Friday, July 15, 2011


Caveat Lector. Let the reader beware. Latin, of course. When this phrase was used in Rome it meant that there might be something wrong with the text. That there might be something that could mislead the reader. My usage today is a little different. I am asking the reader to beware my new novella 'The Angelic Mysteries'.

There are several things about this novella that might mislead the reader. First is the title. When we hear the word 'mysteries' today we naturally think of murder mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie or from television shows like Monk. But in this work it doesn't mean that at all. The word mysteries here is used in its original sense: that which has been kept secret, unknown, obscure; and which is revealed by devine revelation. When Daniel Allman meets a woman who believes herself to be an angel, as he does in 'The Angelic Mysteries', he is running smack into the most deeply held secrets of his own soul.

When Daniel meets Sarah a love story begins which might lead the reader to think this is a romance. One reviewer has already been left scratching her head wondering why there isn't more background given leading the reader to the romantic moment. Well, okay, that's called In Medias Res. It begins in the middle of things. When Gregor Samsa awoke in the moring to find himself turned into a giant vermon we don't necessarily get a lot of preparation either. It simply happens and we are left to figure out what it's all about.

Then, because a very bad pyschopath comes into the story - Morton Toombs - one might be led to believe this is a suspense-thriller. Well, yes, it is suspensful and it is thrilling, but there may be more to this bad man than a plot device to drive the story forward. I will quote here from the Prologue of 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. Kazantzakis writes, ""My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God - and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met."

Reader beware. There are powerful forces at work in this novella. If one chooses to read it as a mystery, so be it. If one chooses to read it as a romance or a thriller, read on. But if the reader stumbles into the treacherous deep and finds herself/himself clawing tooth and nail trying to get back out... well... don't blame me. You have been warned.
'The Angelic Mysteries'. Release date: August 18th, 2011. For more follow along on Facebook.

Friday, July 8, 2011


When Richard Wright wrote his autobiography ‘Black Boy’ in 1945 there was already a long tradition of black writers using their words to expose the truth about racism in America. It stretched at least as far back as Frederick Douglass and his ‘Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass’, which came out one hundred years earlier. Douglass wrote that he did not know his age and could not remember a slave who did know his birthday, and that was a source of some unhappiness for him. He worked on a farm where the principal crops were tobacco, wheat and corn. An adult slave received a monthly allowance of food – eight pounds of pork or fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Yearly they received two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of winter trousers, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes. Children did not receive an allotment.

“I have been utterly astonished,” Douglass continued, “since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” He wrote of the savage brutality of the various overseers. Of his suffering from hunger and cold. He had no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, and no trousers. He wore nothing but a linen shirt that hung down to his knees. On cold nights he crawled into a corn sack. The food he ate was coarse corn meal boiled – called mush. He was taught to read by the wife of one of his owners, or he would never have learned. It was against state law to teach a slave to read.

“I often found myself regretting my own existence,” he wrote, “and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”

The first African American novel (that is, a novel written by an African American) – ‘Clotel’ – was written by William Wells Brown and it is his own story that opens the work. (This following a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier):

“Shall tongues be mute when deeds are wrought
Which well might shame extremest Hell?
Shall freemen lack th’ indignant thought?
Shall Mercy’s bosom cease to swell?
Shall Honour bleed? – shall Truth succumb?
Shall pen, and press, and soul be dumb?”

President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Heming. This while penning words of freedom and equality. (Proving that the truth can transcend even the actions of those who bring that truth). In ‘Clotel’ Brown attempted to portray the reality of slaves in America, though it cannot be said to be an accurate account of Jefferson and his mistress. Currier, “a bright mulatto, and the mistress of Thomas Jefferson”, according to the novel, was about to be auctioned off with her two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. In a ruthless act of unconcern, the President’s own family was about to be sold to others. Slavery, these writers insisted, could only undermine the values of a great nation.

Their voices were only the beginning of this insistence. Throughout the next hundred years black writers wrote against slavery and then the white supremacy attitudes and ‘Jim Crow’ laws that sprang up throughout the south after the Civil War. Streetcars were segregated, to cite an example, and blacks boycotted lines in some twenty five different cities. (This long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott more than seventy years later). One black woman journalist in particular, Ida B. Wells, resisted with everything she had. In Memphis in 1884, Ida Wells was told to give up her seat to a white man on the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad. She was ordered into the ‘smoking car’, a car set aside for ‘Jim Crow’ passengers. Wells protested and was physically thrown off the train by the conductor and two other white men. The crowd of whites that had gathered applauded the action. Her inquiries into lynching in the south led her to publish the ‘Red Record’ itemizing many of these abuses of justice. Of the 728 lynchings she investigated, only a third were accused of any crime. Most had never received a trial in a court of law. Hers was a strident voice for change until the end of her life.

Other voices along the way that might bear reading again are Paul Laurence Dunbar; Charles W. Chesnutt; Booker T. Washington; and W.E.B. Du Bois. One wonders where our country would be today if it had not been for the writers who dreamed of freedom.
This essay has been adapted from chapters of 'American Masters', a forthcoming book by James D. Sanderson. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
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Friday, July 1, 2011


The other famous character found in Washington Irving's 'The Sketch Book' is 'Rip Van Winkle'. ''Rip', perhaps, as in R.I.P. - Rest In Peace - as indeed this strange tale will have its hero slumber as if dead for twenty years. This is another of those papers found among the effects of one Diedrich Knickerbocker, deceased; an old gentleman who had researched the history of the Dutch settlers in that region. The story takes place in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It opens with its hero, Rip, being portrayed as a 'loafer' - one who loves to fish and hunt rather than engage himself in more profitable labor. After hunting squirrels one late afternoon he settled down on a green knoll.
From there he continued on, meeting a square-built stranger along the way. They joined up together and as they went along they heard a sound like distant thunder, and came upon some strange looking men playing ninepins. After joining them for a drink Rip fell into a deep slumber.
Upon waking he found himself once again on that green knoll where he had first dozed off. Since it was morning he realized that he must have slept there all night. Next to him he found a rusty old gun and his dog had disappeared. He headed back to the village but he met no one along the way.
The village itself was larger and more populous than he remembered it, and there were strangers everywhere. He headed over to his house but found it gone to decay and a half-starved dog waiting there. His nagging wife was nowhere around and the very character of the people in the town had changed. He found himself, then, after twenty years of sleep, "alone in the world." Eventually he meets up with his daughter and her child, and goes to live with them.
Again an afterward is signed D.K. and in it he attests to the absolute truth of this account. "The story therefore," he concludes, "is beyond the possibility of doubt."
In this story of Rip Van Winkle it is shown that change is not always for the better, and that Rip has lost his identity in the time he has been gone. In this world of constantly accelerating change and progress and 'future shock', alienation is a very valid motif in American literature, and has been right from the start. If one should only happen to blink, or to take forty winks, as it were, he might lose his place in time. Unlike the tradition-bound Europeans that have been left behind, Americans are at a loss to find any tradition at all. The American character, again, is just not able to find a place in this world.
As with the Sleepy Hollow story, old Rip returning home reveals the very American tension between the wilderness 'out there', and the civilization he returns to. Between the outer and inner aspects of humankind. Between the one who hunts and the one who works. Between brains and brawn. Here, another theme is added as well - the confusion that change brings in the lives of those who live through it.
In his eulogy to Washington Irving given at the Massachusetts Historical Society in December of 1859 his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke of this author's contribution in these words: "We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters."
Copyright 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.