Short News, Literary Agency Edition

War of the Pamphlets. To promote the publication of a new, two-volume reprint collection of Revolutionary era pamphlets, the Library of America has posted an interview with editor Gordon S. Wood. Self-published luminaries Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and John Dickinson make appearances, as does Thomas Paine:

He was our first public intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer.

Run Your Own Race. I love running as a metaphor for writing. There are sprints and long slogs, uphills that burn your quads and downhills that kill your knees, and most of all, the work that no one sees, the runs you put in just to show up. Kristine Kathryn Rusch makes the same analogy, arguing that every writer runs at his or her own pace:

I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.

That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.

Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best.

Affordable Smith. Remember back in 2010 when I complained that inexpensive editions of Clark Ashton Smith’s work were largely unavailable to casual readers interested in learning more about him? Well, after years of financial troubles and improprieties — which finally ended with the company being bought by another publisher — Night Shade Books has begun releasing its five-volume collection of Smith’s work in paperback and for Kindle. Volume One is already out, with the next to appear in January.

NecronomiCon 2015

On Sunday I did something I swore I would never do: I attended a writerly convention.

I’ve mulled attending writers’ cons before but the programming — forums on television shows or movies I’ve never seen or academic panels hashing obtuse literary points — never appealed to me, and the current radioactive climate of genre writing is not an invitation to reconsider my apprehension. But when I learned of NecronomiCon 2015, a celebration of all things H.P. Lovecraft located in Providence, Rhode Island, just two hours up the highway from me, I was tempted. And when I realized NecronomiCon only happens every two years, and moreover 2015 was the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth, I threw down $30 for a day pass and put gas in the car.

I don’t regret it. A panel on Clark Ashton Smith provided a wealth of biographical details I hadn’t known beforehand, and a later discussion on Lovecraft and philosophy, which ranged from existentialism to the Kantian sublime to Schopenhauer, was a hilarious high point of the day. Because a sure way to make a cynic laugh is to point out that Lovecraft’s monster-worshipping cultists were just millennialist Christians in bathrobes: the Rapture is great for them but a horror story for the rest of us.

Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith's love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.
Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.

Over at the marketplace in the convention center, I met the super-nice artist Jason C. Eckhardt, who has done work for Chaosium as well as the illustration for the cans of Innsmouth Olde Ale. He said he had received enormous positive feedback at the con and was considering making prints of the Olde Ale artwork. Narragansett Beer also had a booth; their next offerings in the Lovecraft Series will be the Reanimator — a modification of their helles bock — and, in the winter, the I Am Providence stout. I bought some books and a T-shirt, which I suppose are connish things to do.

Reanimator Helles Lager

Yes, Lovecraft has his issues. But you know what else he has? Fun. As H.L. Mencken wrote,

The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.

I love Lovecraft’s incredible descriptions of New England landscapes, I love his globetrotting mysteries, I love his Jazz Age atmospherics. Decades after first discovering him, I can crack open a Lovecraft story and still thrill as ordinary men become detectives, drawn to uncover dark secrets and cosmic conspiracies at the cost of their lives and sanity. There’s something powerful there, and it was worth $30 and a two-hour drive to reflect upon it for a day.

Democracy on Deck

So the Treasure Was Divided by Howard Pyle, 1905Just because major finds like Whydah and the Queen Anne’s Revenge have been uncovered doesn’t mean there aren’t any more famous ships from the Golden Age of Piracy to track down. Case in point: Joseph Bannister’s Golden Fleece, the search for which is detailed in Robert Kurson’s new book, Pirate Hunters:

Bannister’s story was the catalyst for Messrs. Bowden, Chatterton, and Mattera’s determination to find the Golden Fleece, a quest smoothly described in “Pirate Hunters.” It would be churlish of me to disclose the result, but I can say that the three men become furious with one another, pore over time-worn archives in the U.S. and Europe, and confront armed robbers, money worries, rival divers, a mean barracuda and, perhaps most ominously, changing attitudes toward underwater treasure seekers.

Alas, WSJ reviewer Howard Schneider apparently felt a little dirty enjoying a summer read about high-seas criminality, scolding one of the wreck hunters for glamorizing the Long John Silver lifestyle:

Also problematic are Mr. Mattera’s belief that pirate ships operated on democratic principles. “The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle,” Mr. Kurson summarizes. “At other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasure of the crew.” For Mr. Mattera, Bannister “was a man enthralled by democracy,” and his metamorphosis into a pirate was occasioned by egalitarian idealism.

“[L]et’s not romanticize Joseph Bannister,” Schneider concludes, “Or pirates in general.” Full review here, behind the paywall.

Setting aside Bannister’s precise motivations, Schneider needn’t be so skeptical about Mattera’s claims; the fact that many buccaneer vessels were floating republics has been well documented. The command structure was exactly as Mattera described, and pirate constitutions included workers’ compensation and equitable sharing of prizes, with officers and skilled craftsmen earning more than common sailors but not enough to incite jealousy. The system was so successful it was still used among privateers during the Revolution. From Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer (pp. 91-92):

It is remarkable what little difference stands between Smedley’s covenant with his sailors and those from the golden age of piracy. Loss of an arm or leg, “or be otherwise so disabled as not to earn his Bread,” was compensated with £1,000 onboard Hibernia. Under his English letter of marque, Henry Morgan granted “six hundred pieces of eight or six slaves” for a lost leg or hand. With Smedley, “[W]hoever shall first enter an Enemy’s Ship, after orders for boarding is issued, he shall receive three hundred pounds as a Recompense for his Valour.” Morgan rewarded the same with 50 pieces of eight. And, as captain, Smedley was entitled to eight shares of the half-prize awarded to officers and crew — the exact same portion given to captains sailing under Morgan’s flag a century prior.

Recognition that 17th- and early 18th-century pirate vessels were islands of democracy in a sea of autocratic empire explains why pirates had such an easy time recruiting sailors. A poor young man standing on the docks of London or another European port didn’t have many options. He could toil in the fields or streets living hand to mouth; or sell himself into indentured servitude in the colonies. Either way he had almost no chance of ever accruing enough capital to buy land or start a business, which were the only real paths to bettering himself. Many opted for the relative security of three hots and a berth onboard a ship but then had to suffer the sadistic discipline of the navy or, worse, the sadistic discipline and starvation rations of the merchant marine. Admiralty archives burst with transcripts of those who leapt to join pirate crews when overtaken, and pirates devised cunning ways to disguise this volunteerism in case they should later be apprehended and tried in court. As Peter Leeson observes in The Invisible Hook (pp. 154-155):

Contrary to popular perception, most pirates were volunteers, not conscripts. Pirates sought willing companions instead of forced men because of simple cost-benefit considerations, not because of a principled objection to using force to get what they wanted. On the one hand, in many cases pirates simply didn’t have to resort to coercion to increase their numbers. The better treatment and opportunity for vastly superior pay on pirate ships was plenty incentive for many sailors to sign on under the black flag when given the opportunity. The benefit of conscripting ordinary sailors was therefore quite low. On the other hand, the costs of pressing sailors could be very large. … They could escape, informing authorities, or leaving the remaining crew too small to take advantage of the ship. Even if conscripts didn’t manage to escape, a crew with a sizable portion of forced men was less likely to succeed since conscripts didn’t have the same incentive to participate as volunteers.

Often only surgeons and skilled craftsmen were pressed into pirate service and that was because their incomes were already secure; they had more to lose than gain by going on the account. But the exact opposite was true for common sailors.

So Mr. Schneider, the next time you pull up your skirts and stand on a chair at the sight of someone extolling the benefits of fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, imagine this scenario:

You are at your bullpen desk, tapping away at your latest review, when a group of Rikers Island inmates bursts in, clad in orange jumpsuits, tattooed and pierced and armed six ways to Wednesday. Some are murderers and rapists but all are thieves as they proceed to loot the Journal offices. This done, they then ask for volunteers — and to your marveling eyes, interns and receptionists and copy boys and Starbucks runners scramble to join. And why? Because the lives of these people you’ve ignored and mistreated are so awful that running off with a gang of thugs is an improvement for them.

That’s the Golden Age of Piracy in a nutshell. To acknowledge good things about Bellamy and Blackbeard isn’t to praise pirates — it’s to condemn the world that fashioned them.

Top image: So the Treasure Was Divided by the inimitable Howard Pyle, 1905.

Short News, Literary Pretensions Edition

The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.

It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:

She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.

Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.

“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”

Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.

A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

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JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!