Middle Passage

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Francis Spufford Vividly Recreates an 18th-Century New York in ‘Golden Hill’

Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).

Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.

As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.

Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).

Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.

Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”

Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.

If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”

When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”

Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.

Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.

The Most Anticipated Books of 2005

Now that all the 2004 best of lists are behind us, I thought folks might be interested in what we have to look forward to. I have no doubt that in 2005 we will be introduced to many new literary faces, but there are also a number of well-known authors whose books will hit shelves this year: Murakami, McEwan, Foer, and more. So, I’ve compiled a list of books that you may find yourself reading this year. The list goes through July; some of the release dates are rough estimates, and a few of the dates will probably change. Also, I’m sure there are books I’ve missed, so please leave a comment with any other books you might be looking forward to this year.There’s a passel of intriguing books coming out in January. Hitting stores any day now is William Boyd’s latest collection of stories, Fascination. This one has been out in the UK for a couple of months, and the Gaurdian described Boyd’s stories this way: “They would seem a little too perfect if they weren’t also suffused with an understanding of love, desire and emotional incompetence.” You can read an excerpt here. Next week sees the arrival of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland. The New York Times isn’t impressed, calling it “a high-art twist on chick lit,” but the Boston Globe says the book “remains as thoughtful and melancholy as the Beatles song its title evokes.” You can read an excerpt here (pdf). Then, on or around January 18th, comes a book that many readers have been looking forward to: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This one’s been out for a while in the UK, too. Kafka is not a departure from Murakami’s surreal oeuvre. The book follows the parallel paths of 15-year-old runaway named Kafka and Nakata, an elderly bumpkin who can communicate with cats. According to initial reviews, the book doesn’t seem likely to be considered his finest work, but it should please Murakami fans. I encourage you to take a look at the Kafka page at the Complete Review for all the review coverage, and if you would like to read the first five chapters of the book, go here, click on the contest link, fill out your info, and use the password “kafka.”February: In 1990 Charles Johnson won a National Book Award for his book Middle Passage. Since then he has written a novel and a collection of short stories, and on February 8, a new collection, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, will be released. A Publishers Weekly review says that some of the stories are too didactic, but “Johnson’s longer, more carefully fleshed out stories are most effective.”March: Francine Prose’s A Changed Man, which will be out March 1, looks very intriguing. An early review by Publishers Weekly describes this story of a young neo-Nazi who walks into a human rights organization office wanting to change his ways as “a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world.” It will be interesting to see if this book proves to be, as HarperCollins declares, “Prose’s most accomplished yet.” Given the astonishing success of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in 2002, his follow-up effort, a novel called Saturday, may be the most anticipated work of fiction in 2005. A recent piece in the New Yorker which was taken from the new novel shows promise. The central character of the novel, Harry Perowne, is a confident but unconventional neurosurgeon whose altercation with a thug following a car accident is the catalyst that sets the plot inexorably in motion. You can read the excerpt here. Look for the book on March 22. After writing a book as massive as Rising Up and Rising Down (that’s 3352 pages, by the way), you’d think William T. Vollmann would take a break. Apparently not. On March 24, Viking will release Vollmann’s latest collection of short stories, Europe Central, which take place in Russia and Germany during World War II. The breadth of Vollmann’s work is truly astounding.April: Buoyed by the success of his Boston Red Sox book (co-written by fellow fan Stephen King), Stewart O’Nan is probably hoping that some of those baseball fans will become fans of his fiction. His new novel, The Good Wife, comes out on April 1. O’Nan also considered calling this novel Upstate, a reference to the incarcerated husband of the book’s protagonist. Everything I read about Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, makes me more and more curious. Among young, bright writers who have emerged in the last couple of years, Foer is probably the youngest and may be the brightest as well. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated included narration in broken English, and his short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” did things with typography that I haven’t seen done in fiction before. The new book – set to arrive on April 4 – will continue with this sort of experimentation, including the use of photography to illustrate the novel. There’s an interesting interview available at this website where Foer goes into detail about the new book (You have to click on the Foer link and then on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to get to it, but it’s worth the trouble). After a five year hiatus, Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book coming out on April 5. The new book, called Never Let Me Go, is about an English boarding school with a troubled, but until now forgotten, past. You can read an excerpt here.May: All the dedicated (some might say rabid) Chuck Palahniuk fans out there will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out this year (his official fan site is known as “The Cult,” by the way). Haunted is a novel in 23 stories. Each story centers on a visitor to a writers’ retreat where things, inexorably, go awry. I say it sounds like an update on the classic summer camp horror flick, but Doubleday describes it as “The Real World meets Alive.” Look for it May 17.June: Paul Theroux’s latest work of fiction is about “the ultimate one-book wonder.” For such a prolific writer, with a new novel or travelogue out nearly every year it seems, I wonder if creating this character was a struggle for Theroux, if he was able to get into the mind of a man with writer’s block, something I suspect Theroux is not often afflicted with. The book is called Blinding Light. It will be released on June 1. Apparently Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t the only literary stylist coming out with an illustrated novel in 2005. Umbarto Eco’s new novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be of the illustrated variety as well. According to the Harcourt publicity, the memories “racing before the eyes [of the book’s amnesiac protagonist] take the form of a graphic novel.” No word on who supplied the artwork — or if it was Eco himself, but the book has been out in Europe since last year so I suppose someone knows the answer. Here are some thoughts on the book from a blogger who read the German translation. The book comes out on June 3. George Singleton’s forthcoming novel — titled Novel — is the only debut novel on this list, but Singleton is already well-known by readers who enjoy his comic stories and Southern charm. You can read one of his short stories here. The new book, which is set to come out on June 6, is about a snake handler from the town of Gruel, South Carolina.July: John Irving isn’t quite the superstar novelist he once was. Irving’s novels — The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire — were my introduction to contemporary literary fiction, and he was my first real “favorite author.” But the middling quality of his recent novels, each one more mediocre than the last, ill-timed remarks about who should or should not pay taxes, and his dalliances with Hollywood have lost him some of his fans. Still, he keeps writing novels, and maybe this next one, Until I Find You (about a son’s search through the tattoo underworld for his ink-addicted father), will be a return to form. The book comes out on July 12.And if these aren’t enough for you check out preview articles from The Herald, The Age (reg. req.), the Boston Globe, and the Guardian. Happy reading in 2k5.

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