PAUL COLLINS

THE LOST SYMPHONY

VIRGINIUS DABNEY WROTE THE AMERICAN SOUTH’S GREAT POSTMODERN NOVEL. TOO BAD HE DID IT IN 1886.

DISCUSSED: Centerfolds, A Blank Orchestral Score, The Chinese Exclusion Act, Skeletons of the Dodo, John Bouche Whacker, Neurotic Fussing, Telephonic Interruptions, John Barth, Horatio Alger, Louisa May Alcott, Antebellum Richmond, A Metafictive Masterstroke, Ben Franklin, Horace Walpole in Laughter and Tears, Tom Phillips, A Humument, King Crimson, Crispin Glover, Jen Bervin, Tristram Shandy, A Defeated Air, The New York Customs House, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Patronizing Slave Dialogues, The Civil War
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

FIRST MOVEMENT

Reader: I extend my greetings to the twenty-third century! No, I don’t mean you, who bought this issue of the Believer off the newsstand: you are dead by now. I mean the reader who, perusing a scuffed and faded ancient copy of this magazine, or sifting through whatever sort of unimaginable database they have by then, is passing an idle hour by musing over a quaint old bit of twenty-first-century literature. Yes, you, future reader. If I am not mistaken, then you are Asian-American. Also, you are a woman. This is because—as you, future reader, well know—twenty-third-century America is in fact run by Asian-American women. I think we can establish this with great certainty. Or we can, at least, if Virginius Dabney is to be believed.

I found Virginius Dabney in the usual way: which is to say, by accident. I was pawing through a box of antiquarian books when one old volume fell open and a centerfold fell out. Not that: it was a centerfold of sheet music. I cradled the book in my hand and examined the title page—

The Story of Don Miff,
As Told by His Friend John Bouche Whacker:
A Symphony of Life.
Edited by Virginius Dabney.

It appeared to be a novel, but as I idly flipped through it, more centerfolds flopped out: sheet music again. I thought for a moment that someone had jammed them in there, but no, they were bound in. Then I began to notice the title of each section of the book. Symphony of Life Movement One. Symphony of Life Movement Two. Symphony of…

The book had a publication date of 1886, just the period I tend to favor, and it bore the imprint of J. B. Lippincott Company, a major publisher. Yet I’d never heard of it or its author. And what was more, most—but not all—of the parts in the orchestral score inserted into the book were blank. The whole thing seemed rather curious. Then I started reading, and it got curioser and curioser.

Don Miff is… well, first let me state that I am reasonably sure that I am correct when I say that Don Miff is the only nineteenth-century novel that is addressed to a tenth-generation descendant living in the twenty-third century. Or that this descendant is Asian-American—because, as the narrator muses, even as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was coming into force, perhaps “under the contempt expressed for them as inferiors there lurks a secret, unrealized sense of their real superiority?” And even this grandson faces a superior force to himself: women. With mechanization removing the advantages of physical force, Dabney predicts, men and their wearisome violence will become obsolete. Only a few men will be “preserved here and there in zoological gardens of the wealthy and the curious, along with rare specimens of the bison of the prairie, skeletons of the American Indian and the dodo…”—and there his tenth-removed grandson will be exhibited to the inquisitive stares of numberless crowds of women. “You will rue the day when your ancestors, mistaking might for right, excluded woman from that haven of rest, the ballot-box.”

It is to this twenty-third-century Asian-American grandson, a living exhibit in a peaceful matriarchy, that the great Southern novel of 1886 is addressed.

*

Don Miff opens with a preface in which Virginius Dabney, purporting to be editing the papers of a certain Mr. John Bouche Whacker, warns “against too much faith in the account Mr. Whacker gives of himself.” But I suppose you can trust Mr. Dabney, because when he signed the preface “V. Dabney—108 West Forty-ninth Street, New York,” he was in fact giving readers his current home address.

The first chapter that follows is divided into thirty-six numbered sections, and is so strange, so inexplicable to a modern reader, and the book itself so utterly unknown—there are scarcely a few dozen copies in libraries worldwide—that I believe the only thing I can do is step aside for a page or two and allow the erstwhile John Bouche Whacker to speak.

* * *

4.

First, then, humanity.

This poor public of his (that is my) day has been, these many years, so pelted with books, that I cannot bring myself to join the mob of authors, and let them fly another.

The very leaves in Vallambrosa, flying before the blasts of autumn, cannot compare with them in numbers, as they go whizzing from innumerable presses.

Why, the other day I read a statement (by a stater) that if you were to set up, in rows, all the books that are annually published in Christendom (beg pardon, my boy, evolutiondom), and then fell to sawing out shelves for them in the pine forests of North Carolina, the North Carolinians would, when they awoke, find themselves inhabitants of a prairie, provided, of course, our stater goes on to state, the job were completed in one night.

Or, to put it in another shape:

The earth, adds Mr. Statisticker, the earth, we will allow, for illustration’s sake, to be twenty-five thousand miles around. Now, says he, suppose all those books be pulled to pieces [shame!] and their leaves pinned together, they would stretch ever so (for I cannot, at the moment, lay my hands on his little statistic) they would stretch ever so far.

Shall I too add to the already unbearable burdens of my generation? Humanity forbid!

5.

And look at this:

In any given country, a certain number of undergarments will be worn out, year by year, producing a certain crop of rags. These rags can be converted into so much, and no more, paper. Hence, as any thinking man would have reasoned (until the advent of a recent invention), the advancing flood of literature was practically held in check. So many exhausted shirts, so many books,—so many exhausted washerwomen, so many (and no more) authors. There was a limit.

That day is gone. Wood-pulp and cheap editions have opened the flood-gates of genius upon the world; and the days of our noble forests are numbered; for one tree is sawn into shelves to hold another ground into paper. And already the, through the denudation of the land, the Mississippi grows uncontrollable, taxing even the wisdom of Congress…

Shall I too print a book? Patriotism forbid!…

7.

I have hit upon a plan whereby I can print my book with the merest infinitesimal damage to the Mississippi and other patriotic streams. It is this. I shall have but one copy printed. This, in a strong box, hermetically sealed, shall be addressed to you. I shall hand it to my eldest son, and he to his; and so it will travel down the stream of time till it reach you; which strikes me as a neat, inexpensive, and effectual way of reaching that goal of all authors, posterity. From father to son, and from grandson to great-grandson.

Provided, of course, they shall all have the courage (as I intend to have) to get married. If not—or what is to become of the book, should there be twins?—but I leave these details to take care of themselves. One of them might not live, for example.

On second thoughts, though, it might be as well to have two copies struck off; yes, and while we are at it, a dozen extra ones, for private distribution among my friends…

9.

I have just had a conversation with my publisher, which greatly disturbs me.

He tells me that all this talk about limiting the edition to a dozen copies is midsummer madness,—where am I to come in? said he, using the language of the period,—and that he intends to print as many copies as he pleases. So everything is upset. And I shall have to recast my entire work, which, you must know, is already, with the exception of the first chapter, finished and ready for the printer, down to the last semi-colon. For, as it stands, my boy, everything I say is addressed to you only; and my book may be compared to a telephone with a private wire three hundred years long. But since my publisher is going to give the general public the right to hook on and hear what I am saying, it is extremely probably that my monologue will be very often interrupted. Whenever, therefore, you find me suddenly ceasing to speak to you personally, and, after a word with my contemporaries, dropping back to our private wire, you may be sure that there has been a “Hello?” and a “What’s that?” and a “Well, good-bye!” somewhere along the cross-line.

* * *

It is difficult to get very far into Don Miff without suddenly holding the book very gingerly, examining the binding for radioactive scorch marks or other signs of time travel, and then finally exclaiming—“What the hell is this?”

The rhetorical bobbing and weaving, the presumed futuristic reader, the numbered fragments of narrative, the sardonic keeping of everything—book, reader, and himself—all at arm’s length, the neurotic fussing over the means of the book’s own production, the telephonic interruptions in a narrative that is irritated by the very presence of its readers—all these make Dabney seem like a colleague of Vonnegut and Barth, and not some bearded and top-hatted fogy from the era of Horatio Alger and Louisa May Alcott. But there it is, stamped on its title page: 1886.

In some ways, Don Miff resembles a standard Victorian romantic melodrama. It is set amongst an enclave of well-to-do Virginia families in antebellum Richmond, and since no one there seems to have to work for a living, all the action can take place in parlors and piazzas. Here we meet the hapless, thoughtful, and pudgy young lawyer John Bouche Whacker—this is our narrator, who is universally known by his nickname, “Jack-Whack”—along with his stuttering and aloof cousin Charley Frobisher, and Charley’s love interest, Alice. And then we have Don Miff himself, a strange and curiously familiar young man who appears in their midst. Romance, ancestral secrets, and mystery is in the magnolia-scented air, and… and… and all that damned nonsense.

They are set into motion with a throwaway plot that I will not bother you with, because it is literally thrown away by the author himself a couple hundred pages in. To wit:

A Monograph I promised, and a Monograph this shall be.

And the theme is not Love.

Then why did you not say so at first? I hear you ask… Because I should else have found no readers among my contemporaries. The readers… [never] will bite freely at any bait save love. They will nibble at the hook, but a game rush—bait, hook, and all, at a gulp—that is only elicited by a novel. Love is the bait now. Three hundred years ago it was Hate, the Odium Theologicum. Three hundred hence it will be—but I cannot guess what, and you will know, my almond-eyed boy…

Love is the bait, and Dabney is about to pull a bait and switch. And one can only imagine what readers made of the much stranger thing that he was about to hand them.

SECOND MOVEMENT

Don Miff is a Symphonic Monograph: a novel that draws upon the form of a four-part orchestral score.

This, at least, is what our narrator Jack-Whack claims he is now attempting to write, twenty-five years after the events recounted in the story—and why we find sheet music bound in with each section of the book. But Whacker himself cannot help but stop the music of narrative every few pages to fret over his composition; at one point he stops the story for an entire chapter to critique his own writing. It hardly helps that “the editor” Virginius Dabney pesters “the author” John Whacker with footnotes critical of the man’s writing. Or that—in a metafictive masterstroke—the characters themselves begin to revolt against the work.

As Whacker spins out excuses for a previous chapter being a particularly inept bit of writing, we are transported to the present day of 1885, and to the parlor of lead characters Alice and Charley—now married—who promptly heckle Whacker for the lousy job he’s doing. The dialogue he’s putting in their mouths of their younger selves is absurd, they insist, and his digressive and self-conscious narrative self is too literary.

“As I understand it, Jack-Whack, a novel is composed exclusively for the delectation of—”

Alice held up her hand.

“Of the majority,” added Charley. [Interruption, remonstrance, confusion. “Pshaw! Who minds Jack?”]

“The fact is,” added Charley… “The fact is, all that kind of stuff which you profess to admire, but confess you never read, reminds one of the annotations of the classics for schools. They are not intended to instruct the boys, but are written by one pedant to astound other pedants. By the way, Jack, a capital idea strikes me. It will give our book such a taking and original air. Suppose we go through it from beginning to end, and simply cut out all the skipienda,—every line of it—and leave only what is intended to be read?”

“And then publish it in the kingdom of Lilliput?” inquired Alice.

C’mon, they cajole him—enough of this self-conscious footnoted crap, get to the story. We want a plot. Give us our bread and circus. We paid $1.50 hardcover for this, and we demand a satisfactory narrative arc.

Preemptively voicing a reader’s criticisms is now, as we Jack-Whacks of the present know, the super-duper Hail Mary pass from the back of the postmodern playbook. I have anticipated your every complaint about this book, and I have gotten there first—so shut the hell up. But there’s more. Not to be outdone by such complaints, or even by the fictive acknowledgement of these complaints, the narrator simply throws up his hands for an entire chapter. As it is, Alice has already been pestering Whacker by inserting a bracketed [Fib!] after certain lines of dialogue that he assigned her. So he gives up. The narrator and the two characters sign a jocular contract to the effect that Alice, fond as she is of romances, may write chapter fifty-one in its entirety:

To this we are all agreed. In testimony whereof we have hereunto, etc., etc., etc.

CHARLES FROBISHER [Seal.]

ALICE DITTO [Seal.]

JOHN BOUCHE WHACKER [Seal.*]

[Porpoise. Ha! ha! ha!]

What follows is a chapter of ludicrous, overheated romance penned by Alice. “A present, delicious, dreamy, and wrapped in rose-colored incense-breathing mist. Shutting out all the world save him and her… Love alone is real!”

You want a love story?—Dabney slyly intimates.—OK, here’s your damned love story.

*

When Don Miff starts to unravel, it’s as if Virginius Dabney wrote a romance the way that most boys build model airplanes: purely for the pleasure of taking it outside and destroying it with an air rifle. At one point an entire page of lovers’ dialogue disappears off the paper, shot full of asterisked holes:

“Kind!” exclaimed Charley. “Kind! * * * * * * * * * * * *.”

“* * * *” said Alice, looking down— “* * * * * *.”

“* * *” continued Charley,” * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * yes, * * first and only * * * Richmond * * very first moment * * never again * * dreaming and waking * * despair * * torments of the * * * * * abyss!”

“* * * mere passing fancy? * as ever were caught out of it. * * Richmond * week * * * out of sight, out of *.”

“* * * ey, fiercely, * * * while life * yonder river flows down to the sea * * * by all that’s * * never * * * so long as the stars * * * * * no, never!”

This goes on for a number of paragraphs and reappears at apparently random intervals—sometimes when the narrator is tired of writing out clichéd romance dialogue, sometimes when he is unhappy with the inaccuracy of his recounting, and sometimes simply for the hell of it.

Like most terribly clever literary devices, deliberate fragmentation probably began as a drunken lark. The London wine-merchant and bewigged dandy Caleb Whitefoord is a man now distinguished as being, if possible, even more obscure today than our own Virginius Dabney; but he occupied a unique and quite well-known niche in the literary world of Georgian London. He was Ben Franklin’s next-door neighbor and best friend during that American’s strapping young London years, and the two esteemed each other as great wits. It was Whitefoord’s genius to notice that when you took a broadsheet newspaper of tightly set columns, and started reading across the paper’s columns—rather than reading down to the column’s next line—you could achieve what he described as “coupled persons and things most heterogeneous, things so opposite in the nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.” Whitefoord called this cross-reading, and he was so amused by it that he would publish sheets of his favorite specimens and hand them out to friends in Fleet Street coffeehouses:

Dr. Salamander will, by her Majesty’s command, undertake a voyage round—
The head-dress of the present month.

Wanted to take care of an elderly gentlewoman—
An active young man just come from the country.

Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in,
and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.

Removed to Marylebone, for the benefit of the air—
The City and Liberties of Westminster.

Notice is hereby given—
And no notice taken.

Samuel Johnson was an admirer of Whitefoord’s cross-reading sheets, and Oliver Goldsmith commented that he’d have more enjoyed being the author of cross-readings than of all his own plays combined. Uber-gothicist Horace Walpole admitted that he “laughed till he cried” over Whitefoord’s quirky invention.

Fragmentation—particularly of material appropriated from popular media—remained an arcane notion in both Whitefoord and Dabney’s eras alike, though the randomized literary cutups of Surrealist poets and Beat writers gave the idea new life in the mid–twentieth century. One of its most ambitious uses remains Tom Phillips’s A Humument, a self-described “treated novel.” In what amounts to a four-decade-long experiment in literary disintegration and re-creation, ever since 1966 Phillips has been taking W. H. Mallock’s 1892 romance novel A Human Document to pieces. Phillips found the original copy in a bookstall for threepence while out on a Sunday stroll, and took to vigorously fragmenting it by painting and drawing over most but not all of the page. What is left are just a few interconnected words to peep through in haunting fragments of newly created verse, like disembodied bits of dialogue through a squalling radio.

Phillips has published four different editions of A Humument over the decades, and each is rare indeed among book collectors: his earliest version can only be had now for prices running into five figures. But one of his pages improbably turned up as the back cover art of King Crimson’s 1973 album Starless and Bible Black, and the “treated novel” technique was later adopted by Crispin Glover—yes, yes, that is correct—for his 1987 book Rat Catching, which he “treated” from H. C. Barkley’s 1891 opus Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching. The most recent experiment in this form is Jen Bervin’s charming Nets (2004), which rather than obliterating the original text of Shakespeare’s sonnets, submerges them in faint grey ink, with only selected words printed in black. Nets has the strange feel of verbal topography: the original sonnet text is a sort of plain that single, select words soar up from like jagged spires.

From Whitefoord’s cross-readings through Nets, there’s always an animating force in a reconstructed work, and it’s one not inherited from the original materials. Like Frankenstein’s creation—conjured out of rotting flesh and galvanic batteries, but given extraordinary insight through a fortuitous encounter with a copy of Volney’s Ruins of Empires—it is possible for a re-created work to take on a life and meaning of its own, one much different from the mundane sources from which it was gathered.[1] These works are, if you will, a sort of FrankenLit.

But what marks out Virginius Dabney as someone so like ourselves is that he is not merely making his own art, or unmaking and remaking someone else’s. He is making and unmaking his own work simultaneously. This is the narrative stance of a true ironist. Dabney holds the South of his youth, and romantic love, very close to his heart, but he chafes against the dishonest genre that had come to convey them. So his narrator does not abandon the romance altogether, or all at once: he slowly picks it apart, in-between stretches of unbroken conventional narrative.

I never attack the main body. But let a feeble, emaciated, and worn-out little lie, or a blustering, braggart fraud, or a conceited, coxcombed sham, stray… I pounce… And so the reader must not be surprised, as we journey along together, through scene after scene of my story, to find herself suddenly left alone at the most unexpected times and places. I’ll come back, after a while, bringing a scalp; after which we will jog along together, for a chapter or so, again.

The effect is to undermine the entire genre by revealing his deep ambivalence about its very premise. To save the South and to save Romance, Virginius Dabney had to destroy Southern Romance.

“It did not seem so while I was writing it,” he wonders afterwards, “but now that my book is finished, it strikes me as one of the oddest works I have ever read.”

THIRD MOVEMENT

All odd books can be blamed on Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is the type O-negative of literary criticism. You can always say that Lawrence Sterne did something first, and no one will ever reject the claim. First, because it’s probably true. Second, because they probably haven’t read him. And third, because even if they have, they can’t be entirely sure that Sterne didn’t pull it off while they weren’t looking. So whenever you read a crazy magpie’s nest of a book that is confusing as all hell, just say: “Why, this is like Tristram Shandy.

“In his method the author is as whimsical as the author of Tristram Shandy,” the Hartford Courant reported of Don Miff in 1886. “It is a dangerous experiment, but it must be said that the author’s wit and vivacity vindicate his willfulness.”

“It is as if the story-writer of to-day should equip himself by an alternate reading of Southey’s Doctor and Tristram Shandy,” the Atlantic concurred.

“Exasperating,” said the Overland Monthly reviewer. “Tedious and confusing. It consists chiefly of digressions.”

Oh. Well, maybe that guy hadn’t read Tristram Shandy yet.

Dabney seems so ahead of his time, and seemingly so much of our time, that one might imagine a bewildered Victorian reading public rejecting Don Miff out of hand. But one might think the same of Tristram Shandy, and in both cases one would be wrong. Tristram Shandy was much loved, even if never entirely imitated. And as for Don Miff, it was favorably reviewed and sold quite decently: it went through four printings in its first six months, and at least six printings altogether. But not much else changed. It did not spawn a Dabneyite movement in literature; the author did not quit his day job. After the book came out, Dabney commenced a new semester on Forty-ninth Street as headmaster of the New-York Latin School, and he published one more slim volume in 1889—The Gold That Did Not Glitter, a conventional romance this time, and a book with a defeated air about it. A few years later, he got a patronage job with customs. And then… well, that’s it.

*

“Word of Mr. Dabney’s death reached the Customs House early in the morning,” the New York Times reported on June 3, 1894. “Business in the various departments was practically suspended while the heads of the divisions met in the Collector’s room and expressed the sense of the loss that had befallen them.”

Dabney, making his morning commute as a deputy collector at the Customs House downtown, had collapsed unconscious on a bench after climbing the stairs to the El line at Eighteenth and Third. His grown son Noland was by his side, and called for help, but it was too late. Virginius Dabney was due to turn fifty-nine soon, and already lucky to be alive after a previous stroke. But this time, his luck ran out.

As the news spread, Dabney was carried gently down the stairs that he made his final ascent on. And then, slowly, his body was carted back to his apartment on Seventeenth Street, where his son now set about trying to contact his newly widowed mother who, unaware that anything was amiss, was on a trip to Syracuse. But down at the Customs House, the mourning had already begun. Colleagues stood up and recalled how, even though he had only been working there for nine months before dying, old Virginius was one of the most genial men to ever hold the job: a true Southern gentleman. Some of the may have known that, before then, he’d been an editor at the Commercial Advertiser, and that before that he’d run the New-York Latin School for many years. A few might have even have heard that once, eight or nine years ago, their deputy collector had written… something or other.

And that is where history closes its book upon our author. There is no biography of Virginius Dabney: no critical studies of his work, no scholarly papers on the man. Search any database and you will find innumerable hits on “Virginius Dabney,” but these are of his namesake grandson—a Richmond Times-Dispatch editor who won a Pulitzer in 1948 for writing against segregation on city transit lines. Of his dear old granddad, there is nothing.

Why? How could such a forward-looking book have been ignored?

Think back upon one of Dabney’s immediate predecessors at the Customs House. He, too, had written a curious book years before—and, like Dabney, had soon been largely forgotten, and left to toil in obscurity in the downtown warehouses by the late 1880s. His great book was out of print and would stay that way for decades. When he died, he got an even shorter obituary than Dabney did. Apparently nobody cared as much around the Customs House for Mr. Herman Melville.

If we wonder why Don Miff is forgotten, we might also ask—why did it take seventy years for Moby-Dick to be recognized as a masterpiece? Until the 1920s, it was out of print in the United States, and appreciated in the United Kingdom primarily as a maritime tale. It was not until the excavation of Melville by Lewis Mumford and his fellow critics, and the rise of Modernism, that—oh, look! A masterpiece!

Which, of course, it is… now.

*

To understand this, let us consider furniture. This should be convenient, as I assume you are sitting or laying on a piece of it right now. Yes, furniture. Furniture has a tale to tell us: or, at least, I do, and it happens to be about furniture. The first time I brought the woman who was to be my wife to my parents’ house—oh, the filial moment of terror—she looked around the room we were staying in, appraising the sproingy old loveseat and heavily carved side tables.

“It’s very 1970s,” she mused.

This left me perplexed.

“Honey,” I explained patiently, “there’s… there’s nothing under a hundred years old in this room.”

“Yes,” she replied with even greater patience, “but this is what people were collecting in the seventies.

And so it was: and so it is with literature. Certain authors are, depending on the era one lives in, the furniture that is now being collected. The art that we associate with any given historical period is not an accurate representation of the past; rather, it is what we have chosen to remember as representative of what we would like the past to be. These choices probably say less about the past, and about what our ancestors were reading, than it says about the present and what we would prefer our ancestors to have been reading.

The past doesn’t change: it can’t change. It is dead. But history—the interpretation of that past—changes constantly, and it is at the convenience of those who wield it in the present. So perhaps for many years we had no need for Moby-Dick to be a masterpiece. But by the 1930s, the whaler’s crew proved a splendid ready-made metaphor of melting-pot America, or of the world itself, and Ahab a handy stand-in for fascist or communist monomania—take your pick. Moreover, Melville’s mixing of narrative forms—what Evert Duyckinck called his “intellectual chowder”—seemed to prefigure the collage-like narratives of John Dos Passos and other Modernists. Still, it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when Dabney’s old neighbor was not seen as great, when he was as neglected as Dabney himself is now. And yet this is the uncanny pattern of literary canonization: we rediscover literature in our own image. If it seems to have nothing to do with us, they we will probably have nothing to do with it.

Take, for instance, Emily Dickinson. She had a steady but moderate level of critical appreciation after her poems made their posthumous debut. But her rise to canonical status—to sainthood, along with Whitman and Frost—did not really begin until middle of the last century. What changed in those seventy years? Was it that just about this time a great deal of modern poetry itself began to strikingly resemble hers? Because it certainly seems a curious coincidence otherwise.

Read Emily Dickinson next to other then-famous poets of her time—Tupper, say, or even Longfellow—and her contemporaries look staggeringly old-fashioned. Dickinson is new, spare, prophetic. It is tempting, reading her mysterious and yet intensely personal lines, to think to yourself: My god, it’s as if she knew the future of poetry. But the truth is precisely the opposite; it is because we know the future that the way we read her work is irrevocably altered. The point is not that Emily Dickinson saw the future, but rather, that the future saw her. She appeals to our own aesthetic, and fits in with our notion of a suitable lineage. Had our economic, aesthetic, and political world turned out differently—if, say, heroic socialist odes were the fashion—then Emily Dickinson would have been just another crazy lady in Amherst.

One could, in some alternate universe, just as successfully then see Dickinson’s poetry as utterly old-fashioned. It is often religious in nature, after all, and relies on obvious conceits in the manner of Herbert and Donne. Not only does it employ that fuddy-duddy device of end-rhyme, it—oh, for God’s sake—it uses the metrical scheme of Isaac Watts hymns. This is why, rather infamously, you can sing most of Dickinson’s work to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Here, I’ll show you:

The Yellow Rose of Texas

Ah! John Bouche Whacker, now there is your Symphonic Monograph!

That Dickinson was extraordinarily gifted and innovative is, I think, a foregone point to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. But which authors we turn those eyes and ears to—there is the catch. There are many gifted and innovative writers operating within any era, and it is which gifts they possess, and what they innovate, that will determine their ultimate fate as authors. When there is a twist in history, they are found: and when there is a turn, they are lost.

FOURTH MOVEMENT

Blah blah blah—umgh umgh! The TV blithers CNN to nobody in particular, and a pair of mothers with strollers are flinching in unison as a gentleman at a nearby table suddenly breaks into a fit of coughing over his coffee and bagel. People are coming in bleary-eyed for their caffeine and croissants at the café on the corner of Eighteenth and Third; it’s early morning, it’s March in Manhattan, and ahh, the phlegm of spring is in the air. I maneuver my way up to the counter and examine the newly boiled bagels under the glass at one end, and the blintzes at the other end, too tired and hungry to decide—I step back and forth several times, vacillating over what to eat. But I might well be stepping back and forth while asking myself:

Did he die here? Or over here?

We’ll never know. The El station is long gone now; so is Dabney’s old brownstone at 313 East Seventeenth. Most of what he’d have recognized on his old morning commute is lost. By the time his twenty-third-century tenth-removed grandson is born, these blocks will probably be just an unfamiliar to ourselves.

“It is, I dare say, a mere whim on my part,” he interrupts himself in Don Miff, turning to solely address his twenty-third-century readers, “but I now must beg the contemporary reader to obliterate himself for a few pages.”

And so they did: he did: we did. In fact, soon his readers obliterated themselves for all 492 pages, and for 118 years and counting. The book has never come back into print. But I think it only takes a couple lines from Don Miff to understand why:

Well, mahster, ef you axes me ’bout dat, I couldn’t ’espond pint’ly, in course; for I ain’t seen Marse Charles a-noratin’ of it and a-splanifyin’ amongst de Richmond f’yar sect…

Uh-oh.

*

“In my occasional attempts at representing the negro dialect I shall (as I have already done with Laura’s prattle) hold a middle course between the true and the intelligible,” Dabney explains in one of his footnotes, comparing the talk of slaves to that of an infant. It’s a wince-inducing line: it is one of many wince-inducing lines, both in Don Miff and just about every Southern novel from the second half of the nineteenth-century. “Funny spelling” is the Dutch Elm disease of Victorian writing—it’s damn near everywhere, and it wiped out entire forests of wood pulp. Rare indeed is the book without an Irish washerwoman spaatrrring her Rs, a German Jew yelling Vhat!, or any number of black folk a’post’a’fyin’ they-selves to bits.

Now, if you phonetically rendered the actual speech of a Southern colonel or a Boston Brahmin, they too could sound like a bunch of cretins. But that never happens: “funny spelling” is reserved for minorities and the poor, and almost invariably the effect is to diminish them—sometimes comically, sometimes not so comically. It can be done subtly, and even to good effect: in Huckleberry Finn, Twain renders both Huck and Jim’s speech by only altering a word or two in each sentence. The rest he leaves alone. That is enough to remind you that Huck is poor and Jim is black, but not so much as to overwhelm who they are and what they are saying. But in legions of novels written by Southern whites, a character cannot be anything other than That Black Person at every single moment of dialogues in which, with each syllable, the author is tapping you on the head with a ball-peen hammer: DO-NOT-FOR-GET! YOU-ARE-LIST-EN-ING-TO-A-NE-GRO-TAL-KING!

The very name of Dabney’s book is the act of an everyman being mangled by malapropisms: “Don Miff” turns out to be a four-year-old’s pronunciation of the character name “John Smith.” It is a charming touch, but the same cannot be said for the infantilized slaves of the book. And I suppose Don Miff’s patronizing slave dialogues in the Richmond of 1860 would be easy enough to explain if Dabney were simply a racist. But the explanation, as with everything else in his book, is a great deal more complicated.

*

“Don Miff filled me with delight,” recalled the critic Moncure Conway in 1909, “and I hastened to make his [Dabney’s] acquaintance. He was a very brilliant man, and I feel certain that he would have had a notable literary career but for his premature death.”

It is one of the only published reminiscences of Dabney, and all the more notable for who it came from. Like Dabney, Moncure Conway was a Virginian who had spent decades living in Manhattan. He was delighted to discover that the author of this brash new novel lived scarcely ten blocks away, and he paid him a visit. The two mused over the land of their childhood, and over the strange paths their lives had taken. Both had opposed slavery, and yet both also opposed the North’s entry into war: Moncure, newly graduated from seminary, because he was a pacifist, and Dabney, newly accepted to the Virginia Bar, because he believed that abolitionism was an excuse for a power grab that flouted state sovereignty.

Amid the fighting, Conway returned South and risked his life to spirit his family’s slaves away to freedom; his wealthy Virginia parents and neighbors were infuriated by the “theft,” while his Northern friends were annoyed by his opposition to the war. Conway wound up going into exile in London for decades, disgusted with North and South alike. But Dabney’s wartime life was to take a different, even darker path. Still, might it be possible for these two renegades to actually miss some of that old, doomed time? Indeed it was. But, as Conway sighed—“Virginius Dabney and myself both found that the American people could see no picturesqueness in the old South, and were rather irritated by attempts to revive the subject.”

How could they not, seeing as it was the backdrop of one of the great evils of our country’s existence? And yet—everyday life and love did go on there. Don Miff unfolds in 1860 amidst well-to-do families who grapple with the meanings of love, family, and age… but not of slavery. The characters are blissfully unaware of the horror about to unfold, and indeed of the “peculiar institution” that was supporting their cozy lives. How could they not know, not think about it? Well… people do not know, do not think about such things all the time. They gaily go on their way.

“There was music in that laughter, doubtless, but it cost us too dear,” Dabney ponders in Don Miff. “I think we Virginians are agreed as to that… as one man, we rejoice that slavery is dead… But ah, what a lotus-dream we were a-dreaming, when out our clear blue sky the bolt of war fell upon us!”

When the rallying cry of army recruitment comes, it is as Alice is taking a love letter to the post office. The book veers wildly, and in its final chapters everything collapses: the men go off to a war, and Don Miff leaps four years ahead to the desperate closing days of the South’s defeat, descending into scenes of absurd standoffs between wounded men, lives saved only by dumb luck, and the terror of hopelessly outnumbered infantry charges. “One boy, attacked by three or four,” our narrator broods, “may be plucky. It is rather too much to expect him to be gay. I was not gay.”

Dabney knew of what he wrote. Having grown up in Richmond among just the sort of genteel family he depicts in his book, he had barely set up a law practice when the Civil War began. He was twenty-five years old, able-bodied, and a son of a respectable family: there was not much question of what was to come next. He enlisted. He rose to lieutenant, and commanded the 48th Virginia Regiment at the second battle of Bull Run, where he was wounded. He went on to fight through the rest of the war anyway.

“How a solitary man of us escaped I shall never be able to understand,” he marvels.

Don Miff may be the greatest Confederate novel ever written, except that greatness is not a condition allowed of Confederate novels. We do not live in a world made for reading them. Dabney is sorry, but he is not sorry enough: not to our modern tastes, at least. Just as he cannot entirely get rid of the romance novel, Dabney cannot entirely let go of the old South: he mourns it, even as he admits it was wrong and couldn’t last. But perhaps neither can we. Dabney is not being whimsical when he announces that America will eventually stop being run by white men: he is prophesying the same decline and fall of an unjust society. He has seen it happen before, and he has fought on the losing side.

And so as John Bouche Whacker and Charley—both Confederate veterans—get nicely drunk over mint juleps and argue over just how Don Miff should be concluded, Charley announces that he has been carefully composing an “Essay on Military Glory.” This, he pompously announces, will explain everything about the war. It is, Charley reveals, still in his pocket. But when Alice impetuously snatches the paper away, this is what the “Essay on Military Glory” turns out to be:

She brandished the Essay high in the air in triumph. “I knew it! I knew it!” cried she. “Listen, Jack!”

‘Baltimore, August 14, 1885

Charles Frobisher, Esq.:

Dear Sir,—The guano will be shipped by tomorrow’s boat, as per valued order. Very truly yours,

BUMPKINS & WINDUP’

“And look here—and look here—nothing but a lot of business letters. He has not written one line! His so-called Essay on Military Glory is a myth!”

“We got the juleps, at any rate.”

And this is how Virginius Dabney, a man who had seen slaughter and untold misery in an unworthy cause, drolly prepares us for the sight of the old South destroying itself amid fatal notions of honor and nationalist pride. Military necessity?—yes. Military bravery?—yes. Mint juleps?—most certainly yes. But the glory in the killing of men?

A load of shit, he says.

*

It is nighttime when I arrive at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-ninth. I used to live just a couple blocks from here myself, though it’s not a residential area at all: the sidewalks of this part of much of midtown become strangely dead at night, emptied of their workers, and humming only with hotel stragglers and taxis racing down the avenue. But it was once a place where people lived and ate and slept and died: a place of homes, before the present, before the empty airless square of the McGraw-Hill plaza.

I stop at the spot in the where 108 West Forty-ninth once would have been. The nearest thing now is a Del Frisco’s Steakhouse occupying part of the ground floor of the McGraw-Hill Building. Don’t bother going: you can’t afford it, and neither can I. But once this was the home of the Dabney’s own New-York Latin School, and it was here that Virginius lived, graded papers, and wrote Don Miff.

Gone, gone, gone.

Everything that might have rendered Don Miff unreadable to Victorians is what makes it appear so wonderful in our modern hands. And the treatment of the one thing that few readers noticed back then—the slaves—is what renders it unreadable today. I imagine an intelligent and conflicted fellow like Dabney would be horrified to be thought a racist, but that is the way it turned out: he will be defined by a flaw he never anticipated.

Well: maybe Dabney was right all along about whom he wanted his reader to be. Maybe Don Miff really can only be read by that Asian-American grandson in a twenty-third-century matriarchy. Perhaps by then the Civil War, and all the racial woe that has followed, will seem as distant and queer a conflict to them as the Thirty Years War does to us. He will shrug past the patronizing dialogue and the agonizing over the Confederate cause, chalking it up to some old bit of ignorance that he doesn’t know much about anymore anyway, and he’ll get on to the story—to that Symphonic Monographic that John Bouche Whacker somehow couldn’t quite write.

And then, perhaps, future reader… you will recall…

There they were, the patrons of Del Frisco’s, drinking their expensive wines and eating their expensive steaks, and talking their expensive talk, and everything they did and said that evening, and every person in that restaurant, will be lost to you, dear reader of the twenty-third century. As will be the man who watched them.

Unless, by chance, it proves convenient for you to remember us.

  1. Whitefoord even claimed that his cross-readings actually made more sense than the newspapers that he drew them from. Writing to the Public Advertiser in 1766, he mused that the apparent organization of a newspaper hid what was really nothing more than a disconnected and thoughtless jumble.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney’s Books. This and other pieces for the Believer form part of his book in progress, Curiosities of Literature.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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