Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
By Johnson Jones Hooper
Southern Classic Series
“Why don’t you write a review of a book you really hate?” Jock postulated one evening. “Like anything by Joseph Conrad?”
He has endured the better part of two decades of me complaining that Conrad’s hands should have been cut off before he was allowed to write or publish anything. Rivets! Who the fuck cares about two pages of lamenting rivets?
“I’ve been there, Gwen,” my friend John Wolfe nodded and confirmed. “That’s real. Waiting for one small thing in a boat yard.” He chuckled. “Yeah. Real.”
Generally, for me, anyone who loves Conrad and has a XX chromosome … well, we are probably not going to be close friends. We just will not agree on enough to make it worthwhile.
Rather than a book I really hate, I would like to put forth a book I struggle with: “Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs” by Johnson Jones Hooper.
Readers can drive up Market Street and see the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker (the grey and black signs on roadsides) for Captain Simon Suggs. His is right in front of the tennis courts for New Hanover High School.
I grew up in the Hooper House. We are only the second family to own it, having purchased in the 1980s when the matriarch passed. As a result, I have had a long and tangential interest in the Hooper family in North Carolina.
William Hooper, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from North Carolina (his Historical Marker is on Third Street, between Market and Princess), is the big star for the family. But they produced a number of successful people throughout generations. One of his nephews, Johnson Jones, became a celebrated humorist in the first half of the 1800s.
A lot of my childhood was spent putting together pieces of their lives they left in the house when we moved in. I knew they were influential in the Republican Party, at least money-wise because pictures of the family with Republican political leaders from the mid-20th century told as much. They loomed large over us: Everything in the house had been built, added on to and chosen, based around their growing family needs and wants. For the white, liberal carpet baggers from the North that my parents represented, it was an endless source of mild confusion and embarrassment: We lived in a house that made the reality of Jim Crow inescapable.
My home is an old Southern mansion with a kitchen designed for several servants to work in and of course a servants’ commode on the back porch. I don’t think I have to spell out the euphemism, do I?
There were servant’s bells in the dining room and master bedroom. The mysterious locked closet on the back porch was finally revealed to house the liquor and cigars. We still have an easement in the deed across the next-door neighbor’s yard for the servants to cross. There were no laundry facilities because they sent their laundry out to be done. (This was the first time I encountered the idea of a laundry service; as an adult I might not be able to afford it but I love it in theory!)
But I was too young to understand or feel much one way or the other about most of it. I also was the only member of our family born in the South who had never known another home. So the puzzle pieces were just that: puzzle pieces. I was solving the riddle and discovering the story of who these people were. Like most things I encountered from “long ago and far away,” they were just a story. We didn’t live like that; just ask my mother. After two years, her beautiful house became “the thing that would never be completely clean all at once.” Who can dust that much, wash that many floors and work a 40-hour week?
So, for a long time, I have been meaning to sit down and read the Simon Suggs stories. Simon Suggs was popular prior to the Civil War. He has been cited many times as the inspiration to Mark Twain and William Faulkner—especially Faulkner’s Snopes stories, a sort of unusually principled con-man. It’s not his fault people fall for his schemes (or that sometimes his schemes fall apart around him).
Hooper had moved to Alabama by that time and writes a remarkable reproduction of the dialect of the area. It can take a little while to get your brain to flip the switch and make the leap, but, much like reading Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” you just have to give it your brain a bit and it will make the jump. The thing is, Johnson Jones Hooper was rabidly political. He could not calm down or be controlled. Much of that was channeled into his newspaper editorials, but his fiction is only a vaguely, thinly veiled satire of the time he was living in. A lot of the messages, themes and depictions are inescapably hard to deny.
165 years later, the world has changed and moved on, thankfully. But, as a sketch of the time, as an example of how the political debate was approached and communicated and handled, it is invaluable.
We tend to view people in the past with very simplistic measurement: If I agree with you, you go in this box. If I don’t agree with you, you go in that box. The complicated process of being human is just that: complex. I don’t agree with Johnson’s views, but, as a representative from his time, he is fascinating.
That’s what makes the stories intriguing to look though the door to the mind at work during the Jackson, Polk and early Lincoln administrations. It is in many ways a primary document of their environments but with a plot and characters who are surprisingly intriguing in a variety of ways.
It is not hard to see the line drawn to Twain, Faulkner, and I would argue to Erskine Caldwell. I admit: I probably would never have picked up the book, were it not for the many generations back connections to my house. But, for a deeper understanding of the time, I am glad I did.