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 and sometimes 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.
Hanover; Or Persecution of the Lowly
David Bryant Fulton
Published in 1900
Last year I got to chat with John Jeremiah Sullivan. Now, I don’t get to do this often enough. John is one of my favorite people ever, and he is a stunningly talented writer.
We were talking about his collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens, specifically the research work for the much anticipated musical about the events of 1898. During our chat, he started talking about “Hanover; Or the Persecution of the Lowly” by David Bryant Fulton, a.k.a. Jack Thorne. Now, I spend a lot of time introducing people to the events of 1898. I am by no means uninformed on the topic, but somehow this book had gotten past me.
I immediately obtained a copy and then … proceeded to not read it.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
It’s not that I didn’t read it; it’s just hard to pick up a book about 1898. It could be a perfectly ovely day, but I know when I read this, it will ruin any sense of belief I have in basic human decency.
Just to refresh: In 1898 Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only successful government coup on American soil since the American Revolution that included a massacre of the African-American community here. It was premeditated.
There are several books that have been written about the events of 1898 in Wilmington. “Cape Fear Rising” by Phillip Gerard just celebrated the 25th anniversary rerelease of the novel that uses real names and locations for the events. “The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles Chestnut also just had a new release, this time with a Forward by Wiley Cash. Chestnut’s book is one that has long captured my attention: He grew up in Fayetteville, NC, and after moving north attained considerable success as a writer. When he released “The Marrow of Tradition,” within a few years of the events of 1898, William Dena Howells reviewed it, noting it had more justice than mercy in it. Chestnut changed names and made composite characters, so Wilmington became Wellington.
But Fulton’s book is sort of a hybrid of real names and places and fictionalized characters. For example, he discusses Editor Manly, and has characters walking through the neighborhood of Dry Pond, or to the corner of Third and Orange. There are actually parts of it that read like Tom Wolfe; you find yourself wondering how he could be a fly on so many walls. Like Chestnut, he spent early years in Fayetteville. Then he moved to Wilmington for his school years at Willison and Gregory schools (the precursors to the current incarnations). After he moved north and got a job as a pullman car porter, Alex Manley, editor of the Wilmington Record, hired him to chronicle what he encountered traveling the country. He published these observations as “Jack Thorne.” So if you write for the black-owned newspaper that is targeted in a situation like the events of 1898, it is natural you would chronicle what you see to get the story out to a larger group of people.
So I read this slowly. Every page packs a gut punch (or two). It is short, but very dense. He packs a tremendous amount of information into a few short pages and sketches. Unlike Gerard’s book, which follows more traditionally the structure that modern readers associate with a novel, “Hanover” reads like a collection of newspaper dispatches mixed with incredibly intimate short scenes and tableaus. He seeks to show how each strata of society—Aristocrat, servant, public servant, politician, shop keeper, immigrant—behaved in the days leading up to the massacre. He portrays the confusion, the disbelief and the betrayal of the residents of our fair city as the events unfold and the deaths mount. Like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Fulton’s “Hanover” is all the more powerful because of the brevity. However, unlike Chestnut, he provides more action in the aftermath: the city grinding to a halt, the bands of whites from Wilmington going out into the swamps and trying to find the refugees to bring them back, and the exodus in the coming weeks and months from those who had the means to depart northward.
Perhaps what makes both Chestnut’s and Fulton’s books so difficult for me to read comes from the emphatic way they describe the domination by whites. It isn’t just Jim Crow laws, they both paint such painful pictures of daily treachery and disregard, of double standards and piecemeal buying of others’ souls, that it makes me feel sick in my own skin reading it. Though we sit here in the comfort of 2019 looking backward, the fear of the deals we would have made and the rationalizations we would have believed are inescapable. Not only must we learn of the past, but we must apply those lessons to today.