Thursday, September 20, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XVII: 47% Of Mitt's Legacy Is Under A Hill in Darien

Look! Mormon Larpers! 

No, not the spicy Laotian dish made with ground rice, meat, lime and fish sauce, which sounds delicious (thanks, Wikipedia disambiguation!). The breed of nerds that likes to dress up in fantasy or period costume and pretend to fight each other, which is not, well, delicious. More exactly, it's like Talk Like A Pirate Day, only embarrassing. (See how I cleverly insert a reference to Talk Like a Pirate Day, which this post missed the actual celebration by two days? I'm going to talk about ...that.)

So I guess I don't have to bring any sentient readers up to date on the major news story of the day. Besides, I might be linking back to this post in a year or two, and we'll laugh and we'll laugh. Suffice it to say that Mitt Romney of that Name, Republican candidate for President in 2012, pushed forward with The Campaign From Dunning-Kruger by furthering his reputation as an out-of-touch rich person.

You know, the guy from a small-denomination Protestant church in America's most-out-of-touch state, who is running against the Harvard Law graduate with all those University of Chicago connections. I'm not going to argue that it's not the way things are, here in the fall of 2012, but I am going to suggest that there is an anomaly to be explained.

Okay, start with the beginning: America had a Revolution in 1776. Its end in 1783 inaugurated something of an economic collapse, from which the country was rescued by a rapid uptick in the price of flour at the wharf  around the North Atlantic basin with the beginning of the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. America's landed gentry responded to this by buying and selling land with abandon, and some of them ended up well-married and genteel-like. Now that they were rich and leisurely, they decided to have what I am going to dub Third-World-Becoming-First-World Problems, such as not being able to write novels that were good and also authentically American. Then, after setting the terms of the debate, they would argue about what made a novel authentically American until they were too drunk to go on, at which point they staggered off into the night, sticking anyone dumb enough to hold the table with most of their tab.

But enough about graduate school. Unlike many debates, this one had an ending. and by ending, I mean, "link to this Crazy Harry skit on the Muppets."  James Fenimore Cooper blew it up with his 1823 novel, The Pioneers, which was intended to be an English-style "Property in peril" novel of romance, and somehow ended up introducing the Guy With No Name and Yoknapatawpha County schticks to American, thus world, literature. Stick a fork in it, American literature-worrying-abouters, there's your themes.

Well, in part, anyway. We've got our Conan/Han Solo/Ben Kenobi prototype, but we don't have a setting for him. Where does the fantastic come into American literature? Well, imagine upstate New York as it actually was in 1823, not as we often risk getting it in the particular histories that are concerned with it. That is to say, it is usual at this point to describe it as the "Burnt Over Ground," swept by one religious revival after another, and think of it as a little slice of America, solid and settled communities to be fought over by rival religious revivalists. 

Actually, we need to keep in mind that we're talking about a region settled by real estate entrepenurs who were moved into action by the beginning of the wheat boom, that is to say, from the 1790s. I really don't want to talk about pioneers moving into the wilderness. This was a productive landscape when the grain farmers arrived, after all. They just had to clear the deer woods and buffalo champagnes and drain the beaver ponds under the haunting mounds of the Adena, then plough out the ancient ossuaries to prepare the land for corn and wheat. Palmyra, New York,  seems almost ahistorical, with its historical Middle Eastern name, but it is located in Wayne County. The commemoration of the  hero of the Battle of Fallen Timbers puts us in very recent history here. Wayne's co-hero, William Henry Harrison, won't even be ready to run for President until 1840. The land on which Palmyra sat was pre-empted in 1789, bounced through a series of American entrepeneurs, and was finally taken in hand in 1792 by a consortium of London investors acting through Benjamin Franklin's twice illegitimate grandson, William Franklin Temple, although Palmyra proper had already been bought out of the original Phelps-Gorham Purchase by the Wyoming Yankee Brigadier-General John Swift, so that Palmyra was an enclave of Swiftian influence within the larger dominion of the Londoner's land agent,  Robert Troup.

So imagine an instant society of bonanza farmers, implanted by grand seigneurs, still watching over them with a patriarchal eye only slightly less overseeing than the brooding eye of the eternal pyramids that dominated a landscape whose constant yield of bones, pots and even more precious items reminded the farmers that they lived in a land with an ancient, albeit unknowable history. Now imagine that these farmers came out of a mentality that is just a little distant from our own. Imagine that not only were treasure hunters attacking some of the mounds, that they were doing so under the guidance of crystal peeping stones that gave them true sight, and that at least some of them seem to have honestly believed that the only way to reach the treasure chambers deep within the mounds was with proper ritual comportment. Failure to follow rules would result in the Black Man (probably to be imagined as an elf rather than Satan) removing the treasure. Or, perhaps, cutting the door that connected the depths of the mound with the other world where the treasure was. 

Fantastic? My point. The fantastic is the key theme of American literature that Cooper didn't invent. I'm probably as familiar with the early history of American science fiction and fantasy as everyone, and I've never found conventional identifications of the field's "inventor" very persuasive, not least because the American side of the field is filled with actual patent trolls like Hugo Gernsback. 

Besides, just seven years after Pioneers, Palmyra author Joseph Smith published the first piece of American science fiction of which I'm aware. Like most genuinely successful works of science fiction, its readers proceeded to take it a little too seriously. Or perhaps I'm just being too critical of Larpers. So. Is Book of Mormon a reply to Pioneers?

I've laid out the case before: Pioneers is a story of romance and property in peril with a very strong autobiographical component and a so-obvious-I-don't-understand-why-I-have-to-point-it-out political plot about the Whiskey Rebellion. Evidently worried that his point had been obscured, Cooper returned to it with 1838's Home duology and then, under cover of magic realism, with the more deeply honest Deerslayer. 

Taking these books together, I think it's pretty defensible to argue that Cooper (and his great grandson) believed that the Cooper family enjoyed their 50,000 acre tract near Cooperstown, New York, as an inheritance of their family's actual ancestors, George Croghan and Benjamin Franklin, the conveyance thinly concealed as an estate sale for various reasons. Perhaps even more personal and difficult than the implicit acknowledge of the (I speculate) natural birth of his parents, Cooper was willing to acknowledge their Indian descent.* He is willing because he seems to believe that he is descended from Indian chiefs. The point here is that the current White landed aristocracy of the American Democracy is descended from the old Indian aristocracy of the Turtle Island hetereoarchy, and that everyone should just damn well shut up and show deference, and people who choose to persist in their Indian identity instead of taking up the American one offered them are welcome to find places on the other side of the Mississippi where "border" life is still possible. (That is, I'm suggesting that we need to re-imagine what "frontier wilderness" meant to Cooper, at least in 1823. It's not the absence of the state, but rather the mutual annihilation of the state at the frontier between them.)

Joseph Smith's argument to ancestry is a little more carefully obscured, but, again, my bald reading is that Eighteenth Century White America is actually an ethnogenesis-in-situ of a hybrid English-Indian-Black population, and that poor people on the New York grain frontier are closest to the frontier of the ethnogenesis. What he wants is to establish a context in which the ethnogenesis can go on happening, which is rapidly becoming an issue due to increasingly intensive social surveillance. The churches are the primary gatekeeper on American civil society, and there is increasingly vigilant surveillance of both the "small sects" and of the American churchgoing population as a whole. The Book of Mormon isn't just the holy book of a new sect devoted to furthering the ethnogenesis. It is to be read as a legitimisation of that ethnogenesis. 

My suspicion is that this is a good way of reading a surprising amount of SF&Fantasy since, but not to get too far off on a tangent, I'll boil it down. Mormonism is a way in which potentially marginalised people can participate in the American political project, at the expense of subsuming that participation in the overall participation of the Church. It's hardly the only "small sect" within American religion to do that, but it does have the wackiest underwear. Plus also Utah.

Okay, so that's why I think that the fact that it's important that both Pioneers and Book of Mormons  turns on buried treasure, and that that treasure isn't what we'd expect. Pioneers, as I'll remind you, climaxes when the "Templeton Militia" invades Natty Bumppo's hidden cave within the Temple Patent at the "source of the Susquehanna" and discovers not a silver mine, but rather the trio of Natty, Chingachgook, and old Major Effingham [Abraham]. Inasmuch as the whole doppelganger thing turns out to have been huge in romantic literature, I'm going to speculatively add that the three of them are probably to be read as a single person, but even if that doesn't hold up, the point here is pretty clear. The treasure is a genealogy, not a load of bullion. Our romantic hero and heroine are the legitimate heirs to the Temple Patent, and the Militia can suck it.

Mormon takes this and turns it around. The Hill Cumorah is on the private land of one of the great entrepeneurs of the Purchase. Shiftless Joe Smith can't search their for treasure. The treasure has been privatised. (It's even been suggested that this privatisation of treasure mounds was seen in the neighbourhood as the source of the incomprehensible wealth of the era's "53%." Though I can't remember by who.) So an angel of God takes him there in a dream walk, and they recover the true treasure of the Hill Cumorah, which is the genealogy and history of the Book of Mormon, which establishes that Joe's breed of "White" trash have a better title to the land than any bunch of London entrepeneurs. The Book of Mormon actually comes out in the context of an all-out political struggle between the Democratic establishment and the rising power of the Anti-Masons, who will, within a generation, become one of the founding parties of the GOP. So we're right at the foundational moment of the Second Party System here, and the Book of Mormon is in the thick of it. 

Unfortunately, you can't get the two-bit con man out of the would be national saviour. At the crucial juncture, Joe Smith panicked. Instead of frankly saying that his followers are Lamanites who have become  Christian, and for this reason, "White, and delightsome to the eyes of the Lord," he is vaguely suggesting that this is something that can happen, and will happen to the Indians that the Mormons proselytise in the future, out in the Great Basin West, as it happens, far from the hostile eyes of the good and great. He's afraid that the Mormons will be kicked out of White America if they are honest about what they were talking about. So he buries truth in metaphor. Or, to put it bluntly, he runs a grift. Mitt Romney may be the candidate from Dunning-Kruger, but he had a pretty hard road through the brambles of Prophet Joe's original con to begin with.  

So what's the problem here? I mean, the real problem. Assuming, that is, you agree with me that the whole race thing is so much ideological bullshit covering up the real circumstances? Here, I think that the key is the "buried treasure" part of the buried treasure. I mentioned Deerslayer earlier and called it Cooper's most honest novel. That's because in this novel, the featured Effingham ancestor, Judith Hutter,** is a bastard and the mother of bastards. But she's also the supposed daughter of Old Muskrat (damn you, Cooper, with your subtlety!). Who turns out to be, oddly enough, a retired pirate, somehow come to live in obscurity in a lodge on an artificial island on the primordial waters of Glimmerglass. 

So who is this Tom Hutter, really? Cooper sets up an answer to this question, in the form of a giant cache of SYMBOLIC STUFF, in all caps to non-ironincally call out the sheer lack of subtlety here. He takes the stuff, waves it in our faces, demands our attention --and then throws it in the lake. 

What the hell is he doing, with all these clues that he throws at us? For starters, there's another name behind the Hutter alias, Tom Hovey. Unfortunately, it is as much invented for the novel as Tom Hutter. If any of Cooper's contemporaries twigged on the name, they give the Internet no sign, which I suppose is defensible, given that they're dead and all. There's a flag, but Judith and Natty are unlearned and don't recognise it. Not British or French, I suppose, but that's all we can say. There is a chest of letters, deeds and patents, signifying the hidden history of Judith's birth and this plot of land, but only Judith reads them, and all the'll say is that they prove her a bastard. There is the rifle, Killdeer, which I've previously argued functions in the Deerstalker novels as an American Excalibur, but that's in reference to Judith and her mother, I think, not Hutter. There's a navigational instrument that I take to be a signifier of surveillance and control, but it's also the kind of thing that a pirate would have. 

And, well, that's it. Above all, there's no treasure, as there will be no treasure at the end of Pioneers, except Glimmerglass itself. Since Glimmerglass happens to be on the portage between the Mohawk-Hudson and Susquehanna-Potomac systems, this isn't an inconsiderable treasure. Furs travel down it now, and grain will in the future. But still....

One last clue: a pirate, living in obscurity in the interior of New York state. Cooper suggests that he came ashore in the general amnesty at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. But if he's amnestied, why does he still go by his alias? Is there, just conceivably, a big historical deal that was made about a pirate who disappeared into the Susquehanna backcountry? 

You know that there is. On 7 May, 1694 (Old Style, I presume), the crew of the privateer Charles II mutinied in the harbour of Corunna in Spain and elected one Henry Every their captain. Every has been linked to the West Country Every baronets but never substantially. Early in 1695, Every intercepted a 25 ship convoy on its way to Mecca. The story is that, after a fierce fight, the treasure ship of the Emperor Aurangazeb itself fell victim to a fleet led by Captain Every and containing ships bearing letters of marque from virtually every one of the American colonies. 
The pirates captured exceeding treasure and then, well, er, I think this is the part where a polite person puts in a trigger warning

See, what actuallly happened is that, as far as I can tell, Ganj-i-sawa was a huge, heavily laden treasure ship carrying the cargoes of some very rich people, including the emperor. It was also carrying numerous passengers making the haj, including some women, and also a relation of the emperor himself. The story is then immediately eroticised by the weakness of the Muslim defence. The captain, we are told, fled the deck and hid amongst "the concubines" below. 

Then it starts getting seriously salacious. The captured concubines are, of course, "outraged" by the lusty pirates, and the relative turns into a daughter or granddaughter of the Emperor, as oposed to the "elderly relation of a certain high Umbraw," per our only actual source. Depending on your preferred version, the princess is then  either swept off into captivity by Captain Every with the inevitable consequences (cf. every "Pirate Romance" novel ever) or violated and thrown into the sea. 

Frankly, I don't any element of the story seriously. I hope I don't have to spell out to you what a retail worker thinks when he hears that a well-defended prize carrying a great deal of cash money is captured by a much inferior force that then sails off with the money, leaving ship, crew and defenders more-or-less intact.  the story of Captain Every taking a royal princess to wife is clearly fantastic. I would make psychosexual hay out of the fact that some people like retelling the made-up "violated and drowned" story if  it weren't so damned squicky. (First appearance, Burgess, 136.)*** But what I think is actually important here is the way that erotic capital comes out of the woodwork to hang out in the story. It may not have any place in real events, but its invasion of the mundane world points us to the future of these pirates. What is going to happen to these men who have been made fabulously wealthy by getting so thoroughly into the business of the East India Company and the Emperor Aurangazeb?

The answer starts with a global manhunt fed by a massive price on the head of every one of the crew. It does not, however, end with anyone's capture, a sad few alcoholics who showed up in London aside. For Every, is that he disappears discreetly from history. Given that he was old enough to  have learned not to be stupid, I would be at risk of losing all my faith in money if he didn't. It is the six of Every's men who reached the nascent colony of Pennsylvania. Of the six, Stephen Claus, Robert Clinton**** and Edmund Lassells got caught up in an abortive attempt to extradite them to England, and so we know their names. We do not know the name of the one who apparently married Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Markham's daughter. I do know that the idea of a pirate marrying a colonial governor who was first cousin to Sir William Penn ought to raise some eyebrows. The source is the same aggrieved correspondent who also related the story above, but the fact that no-one challenged the story is evidence that it actually happened. Taking my so-often abused little Occam's Razor to the story, I'm going to tentatively suggest that some of Every's crew were a little better born than my "floating proletariat" phrase would otherwise suggest. Or Every himself. And since the Razor is hungry for yet more tissue of speculation, I'll also suggest that the bridegroom isn't one of the three men turned over above, but rather one of the three not named. 

These shenanigans did not go unnoticed in London, and, eventually, a letter from the King arrived telling Markham to turn Every's men over for summary justice. The reply was that they'd left the colony for New York. When Governor Fletcher (patron of William Kidd) wrote in turn that they never arrived in New York. 

So, perhaps, they, and their illicit sexuality and their governor's daughter and their "Arabian gold" ended up at   the sources of the Susquehanna. It's close enough.  

If you want to unpack this story, the money is pretty important. The new monarch in Britain was scrambling to find ready money for his war with Louis XIV. British silver was being mercilessly clipped and shaved to meet a monetary shortage that the authorities in London neither understood nor could, seemingly, remedy. The country came out of it, eventually, and this is a long enough post already without my rehearsing D. A. Jones' explanation of how that happened. But we're talking about 1696, here. William is about to be forced out of the War of the League of Augsburg by monetary crisis, and will soon sign the worst territorial peace in North America to come out of the long series of Anglo-French colonial wars. We have a picture of great affairs of state being carried helplessly out to sea by the ebb of a money supply. It's the shortage of money that forced Governor Markham to greet his guests and protect them so closely.

Is it even vaguely correct? Was there an ex-pirate, somewhere in the hinterland between Pennsylvania and New York, married into the Penn family and rich with good gold? If so, there is a wall between the source of his fortune and his actual activities. Which is something that you can say about the source of a great many people's money. No-one wants to be known as the guy who sold his daughter for Arabian gold, or to be second wife to the daughter of the Emperor Aurangazeb. 

But there you go. Speculation aside, we know that the part about the rich pirate marrying Governor Markhan's daughter and living out his life somewhere between Pennsylvania and New York happened. The rest is silence, until we come to the clues that Cooper so fastidiously drops as he fights for the reelection of a Democratic President against the rising insurgency of Harrison's Whigs.***** If the true treasure underneath the mound is the secret origins of the family money, no wonder it's still a secret! And if there's a lesson for the present, it is that perhaps the Republican Party should think about following the lead of the Angel Moroni and publishing the contents of  the history writ on the golden pages.

*More accurately, I suppose, that Benjamin Franklin's son, William, was Metis. The more speculative tranche of my claims is that George Croghan faked his death and lived to be the model for Natty Bumppo, and that Ben Franklin is the grandson of Uncas. Both claims can, however, currently defended by the kind of close reading that I'm all too aware that crazy people do.

**The argument here is that at the end of the novel about "the first warpath," which is to say, the first of the great North American wars, Judith goes off to be a mistress of a Yorkshire-based English noble family called the "Warleys." In 1838, young master Effingham returns to America as an emissary of reconciliation between America and England, because he is the son of an Effingham and of a daughter of a Yorkshire-based English noble family called the "Warrenders." There seems to be some kind of clever word play going on here connecting the two families. Damn you, Cooper, spell out what you mean instead of wrapping it up in these impenetrable riddles! (This sarcasm brought to  you by this blogger's impatience with the sheer laziness of professional American Fenimore Cooper studies. Srsly, dudes. Try harder.) 

***In case the link rots: Douglas R. Burgess The Pirate's Pact: The Secret Alliance Between History's Most Notorious Buccaneers and Colonial America (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009.) Rather less than meets the eye, unfortunately, as a result of excessive reliance on the literature spinning out of Defoe. There were American pirates before Morgan, you know!

****That's right. Clinton. 'Nuff said. No, wait: more said. If you're too busy to follow the links, Henry Every's Royal Navy patron, Francis Wheeler, rose to be an admiral and married one Arabella Clinton, who was presumably at least related to the Clintons, given that her son married into the Hood family.

*****If, by the way, Cooper is adding Henry Every to his distinguished list of ancestors, I assume it's through the maternal/paternal grandmother/father, who would be either Ben or William Franklin's child by an unknown woman. Just so you know.

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