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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Stewart Crenshaw, American Icon

As published at Unz Review, 7/18/16:





More than a century after his death, Stewart Crenshaw still provokes endless debates. With a single sublime or hypocritical decision, Crenshaw forever affixed himself to American history. Like Billy the Kid, Tokyo Rose, Muhammad Ali, or Jeffrey Dahmer, Crenshaw is an American icon, but whereas the others had to become outlaws to insinuate themselves into our consciousness, Crenshaw was never a criminal. Although he enslaved himself, he was never imprisoned. What Crenshaw did only went against the most deeply held beliefs of his time, and maybe even of our own.

In Friarspoint, Mississippi, Stewart Crenshaw is a cottage industry. There, his name graces (or defaces) just about every large building. Gift stores sell Crenshaw T-shirts, key chains, whips, banjos, chains and mugs. There is a Crenshaw Diner where you can order a daily special of cornmeal, half a pig’s foot and a glass of water ($3.95). Crenshaw’s rather generic face is immortalized with a bronze bust behind the beautiful courthouse.

Every day, dozens of buses carry thousands of tourists (mostly from Mobile, Alabama and from Japan) to the Crenshaw Plantation. The majority will ignore the big manor house to crowd into the ramshackle hut at the very edge of the property. Within its dim, narrow confines, they can jostle each other to take fuzzy pictures of the blanket on which Crenshaw spent countless nights groaning in happiness after another insufferable day spent out in the field hacking sugarcanes in 100 degree weather. They can examine his boots, hammer, felt hat, wooden spoon, nails and sickle.

A small plaque on the wall encapsulates Crenshaw’s biography for the ignorant and the forgetful:

Stewart Crenshaw was born in 1802 in Savannah, Georgia. His father owned an ironwork and young Crenshaw grew up amid luxuries and a dozen books. In 1828, both his parents died in a fire. Crenshaw sold the family business and moved to Friarspoint, where he bought 300 acres of uncultivated land (the very ground you’re standing on). On this property Crenshaw built what he thought was a Georgian house, a smoke house, a barn, a stable and slave quarters.

Situated on a small rise, the Big House is distinguished for its axes of symmetry, straight lines and deceptive angles. The long gravel road that leads to the twelve steps that leads to the colonnaded porch is shaded by two rows of cypresses. Spanish mosses, magnolias and rose bushes grace the surrounding gardens.

Crenshaw was no farmer but he knew enough to decide that the black soil on his land would be ideal for sugarcane. He went out and bought 20 slaves, men, women and children, at just over $700 a head, all belonging to one extended family. Then he did something that would shock an entire nation. Crenshaw told his new slaves that the Big House, and everything in it, was theirs to keep. He would move to a hut on the fringe of his own property.

The patriarch of the slave family was a man named Ezekiel Moses. Moses could not understand Crenshaw’s bizarre decision. He was certain that this man was playing a trick on him. As soon as they took over the Big House, all hell would break loose. Angry white men would rush over from the town to tie them to individual stakes then set them on fire.

Crenshaw reassured Moses: “I just paid $15,000 for you’all. Why would I allow them to burn my property?”

Moses stared into Creshaw’s grinning blue eyes: “But why are you doing this?”

“Because I am your master. As a master, I can demand that you become my master. I have the right to be your slave.”

“To be a slave is not a right,” Moses corrected him, smirking.

“But you’re wrong, my friend. Being a slave is the only right a man has.”

Moses knew he was talking to a fool. He would have laughed in this fool’s face if he wasn’t so angry at him for making a mockery of his people’s misery. Moses spat on the ground: “So how long is this game gonna last?”

“It’s not a game, my friend.”

“Are you my slave at this moment?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then stop calling me friend.”

Moses waited a night to move his family into the Big House. For the first week, they confined themselves to a single room next to the kitchen. The vast manor house was taken over room by room. It took Moses’ clan nearly half a year to possess the entire structure.

Standing on the front porch each morning, Moses could see Crenshaw working by himself out in the field, a tiny figure half hidden in the canes. The pale man hardly knew what he was doing. One of Moses’ sons would run out periodically to show Crenshaw the basics of sugarcane farming. After sunset, someone would bring him rice, beans and chicken gizzards. Crenshaw supplemented his meager diet by growing spinach and cabbage on a thin patch. Even without an overseer, he would work from sunup to sundown every day but Sundays.

Word soon got out of Crenshaw’s strange behavior. Every day there was a mob outside the front gate. They did not dare scale the fence because Crenshaw had warned them, very loudly, that anyone who did so would be shot on sight. (Moses had lent him a shotgun for the occasion.) Among the merely curious and the hostile were abolitionists who extolled (or slandered) Crenshaw as a saint. “He’s doing penance for your sins!” they would shout over the hoots and jeers. Newspapers from all over the country, and even a few from Europe, sent hundreds of reporters, but Crenshaw would grant none of them an interview.

Moses was not so reticent, however. Initially frightened by the volatile mob just outside his front gate, he gradually became used to their angry and joyous presence. At first he would stand in the window of the master bedroom on the second floor, peeking at the rabble through a tiny crack in the curtains. Then he would banter with them while standing on his front porch. Finally Moses would sit on a large chair just inside the wrought iron fence to answer their questions.

“Is Crenshaw a fool, Mr. Moses?”

“He’s very brave.”

“He must be mad!”

“He’s also a genius.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Only a genius can create a new paradigm.”

“Can you repeat that?”

“A new paradigm.”

“How are you treating him?”

“Like a son.”

“Is he getting enough to eat?”

“I wouldn’t want to starve him.”

“What does he do in his spare time?”

“He prays.”

“What else does he do?”

“He sings and he writes”

“He writes?!”

‘Yes, he writes.”

“What does he write?”

“A slave narrative.”

“By oil lamp?”

“By candlelight.”

“You allow him to do that?”

“I have nothing to hide.”

“Does he complain much?”

“He’s always cheerful.”

“But he can’t be happy!”

“He is lonely.”

“Does he need a wife?”

“No, other slaves.”

“Why don’t you buy him some?”

“He doesn’t believe in miscegenation.”

Although the novelty of a white man slaving for a black man never wore out completely, the crowd eventually thinned until there were usually no more than a dozen spectators a day. Some days there were none. Crenshaw and Moses were allowed to return to the tedium and solipsism of their respective lives. The years passed . . .

Can a slave actually think in years? Not very likely. A slave cannot even think in days. One cannot conceive of a future one has no part in planning.

As Crenshaw got up each morning, he would feel nothing but dread, bordering on nausea. Sometimes he would throw up the miserable food he had eaten the previous night. He really could not believe what was ahead of him. Through the entire morning, he could only think of the cornmeal awaiting him at lunch. At some point in the early afternoon, however, Crenshaw would snap into a sudden calmness. His guilt, anxieties and self-pity would all be gone. His mind would be so limpid it could range over everything. For maybe half an hour Crenshaw could forget he was a slave. But the late afternoon brought with it an even more intense dread than the early morning.

As Crenshaw lay on his itchy blanket late at night, his past would return to him as an appalling fantasy. It was always swarming with phrases and body parts. Savannah would be remembered as a brightly-lit street, then as a dim house, then as a tiny basement room. The twelve books he had read would be reduced to the word “book.”

Once, Crenshaw thought he would just march into the house and shout, “Game’s over.” I’ll teach that damn Moses a lesson! He didn’t do this, however, not because he had given Moses his word but because it would ruin his self-portrait. It would cheapen this story.

Living in the Big House, walking on carpet among the mahogany furniture, Moses refused to feel smug or vindicated. Any radical change in one’s circumstances normally brings with it an embarrassed disavowal of the past and the realization that here, finally, is the truth. But Moses’ composure did not allow him to become giddy over a mere reversal of fortunes. Though his present already felt more real, more authentic, than his past, he wasn’t sure which was more of a mistake. When he was a slave, Moses would think, wistfully and desperately, that even his life had to count as human experience. He even thought that any life could be taken to represent human experience as a whole. Now he knew, once and for all, that any man’s life is totally arbitrary and represents absolutely nothing.

Moses’ enjoyment of his new life was also sharpened and soured by flashes of anger. He never forgot that he was still legally, and essentially, a slave.

Although Moses and Crenshaw lived within sight of each other, they never entered one another’s houses and they never exchanged more than a few words. Whatever either one said sounded like mimicry to the other. They may have swapped lives, but they still could not enter each other’s universes.

When Moses was still a (real) slave, he could take paths through the woods to meet clandestinely with other slaves from nearby plantations. Now he was trapped within his own home. His world had actually shrunk. If he walked out the gate he would be considered a runaway and hunted down like an animal. Neither free nor truly a slave, Crenshaw and Moses were bound to each other for life.

In rare, bitter moments, Moses would curse Crenshaw for denying him the moral high ground, and the dignity, of being a slave, while still enslaving him.

In his rare, bitter moments, Crenshaw would curse Moses for denying him the moral high ground, and the dignity, of being a slave, while still enslaving him.

A real slave or not, Crenshaw felt slave enough. His existence as a slave became so relentless, so familiar, so inevitable, that he gradually came to think of it as the natural condition of man. Being a slave became synonymous with life itself.

On an April afternoon in 1861, Crenshaw decided to take a nap after lunch. He had never shirked work like that before. His last glimpse of this earth was of a starling flitting across a cloudless sky. His last thought was, I deserve this. Moses would not discover Crenshaw’s corpse lying on the ground until three or fours days later.

Moses went more conventionally. He died of a heart attack at dawn on January 31, 1865.

In spite of what Moses claimed, it is not at all clear if Crenshaw ever wrote a slave narrative. No authentic manuscript has been discovered. Within a year after Crenshaw’s death, more than a dozen volumes were published, all purported to be his autobiography. The heftiest one leveled off at just under three thousand pages. The slimmest: a five-page pamphlet. Among the unlikely titles were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Absalom! Absalom!, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Joy Luck Club.

Moses stridently denounced all these absurd books as travesties of his slave’s tragic and magnificent life. As a real slave, however, he had no legal claims over his fake slave’s intellectual properties. At each opportunity, he would brandish a ream of mud-smeared manuscripts as the only authentic writings of Stewart Crenshaw. No one took him seriously. It was obvious to all those who had a chance to glean through their messy contents that Moses was the true author.


[from Blood and Soap (New York: Seven Stories Press 2004)]




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6 comments:

my name is link said...

"Dinh's gift is for constructing, in the manner of Italo Calvino, simple narratives that quickly frame larger questions; with a poet's timing, the author builds his stories to the one or few climactic sentences that brand them with unforgettable meaning."

Calvino? Give me a break.
I am not aware of anytime in his life Calvino didn't tell/write the most convenient lie that was available.
You could see that the meaner the lie, the straighter his face in stating it.
He made a great career in politics, placing himself in the leftmost wing of the PCI — exactly what was needed then to "intellectuals". We are talking of the area that glorified the Stalins, the Tze Dongs and Pol Pots.

And that's why, like Umberto Eco (a kind of moral heir of his), he's far more renowned abroad than real great writers (Pirandello, Verga, Pascoli, Quasimodo, and so on and so on).
I can't think of a character as far from Dinh as Calvino.

my name is link said...

Exactly the kind of person who spent most of the time he wasn't savouring champagne and caviar in reproaching others — incidentally: the very people he surrounded himself with — on grounds of their "privilege".

It's irritating how history always rewards the most skilled among the masked mimers.
There is a rather wide number of real deep writers, poets, philosophers in the 20th century's Italy, but all they can come to hear abroad is clowns. The cheapest among the clowns.

LJansen said...

Hi, Linh. Do you consider yourself an absurdist? Not being schooled in literary styles, that is what this story made me think of. Hopefully, that question is not insulting, the last thing I want to be. Linda

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Linda,

Although the farcical is an undercurrent in my fiction and poetry, I'd not call myself an absurdist, simply because, nearly always, I'm striving for social and political meaning.

In Blood and Soap, this search for a more hidden, more nuanced and, at times, paradoxical order can be seen most clearly in stories such as "Prisoner with a Dictionary," "Stewart Crenshaw," "My Grandfather, the Exceptional," "Elvis Phong is Dead" and "'!'" The last is undoubtedly the best short story I've written.


Linh

LJansen said...

Hello, Linh. I think my favorite was "The Plane Ride," with the idea that leaving the ground and looking down on the "tiny pains.".

The imagery in all of the stories was so compelling, with little bits of humor to lubricate the flow.

Well, I'm not a reviewer, but I did try writing down brief reactions to each story. I think you would be totally bored by reading them.

I hesitate to say so, but it was like the box of chocolates to me ...

Linda

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Linda,

I don't write for reviewers or other writers. I write for the people I'd enjoy having a beer with. If you feel like like sending your reactions, I'd love to read them.

Cheers!


Linh

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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.