The third and final story [of Strangers Below] is a ghost story. It’s about the strange diffusion of the Primitives’ sensibility in modern American roots music. For me, it all started while I was listening to the radio in my Volkswagen. This was in early 2002. I heard the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley chanting out “O Death,” a chilling a cappella deathbed plea that had become famous as part of the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Hearing that song on country music radio will make the mind turn.
It's been a couple of weeks since I've seen the Confederate flag. Around here that flag flew all summer long. Cars with the flag lashed to their antennas; pick-up trucks flying two flags, one on each side of their bed railings, like floats in a twisted parade; motorcycles with the flag hanging tail-like off their backsides: all here, all summer. I'd drive the backroad to Richmond to fetch groceries and see the flag flying outside of businesses.
And so even as that miserable flag mets its sudden and strange and unexpected and belated demise in so many state capitals across the South, it refused to die here in small-town Kentucky. I'm guessing the same thing was happening in towns and cities across Appalachia and the South, and that all of it was missed in the headlines about the flag vanishing from Walmart shelves and Amazon web pages and the Charleston state capital.
Maybe, then, I haven't seen the Stars and Bars lately because the people here who decided to unfurl their white supremacist banner after the Charleston murders have decided out of boredom or conscience or happenstance to stow their flags, or maybe it's just that I haven't been on the road as much the last couple of weeks since the semester started. We'll see.
Meanwhile, in Frankfort, Jeff Davis still stands, the sentinels of the state's Historic Properties Commission at his back.
I thought I'd share a bit more of my jottings about those pilgrims. This is all rough, I will almost certainly junk it down the road, and, frankly, I can't quite believe I'm even sharing it. Usually I hide even polished writing behind a wall of finicky fear, but, hey, let's be vulnerable and try something new.
I'm trying to find the right way to describe these pilgrims, trying to find a way that relies on my sources (obviously!) without being enslaved by them. Contemporary observers saw the pilgrims' as utterly strange. I want to evoke these observers' feelings without letting their indignation and revulsion pollute my own understanding of the past. In that earlier sketch, I tried to capture something of what the last remaining pilgrims may have felt. (Which reminds me that I need to write later on about how to do that kind of thing without direct testimony from the pilgrims themselves, how to do that kind of thing, in other words, without making stuff up.) Here, though, the voice is more straightforward, more conventionally distanced, as I'm describing the pilgrims' entry into an Ohio town.
Zanesville, Ohio, November 1817
They came in mud and rags, plodding forward in rhythm, the men hunched over like marionettes gone slack at the waist, the women following single file, the children and the sick piled wagons, the whole blighted company girdled in bearskins, and only the red-bearded man clad in leather and carrying a great wooden staff like some latter-day Moses. A chant floated up from the column as it approached: “Praise God! Praise God! Praise God, repent, fast, pray.” They preached on the courthouse steps. They prayed beside their tents. They cast out devils. They came, they said, for the good of mankind.
Rumors preceded them: They had come from the northern country, gathering in the lost and the wanting like the promised ingathering at the end of days. They were bound for the New Jerusalem somewhere in the West. They had no map but the Almighty’s voice. They refused to bathe. They ate only a crude porridge from a communal vat, all of them supping through perforated quills like strange beasts watering from a trough. Their leader, the prophet, was a paralytic who rose to walk again. He healed the sick and the lame. He had been a man of elegance and talent who forsook the vanities of the world for a life of repentance and penury. No, he was an imposter and his acolytes all fanatics. He was a murderer, had killed a child, one of their own, dosed him with a decoction of poisonous bark “by command of the Lord.”
In Zanesville, they stayed for two weeks. In the city streets, boys taunted them: “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark / The Pilgrims have come to town / Some in rags and some in tags / And some in dirty gowns.” They found one convert. As winter set in, the Spirit of God told them to head west.
The biggest problem I’m having writing about this mysterious group of pilgrims I mentioned below is that they left behind precisely one record. That’s it. Only one document written by a member of this group survives. Just one. It’s a nice letter, a helpful letter. I’m grateful that it exists. But it’s lonely.
Now, there is hope for the persevering historian soldiering on in the air-conditioned libraries and archives he calls home. There were several dozen newspaper articles about these pilgrims, a couple of accounts penned by frontier travelers who crossed their path, a fairly early history (ca. 1842) that noticed them, and a handful of brief notes written by frustrated and bewildered Shakers who, as they saw it, had the great misfortune of having to deal with these unkempt nomads invading their orderly villages.
But here is another problem—a problem that may, in fact, be more significant than the existence of that single friendless letter: all these other sources—the newspaper reports, the travelers’ journals, the curt Shaker diary entries—treat the pilgrims as singular oddities, as fanatics, as deluded souls, as religious impostors, as figures worthy of ridicule and contempt. The loathing rises out of the past like a heavy smoke.
And then there's this: modern historians who have written about these mysterious pilgrims essentially endorse the “findings” and tone of these early sources. The pilgrims’ chief modern chronicler described them as an example of American religious insanity. Yes, insanity. His words. Well, to be fair, he was quoting de Tocqueville. But let's not quibble. He was quoting de Tocqueville with approval.
But, look, I don’t buy it. I don’t think these pilgrims were insane. I don’t think they were fanatics or deluded enthusiasts. I think they are noteworthy. I think they are important. I think they are fascinating. But I don't think they were crazy. Alas, I seem to be alone in that opinion. And I note that. I wonder about it. I wonder whether I'm wrong, whether I might, in my own geeky and romantic way, be deluded as well.
Here's a slice of some new stuff I'm working on these days. It's a story I'm trying to figure out how to tell. It's about a mysterious group of American pilgrims (but not that group) whose journey into the heart of the continent has long been forgotten.
In later years, after it all was over, the lost still sought them out: that mincing itinerant, his face swollen from mosquito bites, insisting on his misbegotten interview, or well after that—who knew how long, the waiting blurred the calendar—that Ohio colonel with his flotilla of flatboats offering them passage upriver as if they would ever leave this holy place.
From the beginning it had been like this: the lost ones arriving, seeking them out, their souls bitten with anger and conceit. In the camp outside Cincinnati, great numbers of folk of every age and condition had come looking, the road from that city choked with the traffic of the curious, of those lost to God and man alike. In western New York, in that state’s great table land drawing its visitors down inexorably to the banks of the Cayuga—there in their peaceful camp edging the woods, they had invited those two evangelists into their dwelling house only to be scolded like children and it made all the worse coming from the mouth of the second, that miserable fledgling who brandished his seminary learning like a badge.
Always like this, and now they came even here to this river bank where they had fashioned their lean-to out of cane reed and bark and weatherboard pale as bone. It was all they needed and all they wanted. This was their home, and it was holy ground. It was the Promised Land. The Prophet had told them so. Nothing on earth, they told that Ohio man—nothing on earth would induce them to leave it.
This is the five-year-old Patrick Melrose (or, well, the narrator conjuring him, or, well, the narrator conjuring Patrick who seems to have felt precisely how I felt during childhood) in the opening pages of Edward St. Aubyn's Never Mind. I really try not to read solipsistically, but sometimes I can't help it.
"Even when you were awake it was hard to know what grown-ups meant when they said things. One day he had worked out a way of guessing what they were going to do: no meant no, maybe meant perhaps, yes meant maybe and perhaps meant no, but the system did not work, and he decided that maybe everything meant perhaps."
Here's something that found its way to me a year ago and has been threaded through my thoughts ever since. It's the beautiful David Foster Wallace speaking to Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm. They were speaking in 1996, not long after the publication of Wallace's novel, Infinite Jest. This bit from Wallace woke me up:
The thing that makes me nervous talking about this is, so far, it seems as if people think it [Infinite Jest] really is a book about drug addiction or recovery, and, you know, intentional fallacies notwithstanding, what was really going on in my head was something, something more general: that some of the sadness that it seems to me kind of infuses the culture right now has to do with this loss of a sense of purpose or organizing principles—something you're willing to give yourself away to, basically. And that the addictive impulse, which is very much kind of in the cultural air right now, is interesting and powerful only because it's a kind of obvious distortion of kind of a religious impulse or an impulse to be a part of something bigger.
“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”
— Lyman Ward in Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose
Kathryn Gin Lum said I might like this book. She was right.