Strange Arts & Visual Delights
"Gloucester Old Spot," John Miles (active 1811-1842. Photo credit: Gloucester Museum Service Art Collection
Not my best poem, perhaps, but one of my favorites, as it invokes love of language, plants and animals (especially the pig, of course), and my wife. And it teaches a thing or two about thank-you notes, too. It's included in my book Mouth Work, available directly from me (send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org) or from Amazon.
How to Write a Thank You Note
Every gift, however trifling, should be acknowledged.
—Lillian Eichler Watson, Standard Book of Letter Writing (1948, 1958)
Beginning my song of thanks as big as the world: alleluia!
For these I am thankful: for cara-rayada and mirikina,
for schmalschnauzige and potto and cuchumbi, and for all
milky plants, dandelion, milkweed, and sow-thistle: shushuk! bhulan!
For names that make me laugh—chickwittles and pig-sty daisy--
I praise God in brief and simple words: safi! umununi!
For plants that grow on roadsides and beautify dumpsters
and for those called common—mallow, chickweed, mullein
(for I too am common)—I give thanks, as I do for the victuals
the wild swine eat—oak mast, prickly pear fruit, and leopard frog.
I am grateful for the devourers, boar and barrow, gilt and sow.
For piglet and shoat I sing this hymn of thanksgiving and instruction:
O feral hog of Arkansas, O mulefoot from the Mississippi,
write the letter quickly, while the glow is still with you!
O snuffle-snout and nose-plow, the words will come of their own accord!
You bacon- and chitterling-maker, it’s more gracious to mention the gifts,
the sowbread, grub and fawn, for which you give thanks.
For khuk and budur, for the moon in her cirrus boa
whose silvery snout roots up the truffles of the stars,
who sweet-cures the dreams she sends to my beloved,
I will always give thanks. Scham-scham! Zizel and susel! Hallelujah!
from Mouth Work
St. Andrews University Press (2016)
Now we are in a position to understand the Ruffin letters published by the Union Republican on the 8th and 15th of September. The previous posts that have brought us to this point are:
• "'Pluck Enough': The Story So Far
• "'Pluck Enough': An Introduction to the Background: Suicide Wrapped in an Illusion"
• "'Pluck Enough': A Note on Methodology
The letters are important, I think, because they end up predicting an event very like the Wilmington coup that happened just three months later. They also betray a blindness to the weaknesses in the Republican-Populist fusion, and an even greater blindness to the dissatisfaction among many African Americans, the most important Republican voting bloc.
The anonymous writer assumes that the reader has a working knowledge of political history in the state since the end of the Civil War, and often alludes to events rather than specifying them; in my notes [inserted in boldface and set off by brackets], I try to help the current reader understand his allusions.
I have added paragraph breaks to divide long stretches of text.
By your indulgence, I wish to set before Republican and Populist readers an analysis of the Democratic plan of campaign in this State. As in physics, the amount of resistance to be overcome will gauge the effort and suggest the means to the end, so in politics. To appreciate the effort and means to be resorted to by Democrats to regain power in this State, it is only necessary to reflect that the position of the party is the most desperate that it has been for twenty years.
During the long years of Republican rule in the nation, the Democrats felicitated themselves on the fact that they “held Robinson” [sic] and “saved the State.” With their advent to power under Cleveland [1st term began in March 1885] and the State still “safe,” their cup of joy ran over. With appetites whetted for official pie under two national administrations, and the long lease of power in the State, they were intoxicated with the belief that their joy could never end. [“Held Robinson [sic] and saved the state”—In 1875, a special election was held to elect delegates to the state’s constitutional convention. The balance of power in the convention came down to the vote in Robeson County. The phrase, “hold Robeson [County] and save the state,” was part of a telegram sent by the NC Democratic chairman to officials in Robeson County. It became proverbial for Democratic efforts to win elections at all costs. The Democrats ended up with a one-vote advantage in the convention, and they used it to pass a constitution that enabled them to dominate elections for 20 years. For example, it enabled “the undemocratic County Government Act of 1877 [that allowed] Democrats [to] maintain power over local governments. The law allowed the legislature to appoint local justices [previously elected at the local level], and permitted these appointed judges to choose county commissioners [who before had been elected in the county].” In other words, a majority of white Democratic legislators could prevent jurisdictions with majority Republican and Black voters from electing the most important local officials. “The law helped maintain Democratic control of ‘purse strings’ and prevent blacks or Republicans from gaining local power” Ronnie W. Faulkner, "Fusion Politics" (https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/fusion-politics/).]
With this sense of security and independence, there was fostered the already existing spirit of intolerance and bigotry that would brook no interference with opinions or policies eminating [sic] [from] this self-constituted oligarchy.
This was the position of the bossesses [sic] and so-called leaders. The position of their constituency[:] Having had their fears, prejudices, and resentments appealed to, and played upon, for twenty years [the 20 years that preceded Cleveland’s term, i.e., since the end of the Civil War], they had been reduced to a condition of political starvation. I apprehend that if the average Populist were interviewed as to his reasons for leaving the Democratic party, he would reply that he was interested in certain reforms which his party spurned, and therefore was driven to go into a new party. In my opinion, this is merely a surface reason, the fundamental cause being that he was suffering the pangs of a slow form of political degeneration. Having been fed for so long, on the husks of hate, a change of diet was absolutely necessary to his political existence. Hence, a formidable revolt within the Democratic party of its most conservative element—the great middle class. Let it be understood that the essence of the Democratic position for all these years was, and is now, based on hatred and false pretenses. [para break added]
The essence of the revolt within its ranks was based on a demand for a cessation of the campaign of hate, and a return to the discussion of principles and policies in the interest of the public good, and in this sense, patriotic. The means resorted to suppress this revolt are too fresh in the public mind to require elaborate statement. Suffice to say that the weapons of denunciation, proscription and ostracism wielded with such disastrous effect against Republicans were turned against their own late allies, and stuck fast in extreme cases, with ancient and malodorous eggs. [The weapon turned “against their own allies” was the Democratic legislature’s repeal of the charter of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance after the election of 1892. Rather than acceding to some of the populists’ demands, the Democratic legislature repealed the charter to punish populists for denying an absolute majority of votes for the Democratic candidate for governor (see Faulkner, “Fusion Politics”).] [para break added]
This reform element, the great middle class, the bone and sinew of the Democratic party had not proceeded far in the advocacy of their principles before they saw the necessity for the organization of a new party, which assumed the name Populist. They had not proceeded far as a party before they realized that certain foundation work was necessary in order to give them even a fighting chance for final triumph; and while differing radically from Republicans in many particulars they found themselves in line on certain fundamentals to both parties, and hence, resulted in an alliance of both for the purpose of securing local self-government, a free ballot and fair count [i.e., to secure the electoral reforms passed by the fusion legislature after the election of 1894]. The people for once refused to heed the incendiary appeals to the worst part of their natures, and the result was overwhelming and disastrous defeat for the Democracy, the heroic self-sacrifice of Josephus Daniels [editor of the Raleigh News and Observer] to “save the State” to the contrary notwithstanding. While the bosses were stunned by the blow, and what was left of the rank and file were demoralized, they were not without consolation—they still had the presidency [Cleveland’s second term] and a goodly number of fat federal offices as well as the State government for two years. During the interim preceding the presidential and State campaign, Democratic parties fairly bristled with denunciations of the late Fred Douglas [sic] legislature, and a Democratic campaign hand-book was promulgated roasting the aforesaid legislature, when lo! the exigences of the campaign required a change of tactics. Free silver had become the national slogan, and Democratic-Populist fusion was in the air. Even Marion Butler, the arch conspirator in the frustration of Democratic machination was not such a bad man after all, in fact to the contrary he was a very nice gentleman. So from vinegar and red pepper there was a change to molasses and soft soap. Firery [sic] denunciations of the Populists was changed into cajolery. [para break added]
While this change of tactics proved a death blow to the Democratic literature in that it required the suppression of the campaign hand-book, ventilating so-called Republican-Populist incompetency and misrule, and chock full of much other useful knowledge, the leaders, as usual, rose to the emergency, and henceforth that valuable book had to depend for circulation on the uncertain medium of Republican speakers. With a ccompaign [sic] of compromise not even the witchery of free silver and the disaffection of prominent Republicans and Populists within the ranks of their respective parties could “save the State.” This [i.e., the election of 1896] was defeat number two, humiliating and exasperating, embracing not only loss of the State government, but the presidency [Republican William McKinley succeeded Cleveland], wholesale loss of Congressmen, and nearly all the district and county governments with consequent loss of both federal and State patronage. [In the 54th Congress, NC was represented by 6 Republicans and Populists, and 3 Democrats; in the previous Congress, the Democrats had held 7 of the 9 seats. Similarly, in the General Assembly, the fusion of Republicans and Populists held 94 of the 120 seats, and in the Senate 43 of the 50 seats; in the previous General Assembly, the Democrats had held 93 of the 120 seats in the House, and 47 of 50 seats in the Senate.] [para break added]
To perceive the straits of the Democratic party at this juncture, it is necessary to realize that it had been stricken in its most vital parts. The right to hold all the offices, or at least all the best, had come to recognized as among the inalienable rights, not that they loved office above other men, for as nature abhors a vacuum, so the average Democrat abhors office; but that in the lofty spirit of self-sacrifice, they simply hold the offices and received [sic] the perquisites in order to dignify the office, and keep them out of the profane hands of the so-called lower classes. So when the people lay their sacrilegious hands on affairs, and turned these gentry out to graze[,] their refined sensibilities were shocked. Stunned by defeat, their Spanish pride mortally wounded [an allusion to the Spanish-American war, then under way], they are now out in the wilderness of want and hunger, their appetites tantilized [sic] by the sight of others feeding from the green and luxuriating pastures from which they have been driven thirsting for revenge; and with “the end justifies the means” as a working principle, what will they not do to get it back?
The history of the past supplies the answer. The leaders bewildered by two successive defeats having returned to partial consciousness without regaining the ability to think logically; and thinking vaguely that there must have been some connection between their former cry of negro domination or white supremacy, and their long lease of power in the State have resurrected that corpse to do duty in this campaign. Having lost on the field of legitimate discussion they return to the epithet as a weapon, and herein is that true proverb illustrated: “The dog is turned to his vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
The Democratic party of this State not having now a victory since the war except through appeals to passion and prejudice, neither learning nor forgetting, and incapable of addressing itself to the progress of events, will make the effort to regain power on the hypothesis that it can deceive the people by methods which they [the people] have repudiated with their eyes wide open.
Having taken so much space to elucidate the present position and purpose of the Democracy, I shall have to defer to another issue the discussion of the plans for carrying their purpose into execution.
Ruffin, N.C., Sept 2, 1898.
A few days before Halloween, a coworker brought her eight-year-old daughter to my wife’s workplace dressed as a gardener. In a reverse trick-or-treating, the girl walked through the office handing out flowers. Patti brought three home and placed them in a vase in the sunroom. A couple of days ago, a stray beam of afternoon sunlight worked its way through the trees in the park behind our house and lit up one of the blossoms. For once, I was quick enough with the camera phone to capture the moment.
I’ve had more trouble getting a picture of the goose among the ducks; maybe this one will do. Perhaps because I was busy in my yard, this year I didn’t encounter at our pond the gangs of ill-tempered geese protecting their goslings. Their season came and went without my notice, and now they’re gone, except for this lone goose which has been paddling with the mallards.
Look closely on the surface of the water and you’ll see a flotilla of pine needles. The pines have been shedding like a long-haired cat in July. Yesterday they were covering our cars, the parking pad, and the flower gardens, but not many seem to have fallen overnight.
Corrected 6 Nov 2023. Please send comments to email@example.com
Recently I exchanged books with Ethan Unklesbay, a poet I’ve not met in the flesh but whom I’ve encountered in a Facebook group. He runs a Substack site, (Almost) Daily Mormon Poetry, where he just published a brief appreciation of my chapbook, Night Weather.
Our projects are similar in some respects. Both are self-published and both are tied to online projects. In his case, many of the poems in Dust have been or will be published on his Substack; in my case, the poems came from my early, happy days on Twitter, beginning in December 2008. (For those who are curious, I left it years before Elon Musk took over.)
The comments below are expanded slightly from comments I sent to Ethan. Please direct comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Pluck"—This poem is an imaginative take on a New Testament injunction, to pluck out the offending eye, and on the healing offered by Christ. The poem is amusing—the plucked out eye, let loose on the world, “Rolled under open skirts—and gritty: “He climbed into my eye socket, / Got down on his hands and knees, / And scrubbed.” It ends with the warmth of healing love.
"The death of a scientist"—The poem is amusing and imaginative; it reminds me a bit of C. S. Lewis. I like the phrase "malleable light"—a fine way of evoking the differentness of reality for the dead. The scientist has a severe case of déformation professionnelle (a phrase I was taught by student at the University of Poitiers early in my mission) that keeps him from understanding the grand possibilities of being dead: “He was in the middle of testing his fifth / Spirit World Hypothesis.” The poem reminds me, in a good way, of Scott Hales’ book,. Hemingway in Paradise.
"I'm sorry I didn't know...."—The dominant metaphor—a brain aneurysm is likened to a gunshot wound to the head—is startling and effective. After that, the three concluding lines stranded on the following page seem anticlimactic, but do provide a needed ending.
"Carmody Sagers"—I like how Ethan handles the syllabic lines—the three line stanzas have four syllables in the first line, six in the second, and two in the last line. The poem handles the near-cliches of Christian imagery in a fresh, understated, emotionally genuine way.
Ethan is offering his chapbook for $5, including postage. The best way to get in touch with him is through his email, email@example.com. The quickest way to access his poems is to follow him at ethanunklesbay.substack.com.
Detail of a Late Archaic kylix (drinking cup), about 510-500 BC. Period: Archaic Greek. An octopus hiding from a fisherman. Source: https://twitter.com/archaeologyart/status/1464215491879260167/photo/1
One my harmless pastimes as a poet is to render prose translations of poems from the Greek Anthology into English verse. I worry more about creating a poem that pleases me than trying to recreate in English verse the formal properties of the original.
Julianus the Egyptian is thought to have served as Prefect of Egypt during the reign of Justinian, emperor of Byzantium, in the 6th century AD. He has seventy-one poems in the Greek Anthology. His work is considered derivative of earlier epigrammatists. The works in the anthology span the classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine eras, more than 1200 years of literary. Settings, stock characters, themes, and images are frequently recycled by many of the epigrammatists.
The Old Fisherman
by Julianus, Prefect of Egypt (Greek Anthology, VI, 26)
Cinyras dedicates to the nymphs this net;
he can’t endure the labor of casting it.
Little fishes, now you can swim at ease:
the old man has given you back the seas.
My favorite version of I.37, so far, is the translation by Ellen Bryant Voight:
The translation was published in J.D. McClatchy, ed., Horace: the Odes (Princeton, 2002, p. 103), a volume well worth owning if you’re interested in the odes. Around thirty-five leading poets from the US, the UK, and Ireland were “specially commissioned” to write the translations (“Introduction,” 5).
Voight's translation (see below) is a model of clarity and craft. The poem makes admirable use of alliteration (for example, "dizzy with desire and drunk," "the hawk harasses the helpless dove, / or the hunter the hare"). As the poem nears the conclusion, slant rhymes begin to point line ends, culminating in the long i sound that caps the last four lines.
I.37, translated by Ellen Bryant Voigt
Now it’s time to drink, not loosen your shoes
and dance, now bring around elaborate couches
and set the gods a feast, my friends! Before,
the time wasn’t right to pour the vintage wines,
not while that queen and her vile brood of advisors,
dizzy with desire and drunk on luck,
were busy in deluded plots against us.
What sobered her up was seeing her fleet on fire--
hardly a ship survived—nightmare she woke to
sending her fleeing, flying, from our shores,
Caesar at the ores in close pursuit--
the way the hawk harasses the helpless dove,
or the hunter the hare in the snow-packed open field--
intent on dragging the monster back in chains.
And yet the death that she resolved was grand:
a woman who did not shrink from the drawn blade,
who did not try to slip away and hide,
she looked straight at the palace now in ruins,
her face composed, and without blinking took
into her arms the scaly venomous snakes
in order to drink each drop of their black wine,
and by that cup this woman of such fierce pride
made the triumph hers: that she would die
not as a slave, and not as someone’s prize.
Edited 2 Nov 2023
The Berlin Cleopatra, a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC), discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra#/media/File:Kleopatra-VII.-Altes-Museum-Berlin1.jpg)
The ode is among Horace’s most famous, in part because it brings us a contemporary view of a great historical moment, the defeat and death of Cleopatra. But it’s also appreciated because of its surprising shift in tone and point of view: the Romans’ “scornful opprobrium” of Cleopatra’s drunken self-delusions (David Ferry, translator, The Odes of Horace, 10) becomes admiration of her clear-eyed resolution at the end. “Now is the time to drink” is the governing conceit—the Romans in celebration of their victory over the queen drunk on her fantasies becomes Cleopatra’s metaphorical drinking in (conbiberet) of the asp’s venom. The Romans would humiliate her by parading her, a dethroned queen, in a grand triumph; but she chooses her own private victory.
According to Eduard Fraenkel (Horace, Clarendon Press, 1957, 158-161), Cleopatra was "the nation's most dreaded enemy"; and news of the capture of Alexandra and of her death a few weeks later brought joy to the people of Rome. Cleopatra was viewed as a prodigy (monstrum), wonderfully and horribly outside the ordinary. But once "the feeling of horror recedes..., admiration takes its place. At the end of the poem written to celebrate Cleopatra's defeat her greatness dominates over everything else."
Here's David Ferry’s translation:
At last the day has come for celebration,
For dancing and for drinking, bringing out
The couches with their images of gods
Adorned in preparation for the feast.
Before today it would have been wrong to call
For the festive Caecuban wine from the vintage bins,
It would have been wrong while that besotted queen,
With her vile gang of sick polluted creatures,
Crazed with hope and drunk with her past successes,
Was planning the death and destruction of the empire.
But, comrades, she came to and sobered up
When not one ship, almost, of all her fleet
Escaped unburned, and Caesar saw to it
That she was restored from madness to a state
Of realistic terror. The way a hawk
Chases a frightened dove or as a hunter
Chases a hare across the snowy steppes,
His galleys chased this fleeing queen, intending
To put the monster prodigy into chains
And bring her back to Rome. But she desired
A nobler fate than that; she did not seek
To hide her remnant fleet in a secret harbor;
Nor did she, like a woman, quail with fear
At the thought of what it is the dagger does.
She grew more fierce as she beheld her death.
Bravely, as if unmoved, she looked upon
The ruins of her palace; bravely reached out,
And touched the poison snakes, and picked them up,
And handled them, and held them to her so
Her heart might drink its fill of their black venom.
In truth—no abject woman she—she scorned
In triumph to be brought in galleys unqueened
Across the seas to Rome to be a show.
(David Ferry, The Odes of Horace, p. 71. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)
Edited, 18 Oct 2023; 20 Oct 2023. Comments? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the beginning of several posts, possibly nonconsecutive, on Horace's Ode 1.37, the famous ode on Cleopatra. I begin with the Latin text and a literal translation. I don't read Latin myself, except for the simplest sentences, so I will be relying on others' translation and scholarship.
Ode 1.37 Nunc est bibendum
Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede līberō
pulsanda tellūs, nunc Saliāribus
ōrnāre pulvīnar deōrum
tempus erat dapibus, sodālēs.
antehāc nefās dēprōmere Caecūbum
cellīs avītīs, dum Capitōliō
rēgīna dēmentīs ruīnās
fūnus et imperiō parābat
contāminātō cum grege turpium
morbō virōrum, quidlibet inpotēns
spērāre fortūnāque dulcī
ēbria; sed minuit furōrem
vix una sospes nāvis ab ignibus,
mentemque lymphātam Mareōticō
redēgit in vērōs timōrēs
Caesar, ab Italiā volantem
rēmīs adurgēns, accipiter velut
mollīs columbās aut leporem citus
vēnātor in campīs nivālis
Haemōniae, daret ut catēnīs
fātāle mōnstrum, quae generōsius
perīre quaerēns nec muliebriter
expāvit ēnsem, nec latentīs
classe citā reparāvit ōrās,
ausā et iacentem vīsere rēgiam
voltū serēnō, fortis et asperās
tractāre serpentēs, ut ātrum
corpore conbiberet venēnum,
dēlīberāta morte ferōcior:
saevīs Liburnīs scīlicet invidēns
prīvāta dēdūcī superbō,
nōn humilis mulier triumphō.
Literal English Translation (from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Odes_(Horace)/Book_I/37, with revisions from the prose translation by Steele Commager, The Odes of Horace, 90)
Now it is time to drink; now with loose feet
it is time for beating the earth; now
it is time to decorate the gods' sacred couch
for Salian feasts, comrades.
Before this it was forbidden to draw forth
Caecuban wine from old stores, while the Queen--
still plotting mad ruin for the Capitolium
and planning the destruction of the state
with a foul herd of men shameful
with disease—was wild with all sorts of
hopes, and drunk with sweet
fortune. But it diminished her frenzy when
scarcely one ship escaped from the flames,
and Caesar reduced her mind,
inflamed with Mareotic wine,
to true fear, as he flew from Italy
with straining oars, as a hawk
pursues tender doves or a swift hunter
the hare on the plains of
snowy Haemonia, that he might put in chains
that monster of fate. Wanting
to die more nobly, she did not
like a woman tremble at the sword, nor repair
to hidden shores with her swift fleet,
but, having dared to see her fallen palace
with a tranquil face, she bravely
took to herself the harsh-scaled serpents
and drank in their black venom with her whole body,
in her chosen death growing fiercer.
Unwilling to be taken away by Liburnian warships,
no humble woman, she scorned to be led as a private citizen,
a captive in our triumph.
Updated with photo, 18 Oct 2023. Send comments to email@example.com
Tuttle defender in focus: Mat Scales
To think clearly in human terms you have to be impelled by a poem.—Les Murray
The Western Sentinel (7 Apr 1898, 1)
The scope of this study is so small, I might perhaps be excused from concerning myself with methodology. But there are three points that I think deeply important to the study of history and even our lives, especially in a time where life and liberty seem threatened on many sides.
Openness to the future To make the first point, I quote from Clive James’s essay on Golo Mann, the great German historian:
“In his Zeiten und Figuren (Times and Figures) (1979), Golo Mann expounded his key concept of Offenheit nach der Zukunft hin—openness to the future. He didn’t just mean it as a desirable trait of personality but as a necessary qualification for the historian. By an effort of the imagination, the historian must put himself back into a present where the future has not yet happened, even though he is looking back at it through the past. If a narrator knows the future of his hero, he, the narrator, ‘is bound to tinge even the simplest narrative with
irony.' Succumbing too easily to the ironic mode is a cheap way of being Tacitus. The true high worth of Tacitus depended on his being always aware that tragic events had been the result of accidents and bad decisions, and the depth of the tragedy lay in the fact that the accidents need not have happened and the decisions might have been good. In a predetermined world there would be no tragedy, only fate. With his revered Tacitus as an example, Golo Mann was able to form the view that fatalism and frivolity were closely allied: to be serious about history, you had seriously to believe that things might have been otherwise.” (emphasis added; Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, pp. 423-424, Norton, Kindle Edition)
To believe that a political trend is inevitable makes it hard to resist, especially in any organized, effective way; the aura of inevitability makes resistance seem a fool’s errand. Some will fight for lost causes, but when a catastrophe is thought to be unavoidable, many will look for a way to navigate their own way through, let the devil take the hindmost. As a disaster develops, this may become the only choice, but I’m talking about those earlier moments when hope is still realistic and inevitability is a construct of demagoguery.
Imagination as method The second methodological point is the importance of imagination in understanding the truth of history. As Simon Leys notes, “At a certain depth …, all writings tend to be creative writing, for they all partake of the same essence: poetry. History (contrary to the common view) does not record events. It merely records echoes of events—which is a very different thing—and, in doing this, it must rely on imagination as much as on memory. Memory by itself can only accumulate data, pointlessly and meaninglessly….” ("Lies that Tell the Truth," The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York Review Books, Kindle Edition, 43.)
Imagining Mat Scales Here's a tentative imaginative reconstruction involving Matt Scales, one of Tuttle’s defenders.
In the last post, I mentioned P. T. Lehman, a Republican activist and minor officeholder in Winston-Salem; he was a justice of the peace. In the campaign of 1898, he played a prominent local part in an insurgency within the Republican Party that offered its own slate of biracial candidates. One of the ringleaders was the Rev. Jethro T. Gibbons, an immigrant to the US from the West Indies and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Shortly after arriving in Winston-Salem, Gibbons started a newspaper, The Twin-City Herald, apparently for the sole purpose of intervening in the 1898 campaign. (So far as I know, no copies survive.) The paper surprised and dismayed Republicans by attacking them rather than Democrats.
At the time it was suspected that his activities were funded by Democrats. (See the Union Republican, 24 March 1898, 2. Bertha Hampton Miller shares this suspicion in her 1981 dissertation, Blacks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina 1895 – 1920.) The alliance with Lehman may support the suspicion. Just two years later Lehman was willing to openly betray his party by supporting the Democrats’ project to disenfranchise more than half its voters; perhaps in 1898 he was prepared to do so surreptitiously by tactics calculated to weaken and divide Republicans. This is only a guess, of course, but it seems at least possible.
Now we come to the part played by Mat Scales. Scales was an African American reasonably well known in the white community with a reputation for fighting. For his role in defending Tuttle, Scales was found guilty but received no punishment: he was “discharged without payment of costs” (“The Rioters Sentenced,” Western Sentinel, 29 Aug 1895, 1). We don’t know Scales’ role in the defense of Tuttle, nor the reason for the disposition of his case.
In 1897 occurred an incident that throws light on Scales’ character. In the summer, many Winston-Salem citizens traveled by train to nearby towns in brief holiday excursions. On Monday, August 2, an excursion organized by three Black Sunday Schools was returning from Reidsville, a popular destination. Two men on the train began fighting, and when one pulled a knife and began to attack, Scales recruited two other men to help him stop the fight, take the knife, and “arrest” the attacker; on return to town, he was handed over to the police and jailed.
Both local papers covered the incident; the facts reported were similar, but The Western Sentinel’s article was sneering in tone and racist in language, even though Scales’ quick action prevented serious injury and possibly murder, and for no obvious gain. I think the character of Scales may be captured in the paper’s intended insult, that he “deputized himself to arrest” the attacker ("Row on the Excursion," 5 Aug 1897, 3). Protecting this victim is consistent with Scales’ joining in the effort to defend Arthur Tuttle from lynching. To purport to understand a character based on two incidents and a prejudiced account is tenuous, an imaginative more than an inferential link. I put it down as a working hypothesis.
In spring of the following year, Scales and Gibbons had a dramatic encounter. Gibbons had just launched his newspaper, as described above. Its attacks on Republicans aroused indignation in the Union Republican and probably among Republicans in general.
In April, Scales met Gibbons in the street and attacked him with a blow to the face. A struggle followed, stopped only when a bystander took Gibbons’ gun. Gibbons suspected that Scales was paid to attack him, but I’m not aware of any evidence one way or the other. Based on the hints we have of Scales’ character, I wonder if he did not act on his own, or required only the barest of hints to act, to defend the community against political betrayal. Not that the violence was warranted or effective.
(The political alliance between Lehman and Gibbons may already have existed, since Gibbons requested that the case against him for carrying a concealed weapon be transferred to Justice of the Peace Lehman.)
Aftermath--Gibbons In May, shots were fired into Gibbons’ house at night. At the end of the year, he was assigned by his bishop to lead a congregation in Method, near Raleigh, and early the next year he published a bitter attack against Republicans in the state’s most influential white supremacist paper, Josephus Daniels’ News and Observer (“Another Negro Speaks,” 12 January 1899, 5).
Aftermath--Mat Scales In late April, the US declared war against Spain, and Scales enlisted in the army, probably not long afterwards; his reasons are not known to us, of course. In 1899, he received a dishonorable discharge for riot and was imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth for two years. Again, we do not know his motives, but we do know the general context. The all-Black NC 3rd Regiment had Black officers, a fact used in the Democrats' 1898 campaign as evidence of “Negro domination” of the government. The soldiers were mistreated by the white communities where they were stationed—in Fort Macon, where a near riot in Morehead City was occasioned by a conflict between the soldiers and white civilians; in Fort Poland, near Knoxville, TN, where the soldiers were rocked and fired at; and in Camp Haskell, near Macon, GA, where four NC soldiers were killed and the perpetrators found innocent. I do not know the circumstances and motivations of Scales’ offense, but perhaps he had reasons enough to justify to himself his actions based on his self-understanding as a defender and protector, thought we cannot rule out the possibility that he acted out of anger and frustration.
Imagining the individual This is the third principle: understanding history through imagining the lives that composed it, even though “individual lives … [are] in the end unknowable,” especially when they could not or did not speak for themselves (Clive James, “Lewis Namier,” Cultural Amnesia).
Revised 1 October 2023
Richmond Planet (17 Aug 1895, 2)
Perhaps the wisest words about the defense of Tuttle are from this item, probably but not certainly written by the editor, John Mitchell, Jr.: in preventing a lynching, Tuttle's defenders "were there to maintain the majesty of the law and not to violate it."
One of Tuttle’s defenders, Samuel Toliver, was or shortly afterwards became the local agent for the Planet. He appears to have come to Winston-Salem from Richmond, and occasionally traveled to Richmond to confer with Mitchell.
The Tuttle defenders in focus—Several of the defenders had modest political ambitions; that is, they had the American, if not human, desire to govern themselves and to represent a constituency:
• In 1891, John Mack Johnson or someone with a similar name was on the Colored School Committee.
• In 1892, Peter Owens was on the credentials committee of the county Republican convention, and in 1894 he was named as a delegate to the state Republican convention.
• In 1896, Frank Carter was elected as a town alderman.
• In 1898, John Mack Johnson (also spelled McJohnson) and Henry Neal participated in the campaign to select Republican candidates for the general election. Johnson sided with insurgents (the Rev. J. T. Gibbons and others), apparently angry that the electoral successes of 1894 and 1896 had not provided more patronage positions for blacks.
• In the same year, Sam Toliver chaired a meeting of the Republican party in the 1st ward.
• In October 1898, Neal gave a speech that touched on the relationships between black men and white woman. This was a hot topic in the campaign, as I will discuss in a later post. Neal’s speech was reported by a hostile source, The Western Sentinel, no doubt with the intent of keeping this issue alive. But we don’t know what Neal actually said—all we have is the brief quotation used by the Sentinel to inflame racist opinion.
The situation in 1898--In upcoming posts, to provide the political background in which our fifty men acted to defend Arthur Tuttle, I will comment on two prescient letters to the Union Republican published in August and September 1898, in the run-up to the election. The anonymous writer was from Ruffin, NC, so I will call his letters the “Ruffin letters.”
To understand these letters requires an introduction to the political situation in 1898. I know this is an odd way to proceed, but these blogposts are a very rough draft of the projected book, and I am writing about topics as they occur to me. During the isolation of the pandemic, my research made me increasingly aware of the tactics used by the Democratic Party in North Carolina to prepare the way for the formal imposition of Jim Crow in 1900. In the campaign of 1898, these tactics were out in the open.
In the eyes of those living in North Carolina at the time, the imposition of Jim Crow—by which I mean the formal disenfranchisement of blacks (and poor whites, too)—was not inevitable. It’s too easy for us to suppose that, because it did happen, it had to happen. But it was not easy to achieve—it took the combined efforts of the white Democratic ruling class, propaganda by most of the newspapers in the state, the demagoguery of politicians (faithfully repeated in the newspapers), and the terror campaign by the Red Shirts, those direct lineal descendants of the KKK and the Gadarene swine. It was also suspected, then and later, that some well-known black leaders were bribed into attacking the Republican candidates and party.
Newspapers helped the Democrats seize effective control of political language in the service of white supremacy. The rule by and for the white elites was called “the Democracy”; allowing Republicans to govern or blacks to vote was, by definition, anti-Democratic. Every means was justified to ensure triumph of “the Democracy,” much as demagogues in every epoch of our republic shout democracy while silencing dissenters.
The meaning of “the Democracy” was made quite clear in the party’s handbook for the 1898 election:
The triumph of Jim Crow was also ensured by the feeble campaign mounted by the opposing parties, the Republicans and the Populists. The fusion of Republicans and Populists had enjoyed stunning successes in the elections of 1894 and 1896; those successes provided the immediate context to the defense of Tuttle in 1895.
But by the election of 1898, the Fusion legislative agenda had been largely enacted, including measures to expand the franchise and ensure the integrity of the vote. Now Republicans and Populists differed on the way forward. They dithered and they bickered. As we will see in the Ruffin letters, their only shared campaign issue was opposition to the Democratic party.
A more fundamental issue was social equality between the races. To some extent, white Republicans were willing to grant a degree of political equality to blacks, but they resisted social equality, particularly in any setting that brought black men into relations with white women or placed blacks in authority over whites. Only a courageous genius could have navigated those stormy straits. But white Republicans—reluctant to appoint their African American allies to lucrative patronage positions or elect them to higher office—were not courageous or generous, and all too were eager to find an excuse to abandon the backbone of the party. For they were also dunces. For example, in 1900, P. T. Lehman, a Republican justice of the peace in Winston-Salem, deserted the Republican governor to support the Democrats’ constitutional amendment limiting the black franchise. He thought that, by removing “the Negro question” from politics, the Democrats would lose their major political issue and their ability to win offices. But this was suicide wrapped in an illusion: there could be no important Republican victories in NC without black votes. Worse, it was a betrayal. Lehman died in 1924. Voting rights were not restored to blacks until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The next Republican governor was not elected until 1973.
This then is the context in which the anonymous letter writer from Ruffin, NC, gave his prescient take on the political situation in late summer 1898.
Updated 14 Sept 2023
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