Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Head in the Beaufort Clouds

Carolina sky
It rained in San Francisco yesterday on the last day of May.  It rained again today. If you lived in San Francisco you would know that it never rains here this time of year. Nor in May do we get billowing, puffy clouds with dark undersides that roll northeast as if looking for trouble in the Sierras. Even though the sun sometimes shines through the downpour, one begins to despair of summer at all.  And so on these obstinately cool, winter-like days when my strawberries are unlikely to ripen and bike rides are sodden excursions, my thoughts turn to South Carolina--Beaufort, to be specific--where it did not rain yesterday and the temperature reached 97 degrees. Now there’s summer for you, even if the solstice has yet to arrive.

A view to what was
There was a time, a stretch of two years, when my thoughts often turned to Beaufort.  I thought of Beaufort while sitting at my kitchen table, while doing the Tai Chi form, while driving across San Francisco to pick my daughter up from school.  I remembered how the light filtered through the Spanish moss, how the river ebbed and flowed with the tide, how the cord grass swayed in the wind. I ruminated over the masses of oysters growing on the city’s piers, the daytime’s suffocating heat, the evening’s lively breeze. When I shut my eyes I saw the stately houses, the ancient arching trees. My thoughts were not so much of Beaufort as it exists, but of Beaufort as it was, though the present Beaufort was my signpost to the former age.

The way lamps used to be lit
The way to get around
Though I could visit Beaufort (and I did) I couldn’t visit 1849, at least not in person.  I read books and books, both factual accounts and narratives from the period, in my quest to digest the values and the language, the customs and the manners, the technologies, cuisine, and cultural reference points of the era. Armed with legions of details, I then had to think through my characters, how they moved through this world over a century and a half ago, parsing what would have been important to them and why. In 1849 women still wore petticoats because hoop skirts had yet to come into fashion. This made their clothing heavier and hotter than a decade later. In 1849, whale oil was still used to fuel lamps rather  than kerosene. In fact, the world had just about reached peak whales and peak whale oil, although no one then yet knew it. In 1849 laundry was a heavy, hot affair and no one with money did their own. In addition, since dyes were not colorfast, most top layers of clothing were brushed, not washed, preferably by a servant. In 1849 roads in the South were poor and trains not yet prevalent, so for a town like Beaufort, being on a steamer route connoted a nearly cosmopolitan connection to the exterior world.

In 1849, most Americans (Thoreau one of the few excepted) felt pride in the crushing of Santa Anna and the Mexican army and saw nothing amiss in forcing Mexico to sell of a third of its land at a cut-rate price to its stronger neighbor. In 1849, gold was practically leaping into the hands of miners in California, Chopin was writing his last waltzes in Europe, and the engines of the industrial North were revving up, even if the South couldn’t hear their echoes yet. In 1849, the last good president had been Andrew Jackson a dozen years before, John Calhoun (South Carolina’s “cast iron” senator) was on his last legs, and manifest destiny was no longer a doctrine but an achievement in progress. In 1849, things were changing in America with more speed and uncertainty than the average citizen was comfortable with. Though the last five sentences are all gross generalizations, it gives broad brushstrokes of the American 1849 mindset. But what their memories would have consisted of—that was harder to reconstruct.

What I gleaned from my reading was that historical cultural memory of the era proudly focused on the glorious revolution that their grandfathers had achieved and the momentous first-of-its-kind government they’d subsequently created. In 1849 these grandchildren knew they had inherited something grand but were growing uneasy as to whether it was a legacy they could keep.  The Bible, the Magna Carta, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece were their touchstones. George Washington and Mr. Jefferson had been known (or at least seen) by men and women still alive.  In 1849, most people were aware that life was less dangerous, brutal and short than it had been for their forefathers, and they were grateful. The Civil War and its awful grinding slaughter did not lurk unpleasantly in their past.  At that point the pain involved in rending the nation in two was not something they could conceive of. Though certainly adept enough at hangings, whippings and other brutality, they were also incapable of imagining the systematized factory barbarity that the twentieth century achieved at Auschwitz that still haunts our collective memory today. We can envy their innocence, but events that should have featured prominently in their historic conscience—the Trail of Tears, the horrific sea passage of the slave trade—most seemed to dispose of with a shrug.

No looking back
1849 in America was not a time of regret for past failings or longing for what was. That would come later, at least for the South. Instead it was a time of expansion and optimism, of growth and domination. For those growing cotton, it was a time of great wealth. For centuries now America, priding itself on its optimism and expansion--geographically, economically, and otherwise--has been little interested in all but the most superficial glances backwards. Perhaps those who are confident of the future always have little patience for history. Perhaps like a shark we must always swim forward or perish.

Salty pillar gets a good look
Perhaps only those who are uncertain about what lies ahead try to see what the past can tell us. Like Lot’s wife, they are the ones who, with wavering step, turn back to glimpse the fire and brimstone. For this momentary act of defiance, Lot’s wife (she never even gets her own name) is transformed into a pillar of salt. But the Bible gives us the story of Lot and his doomed cities precisely to encourage us to look back, to reflect, to learn. Sometimes looking back, even to the summer of 1849, is a means of swimming forward.

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