Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A New Alternate History Novel About Slavery: Ben Winters' "Underground Airlines"

My summer alternate history readings list just got longer.

While I still have to crack open David Means’s Hystopia, I just saw today’s New York Times article about the publication of yet another prominent alternate history novel, Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines.

Not surprisingly, the two novels deal with “what if?” scenarios involving two of America’s enduring traumas: the Vietnam War and slavery.  I look forward to posting my thoughts on them later this summer.

But several things struck me in reading the Times piece on Underground Airlines.  

First, I was disappointed by the failure to mention the fact that the novel is a work of alternate history.  Regardless of whether Winters conceived the novel self-consciously as belonging to the genre (and he is quoted as having read Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth’s classic works, so he probably did), the failure of the reviewer, Alexandra Alter, to even mention the genre’s existence, to my mind, speaks to alternate history’s ongoing struggle for acceptance and legitimacy in the mainstream press and reading public.

One would think that after all the prominent contributions that have appeared in recent years, it would be de rigueur to note that any novel based on a historical counterfactual belongs to an established literary tradition.  Apparently, we’re not yet there…

Second, and this is a point having less to do with “what ifs?” than identity politics, I was struck by the multiple comments involving the “controversial” dimensions of Winters (a white male Jewish author) writing about a black protagonist.

Winters is quoted in the article saying: “No one tried to talk me out of it, but my wife at one point said, ‘Boy, it would be better if you were black.”…. “My agent might have said something similar, that the reception of the book would go down easier if it was an African-American author.”

The article goes on to add: 

“At least one publisher passed on the book, arguing that it might be too controversial in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Winters said.”

The article further notes: 

“The African American writer, Attica Locke, a mystery novelist and a writer for the television show “Empire,” said she was taken aback at first when she picked up the book and saw the author photo. “The premise was just like, ‘Wait, what now?’” Ms. Locke said. “For me, as a black writer, I have to be like, ‘What’s Ben trying to do here?’” Then she got sucked into the story and was “blown away,” she said. “There’s always this chatter about who gets to tell which stories, and I’m so grateful that he did not let his choice to have a black protagonist scare him away from the project, because this is everybody’s history,” she said."

All the above quotations obviously speak to the ongoing difficulty speaking about race in the U. S.  And there are plenty of reasons why this should be so.

The very idea, however, that – especially in fiction, the art of the imagination – some people may be un- or under- or dis-qualified from speaking about subjects because of their identity is woefully ill-considered. 

Was (white writer) Terry Bisson wrong for featuring black protagonists in his alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain?  Was the non-Jewish writer Martin Amis ill-equipped for writing about the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow?  The list goes on and on and on…. 

Works of fiction (like film, music, theater, etc.) can be judged on all kinds of aesthetic and ethical criteria, but to prejudge works of fiction based on superficial assumptions about the identity of the author strikes me as, well, superficial. 

Human beings have the capacity to show empathy for other human beings.  This is the job of literature at its core.  And it’s our obligation to one another as members of the human species. As Winters himself notes:

“The whole art form is about empathy,” Mr. Winters said. “No, I will never know what it’s really like to be black, but I can, through as much imagination as I can bring to it, create this individual. That’s my job.”

Thankfully, everyone who touched on the issue in today’s Times article ultimately came off as reasonable, but I’m afraid this trend will lead to some less praiseworthy episodes in the future if it continues.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A July 4th Counterfactual: Jefferson's Deleted Condemnation of Slavery from the Declaration of Independence

Today’s New York Times contains a sobering op-ed that counterfactually reminds us of the missed opportunities associated with our otherwise celebratory July 4th holiday.

According to historian Robert Parkinson,

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.”

“In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.”

To understand the profound regret that characteristically informs this “missed opportunity counterfactual,” it helps to re-read the original draft of the Declaration penned by Jefferson.

As is made clear on the Library of Congress website, Jefferson originally included among King George III’s “long train of abuses & usurpations” the following complaint:

“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

The reason why this anti-slavery passage was deleted was later explained by Jefferson in his Autobiography, where he wrote:

"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."

Predictably, many observers have wondered how American history would have unfolded if the paragraph had been included.

The British Library has opined: “Now, we're not going to enter here into the debate about Thomas Jefferson's attitude to slavery. He expressed opposition to the slave trade throughout his career and in 1807 he signed a bill that prohibited slave importation into the United States; that said, Jefferson was also the owner of hundreds of slaves. However, it does strike us that this passage, with its forthright language ('this piratical warfare', 'this execrable commerce'), could easily have changed the course of history if adopted in America as early as 1776.”

Henry Jaffa has argued in A New Birth of Freedom (p. 478): “It remains a matter of profound regret that [Jefferson’s original words…did not remain in the text.  They would have made impossible the perversity of [Supreme Court justice, Roger B. Taney, who handed down the Dred Scott decision in 1857] and [Stephen] Douglas’s misrepresentation of the Declaration of Independence.  (Douglas had agreed with Taney that the signers of the Declaration had not meant to include Negroes in their equalitarian pronouncement).

It would be interesting to see how other scholars have wrestled with the counterfactual implications of Jefferson’s deleted words.  Reflecting on the deeper questions involving the origins of American independence lends deeper meaning to a holiday otherwise devoted to consuming mass quantities of charred meat.