in a community of eighty or so houses built on a hill leading up from a small man-made lake. In the winter you could see the lake from our house and watch skaters in the distance, if there happened to be any; in the summer the view was mostly occluded by trees. At the summit of the hill there was a water tower, which I suppose is where our water must have come from, after having been pumped up to it from a well somewhere.

The tower, which was set in a patch of woods not far from the uppermost stretch of road, wasn't particularly imposing; I suspect it was only twenty feet high or so. Nevertheless, there was a tale connected with it, of the kind that was told to (or by) half-believing kids around the fire on summer nights when some of us got together to camp out.

The story was that the tower, the inside of which no one I knew had ever seen, was inhabited by some kind of water-dwelling creature of an unknown but uncongenial kind. In normal circumstances it remained safely inside the tower and bothered no one, but it was said that one year, when there was a drought and the water level in the tower fell precipitously and stayed low for a good part of the summer, desiccated bodies — squirrel, cats, who knew what else — were found in the surrounding woods. We avoided the area at night, just to be sure.

Friday, January 29, 2016

On Prophets

From time immemorial the function of the prophet has consisted of one thing and one thing only: to cry down the wrath of the heavens upon the wicked and proclaim the kingdom of the righteous. The prophet's domain is truth, as he or she is inspired to preach it; that many prophets preach things that are by any measure utterly demented does not perceptibly alter the job description.

Prophets are famously unpopular in their own time because, in the end, the truth isn't something we particularly want to hear, unless it happens to suit us (which it tends not to do). Nevertheless, prophets are essential, because without them we quickly lapse into our comfortable habits.

Politics, on the other hand, has little to do with virtue and even less to do with truth. Politicians often employ the language of prophecy — indeed, we generally expect them to — but no politician would last long who told us the whole truth. All kings have their flatterers, and this is no less true when sovereignty is vested in the people. Except in rare moments of crisis, when the need for sacrifice is underlined, we must always be told that we can have things both ways, that there is no difference between what is true and good on one hand and what benefits us in the fairly short run on the other.

The kingdom of the righteous never arrives, but that doesn't mean that prophets are without influence. Sometimes the truth of what they say becomes so self-evident that it is grudgingly accepted and acted upon, after a fashion at least; at other times their zeal ignites a great conflagration, empires fall, old ways are swept away, and wickedness must seek new horizons (they are rarely far).

In the end, though, corruption lurks everywhere, not least within the heart of the prophet who, perhaps, begins to tire of berating the indifferent and decides to grasp for power. Every true prophet must remain a voice crying out of the wilderness, and the rest of us are left to muddle along as best we can.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

If I Had Wings

"Shake" is pretty much your typical Vulgar Boatmen song: understated but relentless, made up of lyrics stitched together from scraps of language that never quite settle into a story, a plea, or a plaint, but that somehow manage to perfectly capture a state of uncertain longing stripped of all its outward trappings.
It's cold tonight
Bell rings on a corner and just like that
Your friends, my friends, start to disappear
I can't find, I can't find her anywhere
The live performance shown here is from 1992; the song would later be included on the Boatmen's third album, Opposite Sex, where it is credited to Dale Lawrence (the singer in the video), Robert Ray, and Jeff Byers.
And if I had wings
Well if I had wings
I'd come by for you, come by for you
I'd come by for you, come by for you
Walk around, walk around, walk around

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Boy Who Was a Friend of the Devil (Ana María Matute)

Everyone, at school, at home, in the street, told him cruel and ugly things about the Devil, and in his catechism book he saw him in Hell, enveloped in flames, his horns and tail burning, with a sad, solitary face, sitting in a cauldron. "Poor Devil," he thought; "he's like the Jews, whom everyone drove from their land." And from then on every night he called the Devil "handsome one, beautiful one, my friend." His mother, who heard him, crossed herself and turned on the light. "Oh, stupid boy, don't you know who the Devil is?" "Yes," he replied; the Devil tempts the bad people, the cruel ones. But since I'm his friend I will be good forever, and he'll let me go into Heaven in peace."

My "slow reading" project for the next few weeks or months will be this enormous brick of a book, which contains all (or nearly all) of the short fiction and miscellaneous writings of the late Spanish writer Ana María Matute. The story above is from her earliest collection, Los niños tontos (1956), which contains twenty-one brief fable-like pieces, most barely longer than this one. Most of the children come to a bad end.

Earlier posts on Ana María Matute:

Last words (on Demonios familiares)
Bonfires (on Primera memoria)
Childhood (on Paraíso inhabitado)
Faithful Objects

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Journey of Shuna (anniversary re-post)

I'm re-posting this piece (with a couple of additional images) for two reasons: because I've just been leafing through my copy of The Journey of Shuna, which remains as beautiful and mysterious as ever, and because I notice that my original post is now exactly ten years old. The publishing situation remains unchanged; there is still no authorized English-language version.

This delicate watercolor manga by Hayao Miyazaki has never been officially translated into English, which is a bit of a surprise, given the increasing popularity of Miyazaki's films worldwide and the ready availability here of his multi-volume manga epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Perhaps the production cost of doing it in full color would be prohibitive — I don't really know.

The following is a brief outline of the story, as I can follow it and based on some available page-by-page fan translations.

Shuna is a young man living in a small village in what looks like some high-altitude country in Asia. (When this story takes place is deliberately unclear; the art and technology seem very old, but on the other hand there are a few primitive guns.) The country is windswept and the land barren; the villagers survive, but barely, on sparse harvests of grain.

One day a stranger, an old man, is found by the wayside and brought back to the village, barely alive. Before he expires he tells Shuna that he is a prince from a distant country. Long ago he, like Shuna, had encountered a lone traveler. The latter had given him a purse full of grain — grain so rich that it could bring plenty even to a harsh land. The old man still has the purse of grain, but after so many years it is useless. He has searched for years for the land where the grain is grown, somewhere far to the west, but he has never found it and now can go on no longer.

Shuna, of course, soon decides to leave the village and seek the land of the golden grain. He mounts his yakkul (an elk-like creature) and rides off. Like every good quest-hero, he travels through a wasteland; then he comes upon a derelict ship half-buried in the sand. There are shrouded inhabitants inside, who beckon him in, but, spooked by the sight of a pile of human bones, he steers away and camps a little ways off. During the night he is attacked by several shrouded figures (they are all apparently women), but he fights them off, severing the hand of one with a gunshot. (She later creeps back and silently retrieves the hand).

On the road he is passed by a large cart, drawn by several blue beasts and surmounted by several gunmen. They treat him rudely and continue on their way.

Soon afterwards, Shuna comes to an enormous bustling city. In the marketplace he finds a pile of the grain he seeks, but it is already threshed and dead; he is told that it comes from a distant place. He also learns of the city's flourishing trade in slaves. He sees a girl roughly his own age in chains, with a younger girl alongside. He tries to purchase their freedom but fails, and leaves the city.

He meets a hermit monk, who tells him that he can find what he seeks further west, in “the place of the god men, where the moon is born and returns to die,” a place from which no man has ever returned. The next morning Shuna wakes up and finds the hermit has gone.

He again encounters the cart with the gunmen. Inside are slaves, among them the two sisters he had met in the marketplace. He shoots the gunmen and releases the girls. Together they flee, as more armed men are seen coming from the city. They are followed to the top of a high cliff, the very precipice which overlooks the land of the god-men. Shuna sends the girls and his mount away to safety in the north, then evades his pursuers by sending them to their deaths over the precipice.

An enormous luminous face swifly crosses the sky above him and disappears over the edge of the precipice. Knowing that he has come to the place he seeks, Shuna begins to descend the cliffs. His descent seems to be, as well, a descent through time; he climbs over ancient monuments and the skeletons of antediluvian creatures and eventually reaches a sea in which enormous prehistoric beasts are swimming. He wades across to a dense and fertile land, populated by a variety of creatures, all of them, fortunately, benign.

The next few pages are strange and eventful, and I'm not sure I completely understand them — but here goes: an enormous green figure strides through the forest, then collapses, and is immediately consumed by a horde of beasts. More giants stride through the forest; Shuna passes them and comes to a clearing, where there is a vast tower which appears to be some kind of living being. He discovers that it is hollow. Just then the moonlike face crosses the sky and arrives at the top of the tower. It disgorges from its mouth a stream of human figures, slaves, apparently, acquired from the slave-traders. As they fall into the tower they are transformed into green giants; they emerge and spread out, spewing seeds from their mouths as they travel. Within hours the land becomes green — this, then, is the source of the golden grain.

Shuna grabs hold of several stalks of ripe grain. The giants howl with pain; Shuna flees, leaping into the sea.

We are now shown the two sisters. They have arrived in a village in the north, where they and the yakkul are ploughing a plot of land belonging to an old woman who has taken them in. One night they find a ragged traveler outside; it is Shuna. He is haggard and has lost his ability to speak, but around his neck he carries the precious golden grain.

The girls and Shuna plant the grain in a small plot; it sprouts. The old woman tells the older girl she is now of age and must marry one of the villagers. There is a bride-contest: the girl says that she will marry the suitor who can master the yakkul. Of course all the young men fail, until finally the mute Shuna succeeds.

The sprouted grain eventually bears fruit, after being protected by Shuna and the girls from a terrible hailstorm. Shuna recovers his speech. The three stay another year, harvesting another crop and fending off an attack from slave-traders, then depart for Shuna's native village, leaving half the grain behind for their hosts. The story ends there.

There's a lot that could be said about The Journey of Shuna, but I'm not going to try to interpret it, because, as with all great mythological stories, there seem to be so many different angles from which it can be approached. Despite the different setting, the affinities with the legend of Perceval and the grail seem very strong to me; there are also echoes of the Odyssey (the bride-contest, if nothing else), and, in the green men, similarities with Central American myths. It's also very much a Miyazaki story; other observers have commented on its connections with both the manga and film versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but the beginning of the tale, the departure of the hero, resembles the opening of Princess Mononoke.

There are some fascinating visual elements as well: in the background of the panels where the old traveler is dying there appear first a large upside-down female figure, then a pair of outstretched hands, as if a deity were carrying him away. This is not commented on in the text, and it has been suggested (I don't agree) that the apparent “deity” is just a painted decoration in the interior of the room where the man lies dying — in any case the effect is quite odd. The old woman who shelters the sisters reminds me, in one panel, of some of Sendak's old crones. Overall it's very rich and distinctive both visually and as story; I hope that American audiences will eventually get a full chance to appreciate it.