Posts Tagged ‘john brown’

Kansas NutcrackerI went to see the Bleeding Kansas Nutcracker over the holidays, featuring John Brown and Quantrill’s Raiders, plus Tchaikovsky’s music performed by the Free State Liberation Orchestra, (a recreation of the original 19th Century Lawrence City Band, right down to the mandolin trio.) While waiting for the performance, the orchestra warmed up, as orchestras are wont to do. The flautist kept running over and over the trilling riff from the Danse Chinoise, obviously anxious about getting it right when it mattered. Sadly, it meant that I heard the riff so many times, I was no longer giggly pleased by it when the time came in the actual performance. My joy was a bit deflated.

First chapters are like that. It’s why you so often find yourself deleting the first chapter when you start the hard work of revising a novel. Sometimes, you delete the first three chapters, because you don’t need them, and they’re dragging down the rest of your novel. Once, I deleted the entire first half of a novel. 40,000 words that turned out to be nothing but a warmup exercise. Like I was a nervous flautist in the orchestra pit, trying to work myself up to the actual performance.

Hearing today that Harper Lee is set to publish another novel, I am put in mind of that process of discovering that you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first novel, the one she first tried to sell to publishers. An editor felt the more compelling story was of Scout’s youth, and so the story was revised to become To Kill a Mockingbird, that classic scourge of high school English classes (and a treasure to those not forced to dissect it for a grade.)

Go Set a Watchman is technically a sequel, in that chronologically it takes place years after Mockingbird, when Scout is an adult. I can’t help but wonder, however, if it isn’t merely 304 pages of warm up. Not merely a first chapter deleted, but an entire book. Will the book astound us the way Mockingbird did? Or will we read it only for peripheral insight into its more famous sibling?

Lee apparently believed the manuscript lost until it was located among archived materials, fastened to a publisher’s typescript of Mockingbird. Such were the vagaries of a writer’s life back in the Fifties. Each manuscript was produced as a unique item, which could so easily be lost or destroyed, so that only the final, printed copy of a book was a sure thing to be reproduced and retained in collections. As we move increasingly into an era when writers’ earliest drafts and minor variations are archived in so many ways, are we also entering the realm of “director’s cuts” for books? A few authors have already done that, with mixed results. I look back at the book of mine whose first half was cut away so mercilessly, long before it was published, and I doubt I’d want anyone to witness my warm up exercises.

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It’s the Eldridge Hotel now, but it stands on the site of what was called the Free State Hotel. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Missouri militiamen, riding under a red flag inscribed with the words “Southern Rights” sacked Lawrence.  Using a cannon, kegs of gunpowder, and eventually an incendiary device they finally reduced the Free State Hotel to a pile of smoking rubble.  They also looted the downtown and ransacked the two publishing houses in Lawrence, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the river*.

Technically speaking, the raid was perfectly legal.  At least as legal as the raid on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, TX, in this century.  Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson issued an order that declared the abolitionist citizens of Lawrence to be engaged in what we would now call an “insurgency” against the pro-slavery state legislature that Washington, D.C., officially recognized as the legal government in the territory.  (Surprise: the government isn’t always on the side of good.)  Donaldson approved the “counter-insurgency measures” that ended in the destruction of the Free State Hotel.

It wasn’t the first or last scuffle Lawrence would be involved in.  The previous November, the Wakarusa War broke out, following a series of tit-for-tat killings between pro- and anti-slavery camps.  The siege on Lawrence that followed ended peacefully, but Lawrence and the most famous participant in the Wakarusa War–abolitionist John Brown–went on to bigger and bloodier things.

Seven years later, William Quantrill would lead more than 300 bushwhackers on a raid into Lawrence.  They killed nearly 200 men and boys, many of them unarmed, and burned almost every building in town to the ground, including the Free State Hotel, now known as the Eldridge Hotel.

As for John Brown, well, he went on to start the Civil War.  He was a radical, a dangerous man, a brave man, a religious man.  An extremist.  A terrorist.  A visionary.  He died just before noon on December 2, 1859, with a noose around his neck.  His last wish–denied–was that his wife be allowed to spend a last night with him.

*Legend has it that this ruined press type was later melted down and turned into shot and cannonballs, which were used to fight the Civil War.

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