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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

Haunted Convict

February 25, 2016 | by

The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.

The inside cover and first page of Reed's manuscript. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, here.

On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”

These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do. Read More »

The Room of Flowers

February 4, 2016 | by

Childe Hassam, The Room of Flowers, 1894.

I am fully and intensely aware that plants are conscious of love and respond to it as they do to nothing else. —Celia Thaxter 

Last year, I picked up a book called An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter. I’m not interested in gardening—I can’t keep a plant alive—but I’d loved her Among the Isles of the Shoals, a sort of informal travelogue. An Island Garden conjures the same passion for a remote and challenging and fiercely beloved place. It evokes a sense of belonging, too. Read More »

I’m Not Dead Yet

January 6, 2016 | by

The nineteenth-century obsession with premature burial.

Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

I was eleven when the family cat died—we found her on the cold concrete floor of the garage—but once we’d buried her in the backyard and erected a modest wooden cross, it occurred to me that she might not be dead. Sure, I had seen her dead, had held her dead body, but what if we’d been premature, what if she were only sleeping very, very stilly? The thought haunted me: I had a few nightmares where her little calico paw came jutting up through the ground, as in the archetypal images of zombie uprising. I went so far as to visit the grave with a trowel in hand, but the ground was soft and spongy, the soil still unsettled, and I got the creeps. I convinced myself the cat was extremely, entirely deceased.

Maybe I should’ve been more diligent. There was a big story a year ago about Bart, a bona fide zombie cat from Tampa Bay, who “clawed his way out of the grave” after five days underground. You’ll find that vivid, morbid phrase in almost all the coverage: “clawed his way out of the grave.” I missed all this in 2015, but it’s been brought to life again by the black magic of the news cycle: this is the first anniversary of Bart’s resurrection. “ZOMBIE CAT WHO CLAWED HIMSELF OUT OF GRAVE AFTER BEING KNOCKED DOWN BY CAR IS UNRECOGNIZABLE A YEAR ON,” read one headline this week, indicating Bart’s revivified fluffiness. “ ‘ZOMBIE CAT’ NOW AT THE CENTER OF CUSTODY BATTLE,” said another. Read More »

A Quasquicentennial

January 5, 2016 | by

At the start of the new year, Georgia’s oldest bookstore turned 125. Horton’s Books and Gifts is in Carrollton, west of Atlanta. Its founder, N. A. Horton, was an undertaker who, in 1891, decided to sell schoolbooks in his other business—which is to say, inside a funeral parlor. Although the store moved several times in its early days, it’s returned a long while ago to that original location—and, yes, it’s said to be haunted. Read More »

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

stlukeshomeforlunatics

Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Letters from Vladivostok

December 14, 2015 | by

From Letters from Vladivostok.


More and more I enjoy seeing the herds go home at sunset or a little before—I amuse myself studying the faces of the cows and there are so many different expressions on them: the intellectual cow, the woman’s rights (or rather the cow’s rights) cow, the peasant cow, the grand duchess cow, the lesser nobility and the cows who would be charwoman if they were humans. And most of them remind me of people I have met. —Eleanor Pray, 1909

Last week, I received a letter from a reader named Birgitta Ingemanson. She’d read a piece of mine from last month in which I mentioned the doldrums that one can sail into when one is between books. These inter-book periods are restless times, and the transition from one world to another can be a challenge. If the book you finished was good, you mourn its loss. Conversely, a bad book can make you gun-shy. What if the next one’s no good, either? Birgitta wrote, “The thought came to me to send you the enclosed book, with the following simple suggestion when the in-between time strikes again: ‘Try this.’ ” The book was one she had edited: Eleanor L. Pray’s Letters from Vladivostok, 1894–1930Read More »