February 1837, outside St Petersburg
The bullet had no will, only a purpose, and it could not fulfill it alone. There was an eye that sighted along the barrel of the gun (if the bullet could see, it would see the same dark silhouette framed and reflected in the polished smooth bore), a finger that tightened on the trigger, a flint poised above the pan, and a trail of black powder from the pan to the chamber. Above all, there was a man who held the gun, who felt like a god wielding, for the moment, awesome power. Awesome, but not supreme.
The bullet felt no exhilaration (but the man did) as the trigger broke, as the flint fell toward the striker, as the sparks fell to the pan, as the powder caught and flared and burned its way into the chamber, just behind the bullet.
The bullet felt no disappointment as the trace of moisture in the powder slowed its combustion just enough so that the bullet was already moving before the last of the powder flashed into incandescent gas.
The bullet felt nothing at all as it fell to the ice moving just fast enough to bounce a few times, then roll and come to rest inches in front of the boot of the dark man it was meant to kill. It felt no apprehension as the dark man fired back; it felt no guilt as its late owner collapsed into the snow, his blood a scarlet stain that no one saw because a second later it melted through the crust and hid itself from sharply slanting sunlight.
The survivor, oddly, felt nothing for the longest second of his life; then something like pain, as life with which he made his farewell returned like blood to thawing hand, and with it all the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Of the two men, the survivor was by far the better read. His name was Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin; he was thirty-seven years old; he spoke six languages; he was Russia’s greatest poet; and he wanted to go home.
That was the other surprise (a smaller one, to be sure, than the sheer astonishment of finding himself alive): he did not want to go to to a tavern or a gaming house where at this hour, barely past sunrise, games of hazard would still be going strong amid cups of wine constantly refilled, and other kinds of revels would be just beginning. He did not want to celebrate with old friends or new-minted acquaintances, with long-time mistresses or starry-eyed girls with whom his dark deep hooded eyes, brooding hawklike face dark even in the dead of winter, and quick sardonic wit had irresistible success. He did not have a clever quatrain or a sophisticated sonnet ready to commemorate the occasion.
He only wanted to go home to his wife.
– The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
Ulysses-like, the world he wandered,
As his heart ached and his soul bled.
On roads, his horses’ hooves had thundered,
On seas, wind whistled overhead.
The Pantheon, the Tow’r of Pisa,
The Sphinx, the Pyramids of Giza,
The stately palaces on Rhine,
The snow and ice in lands Alpine –
He looked without really seeing,
Another sight stayed in his mind:
How Lensky looked at him and died,
As bullet’s strike had set him reeling.
– A. S. Pushkin, The Journeys of Onegin, London, 1844
Do you not, with each word, each embrace, create a monster? Not only the child of your body who may destroy you with unkind words or unjust deeds, but do you not see the monster looking out at you from the eyes of every man you kiss? Do you not hear his roar in the words of contrition from every servant you upbraid? I curse Frankenstein not for creating me; I curse him for being a man, for men create things, and women beings. Were I of a woman created, no one could call me a thing.
– Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Heir of Frankenstein, London, 1846
“What I will tell you, no one yet knows,” Pushkin said. “In truth, there’s much I do not understand.”
Gogol shrugged. “There’s very little in life of which I can claim comprehension. Tell me if you wish; I will not judge.”
“The night before the duel I went to the Kazan Cathedral,” said Pushkin, “I thought a prayer there might help me as it helped our soldiers before they faced Napoleon’s horde.”
Gogol nodded, recalling the oft-repeated tale.
“There was a beggar on the steps,” Pushkin continued. “A ragged, mad, old Gypsy woman. She seized my coat; I felt her shiver and reached for a kopeck in my pocket. She took it and looked into my eyes. ‘I see your fate,’ she said, and sang:
‘Muscina, zhenscina, svinets,
Ot nih pridet tebe konets’.”
“Bozhe moi,” exclaimed Gogol. “My God! ‘Man, woman, lead/Of them you will be dead?!’ To hear this before a duel — you must have…”
“I felt no fear,” Pushkin interrupted. “Fear is for those who have doubts. I knew I would die, there was no reason to worry; even the little hope I had that caused my heart to flutter now and then when I considered D’Anthes’ reputation — even that was gone. Fear is a colt by Doubt out of Hope, and neither had been present in my stable by the morning.”
Pushkin’s words came quickly, as if untold the memories fermented to a pressure such as no champagne cork ever held back. In giving memories voice he also gave them leave:
“The sleigh ride to the river, the seconds’ words, the pacing off — these I do not remember; but I will never forget the black, malevolent eye of D’Anthes’ pistol erupt in fire. Yet nothing struck me. I raised my pistol and fired at once. For a moment I thought I missed too; then D’Anthes sank slowly to his knees.”
Pushkin paused to regain his breath.
“The homeward journey took me along Nevsky Prospekt, past the same cathedral. The mad beggarwoman was gone; the morning light suffused the cupola, sparking off the gilded dome, and, though undoubtedly alive, I could not rid me of the thought that the prophesy was true, and so remained.”
Gogol crossed himself, a quick Ukrainian gesture rather than the broad, slow Russian one.
– The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
I have many times attempted to write my great-grandfather’s story, yet its plain facts are so fantastic as to seem a delirious dream when plainly put down. Now in exile I face my private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern: along with my beleaguered country and my faithless wife, I have had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the rhyme, the music of the language, the clever pun, the reversed word order that in Russian gives a phrase a subtly altered meaning but in English turns it into gibberish, the implied associations and traditions — which the native author can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way — having, as I said, surrendered this advantage, why do I now embark upon this endeavour? Perhaps it is the distance from my ancestral home that makes me see more clearly its builder; perhaps it is my own homeless peregrinations that are akin his own; perhaps it is my own loves lost and loves found that makes me see his — that I may now write the book of his life.
My great-grandfather, a Negro named Abraham Hannibal, whose born name and true ancestry are forever lost, was given in his youth as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great during his journey to Constantinople. The Tsar arranged for his education, in arts, sciences, languages, and military affairs. Abraham first married a woman who loathed him, at the command of his Sovereign, then a German princess who loved him at the command of his heart. He rose in the military service to the rank of General-En-Chef, and was given a patent of nobility and a village of serfs by the Empress Catherine as a reward for meritorious service. At his death, one of his sons was an admiral. In my native country, the story is known to everyone and would surprise no one; but as many times as I told it in English I have received wide-eyed looks that I am certain were reserved for Bedlamites.
At Invalides in Paris I found the records of his education as an infantry officer; the fortress of Narva stands as he built it on Russia’s western border; on the island of Navarone, his son’s daring landing in the Turkish wars is remembered; my great-grandfather was not imagined by me, as Onegin, the Russian everyman, had been, and yet only now am I able to write his tale.
– A. S Pushkin, The Moor of Peter the Great, London, 1845
July 1838, Via Sistina, Rome
“I can never go home again,” said Pushkin.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol nodded with understanding. “I have heard… Letters, traveling acquaintances stopping by… Your wife, running to D’Anthes’ deathbed, crying in public at his funeral…”
“I opened my door,” Pushkin said. “Natasha ran to me. She was frightened. I thought she was frightened for my safety. She searched my face, and then I watched as her own face — melted and recast itself into a mold I’d never seen before, a mask of — hatred, and anger, and — of disappointment. She threw on a coat and started pulling on her boots. I don’t know why I felt I had to apologize. I muttered something about having better luck while he was the better shot. ‘He was the better man,’ my wife shouted, slamming the door. Later in the day, friends came. The Tsar was heard to mutter something that amounted to ‘Will no one rid me of this tiresome blackamoor?’ And here I am, a blackamoor who no longer has a home. Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris — all places are the same to me now. Rome, too; perhaps a better place than most, since you are here.”
“If there exists a country in the world in which suffering, sorrow, death and one’s own impotence are forgotten, that place is Rome: what would become of me elsewhere?” said Gogol, waving his arms as always when making a pronouncement, hyperbole attending his speech as subtlety his writing. “Italy is mine! No one can take it away from me. I was born here. Russia, St. Petersburg, snow, scoundrels, teaching the theatre: that was all a dream. I woke up anew in my homeland.”
Pushkin turned to look about the room, its window facing west catching at last the rays of setting sun. Gogol’s squalid, airless chamber belied his praise. The smallest gap between the shutters let in a shaft of light that, having sparked the plentiful dust suspended in the air into a faerie incandescence, struck the papers on Gogol’s desk like a frozen thunderbolt. Unlike the rest of the room, hidden in murk, the half-completed page shone with reflected light as Gogol’s words upon it, in cramped Cyrillic hand, shone with his brilliance.
“Dead Souls,” Gogol said. “You gave me the idea to write it, back in St Petersburg, but it has since then taken a life of its own. I see the characters, speak to them, they answer back; it is like The Inspector General all over again, but I’m afraid no one will ever read it. I don’t know if it will get past the censors; it was a close run for Inspector, and it hardly even mentions souls — slaves, that is. Sometimes –”
Gogol stood motionless, his sad wet eyes looking at Pushkin, arms at his sides as when he told the bare unembroidered truth — “Sometimes I despair. And I have no wish to return. It is not possible for beautiful souls to live in Russia, only pigs can keep their heads above water there,” he said, raising his hands. “But, mostly, I am happy. In Rome, my soul is luminous. I am working and I try with all my strength to bring my book speedily towards its end. Life, life, a little bit more life!”
“A little bit more life,” Pushkin said slowly. “What words can be more fitting for my own device?”
– The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
With that Plunkett donned his spectacles, and once more started to rummage in the cupboard, and to smother his guest with dust as he untied successive packages of papers — so much so that his victim burst out sneezing. Finally he extracted a much-scribbled document in which the names of the deceased slaves lay as close-packed as a cloud of midges, for there were a hundred and twenty of them in all. Chester grinned with joy at the sight of the multitude. Stuffing the list into his pocket, he remarked that, to complete the transaction, it would be necessary to return to the town.
“To the town?” repeated Plunkett. “But why? How could I leave the house, seeing that every one of my servants is either a thief or a rogue? Day by day they pilfer things, until soon I shall have not a single coat to hang on my back.”
“Then you possess acquaintances in the town?”
“Acquaintances? No. Every acquaintance whom I ever possessed has either left me or is dead. But stop a moment. I do know the banker. Even in my old age he has once or twice come to visit me, for he and I used to be schoolfellows. Yes, him I do know. Shall I write him a letter?”
“By all means.”
“Yes, him I know well, for we were friends together at school.”
Over Plunkett’s wooden features there had gleamed a ray of warmth — a ray which expressed, if not feeling, at all events feeling’s pale reflection. Just such a phenomenon may be witnessed when, for a brief moment, a drowning man makes a last re-appearance on the surface of a river, and there rises from the crowd lining the banks a cry of hope that even yet the exhausted hands may clutch the rope which has been thrown him — may clutch it before the surface of the unstable element shall have resumed for ever its calm, dread vacuity. But the hope is short-lived, and the hands disappear. Even so did Plunkett’s face, after its momentary manifestation of feeling, become meaner and more insensible than ever.
– Dead Souls, by N. V. Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe. Richmond, Virginia, 1850
The fear in the man’s eyes was a sight familiar to me; yet, where others had fled with this fear, or attacked me with it, the black-skinned man did neither. He fell to his knees before me. “Oh, help me, help me,” he cried, over and over. In the woods there appeared first a straw hat and a musket tip, and presently a man bearing both appeared from behind the briars. The black man turned; the fear was obviously directed at the newcomer. The latter unslung his musket and aimed at me. I looked back, unafraid. Having been wounded before, with less reason, the musket-ball tearing my flesh held no terror for me.
– Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Frankenstein Unchained, Richmond, Virginia, 1849
1848, Bronte household, Branwell’s funeral
Upon the curate a frightening change had come. He held a hunting gun with hands as firm and as implacable as his face, his stance speaking of intimate familiarity with the weapon. It occurred to me that, as targets, we were far larger than grouse, and far less mobile.
“Next one who moves is dead,” Mr Bronte said. “I buried my son today. You’ll not be taking my daughters.”
We stopped. We stood in silence for what seemed an eternity. Then Pushkin raised his hands and stepped forward. “You only have one shot, Patrick,” he said gently, “Yet with it you could take four lives. Look, sir, at your daughters. Look: what pale, thin, barely living wraiths they have become upon these pestilent moors; they’ll not survive the winter. If slake you must your anger, shoot me, sir; I’ll gladly join your son in Yorkshire ground, if such is my destiny, but I pray, sir: let thy daughters go. I see in every one of them such greatness as few dream of. Shoot me, and let them have…a little bit more life.”
I stepped forward at these words. “Pushkin speaks wisely, Reverend,” I said. “Mark his words, I pray.”
“What can he do?” said Mr Bronte bitterly. “Set against Fate, what can one man do?”
“What if it’s Providence,” I said, “that brought us here?”
The longest second of my life was spent in contemplation of the levelled gun ere its barrel descended.
– Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Journeys and Peregrinations, Richmond, Virginia, 1850
“Everything has been carried through in due form!” he cried. “The man whom I mentioned is a genius indeed, and I intend not only to promote him over the rest, but also to create for him a special Department. Herewith shall you hear what a splendid intellect is his, and how in a few minutes he has put the whole affair in order.”
“May the Lord be thanked for that!” thought Chester. Then he settled himself while the Colonel read aloud:
“‘After giving full consideration to the Reference which you had entrusted to me, I have the honour to report as follows:
“‘(1) In the Statement of Plea presented by one Paul Chester, Gentleman of Virginia, there lurks an error, in that an oversight has led the Petitioner to apply to Revisional Slaves the term “Dead.” Now, from the context it would appear that by this term the Petitioner desires to signify Slaves Approaching Death rather than Souls Actually Deceased: wherefore the term employed betrays such an empirical instruction in letters as must, beyond doubt, have been confined to the Grammar School.’
“The rascal!” Calhoun broke off to exclaim delightedly. “He has got you there, Mr Chester. And you will admit that he has a sufficiently incisive pen?
“‘(2) It shall therefore be recorded that in the county of Gorman there now reside 10,124 slaves owned by Mr Chester, whether Approaching Death or Otherwise; for the reason that all Negroes shall be counted as three fifth of a white man, according to Article 1 Section 2 sub 3 of our Constitution, the population of the County of Gorman now stands at 7,143 for the purposes of the Census of 1840, the said County has not enough persons to become a Virginia Congressional District.”
“Why did you not tell me all this before?” cried Chester furiously. “Why you have kept me dancing about for nothing?”
“Because it was absolutely necessary that you should view the matter through forms of documentary process. This is no jest on my part. The inexperienced may see thingssubconsciously, yet is imperative that he should also see them consciously.”
But to Chester’s patience an end had come. Seizing his cap, and casting all ceremony to the winds, he fled from the house, and rushed through the courtyard. As it happened, the man who had driven him thither had, warned by experience, not troubled even to take out the horses, since he knew that such a proceeding would have entailed not only the presentation of a Statement of Plea for fodder, but also a delay of twenty-four hours until the Resolution granting the same should have been passed. Nevertheless the Colonel pursued his guest to the gates, and pressed his hand warmly as he thanked him for having enabled him (the Colonel) thus to exhibit in operation the proper management of a census. Also, he begged to state that, under the circumstances, it was absolutely necessary to keep things moving and circulating, since, otherwise, slackness was apt to supervene, and the working of the machine to grow rusty and feeble; but that, in spite of all, the present occasion had inspired him with a happy idea — namely, the idea of instituting a Committee which should be entitled “The Committee of Supervision of the Committee of Management,” and which should have for its function the detection of backsliders among the body first mentioned.
– Dead Souls, by N. V. Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe. Richmond, Virginia, 1850
April 5. — I am almost devoured by ennui. Pundit is the only conversible person on board; and he, poor soul! can speak of nothing but antiquities. He has been occupied all the day in the attempt to convince me that the ancient Amriccans governed themselves! — did ever anybody hear of such an absurdity? — that they existed in a sort of every-man-for-himself confederacy, after the fashion of the ‘prairie dogs’ that we read of in fable. He says that they started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz.: that all men are born free and equal — excepting the Negro slaves, of course — this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly impressed upon all things both in the moral and physical universe. Every man ‘voted’, as they called it — that is to say, meddled with public affairs — until, at length, it was discovered that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes, by means of which any desired number of votes might at any time be polled, without the possibility of prevention or even detection, by any party which should be merely villainous enough not to be ashamed of the fraud. A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate — in a word, that a republican government could never be anything but a rascally one. With this Pundit readily agreed, saying that after only fourscore and ten years of such foolishness Amriccans lit upon another scheme of government, to wit: each slave owner would elect a slave and send him to the government; and the slaves would govern, and each week all free white men would vote on whether the governors would be rewarded, with molasses cakes and whisky, or whipped; at which I wondered aloud why we see no evidence of Amriccans in the world today, for a government so organized should last an eternity.
– Edgar Allan Poe, Mellonta Tauta, Richmond, Virginia, 1851
There is no question but that slavery is enshrined in our Constitution; yet the intent of our Founding Fathers is clear from their injunction against slave trading after 1808. Slavery had been an economic necessity in those difficult times, but the Founding Fathers foresaw, indeed desired, its end.
The Founding Fathers did not usurp to themselves the infallibility that, by rights, belongs to Providence alone. The falsehood of their opinion of the Negro as an unfortunate race fit for slavery and no more has been amply demonstrated. There are, indeed, persons for whom slavery as a way of life is the only reasonable condition, but this can hardly be determined either from the circumstances of their birth or from the color of their skin.
It is the opinion of this court that, by his actions, Mr Dred Scott has amply demonstrated his intelligence and his respect for the law. It is therefore clear that he does not conform to the definition of slave; that, indeed, the word “slave” had been to him erroneously applied. Thus he does not require manumission. Furthermore, only those persons, of any race, who desire to enter, or remain in, the condition of slavery, may be said to be in the condition of servitude. It is beyond the intent of the framers of our Constitution for us to expound on the equitable means of revision of their status, and we shall leave that to the several States of this Union.
– Chief Justice Roger B Taney, Majority Opinion in DRED SCOTT vs SANFORD, 1856
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, there are many whom I counted among our friends who abhor the recent Ruling of the Supreme Court to the point of inciting Rebellion. However, there are, in addition to myself, many among the formerly staunch advocates of slavery who will now readily affirm that an end to this Institution is necessary in order to form a more perfect Union.”
– Lt Col Robert E Lee, in a letter to his wife, 1856
“Come in, Senator,” said Custis. “Father should be glad to see you.”
I had never before been this close to a man who survived an apoplectic fit. I had seen tears, pain, wounds, but it was the sight of Robert’s half-smile, and his good left hand cheerfully waving to me, that reduced me momentarily to tears. I walked over and sat at his side. I clasped his immobile right hand, as friends do; his left swept over to cover and squeeze mine. The stroke, it seemed, made of him two men: the left side of his face was flaccid, its features hanging in a mask of profound sadness, left eye, unable to close, leaking tears that tracked into his beard. Custis came to the other side of his wheelchair — Martha’s wheelchair, now carrying its second rider — and carefully wiped the trail of tears. He then swept his hand over the General’s eyelid, closing it to spread the tears over the whole eye.
General Lee, never a voluble man, was silenced by his malady.The right side of his face carried on its campaign of welcoming me, even though no help from the left flank or the tongue in the center could be expected. He was too good a soldier to give up while any strength remained at his command.
“You knew, General,” I whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Custis nod. “You knew, and planned accordingly.”
Custis cleared his throat. “Father divested from all of his stock in steam companies a month ago. I heard you did, too, Senator.”
Steam companies. What wonders have they wrought! I had been for some time aware of a cool breeze in the room, quite startling on a sultry September afternoon in a house with all windows tightly shut. It did not quite surprise me, as in my home in New Orleans I had a similar device. One shovels coal and pours water in one end; and cold air blows from the other. Robert, a soldier-engineer, could in better days have explained its workings to me; I, a mere lawyer, was content to use it without much thought. The steam train brought me to Washington in a day and a half; the steam car took an hour’s drive to Arlington; steam tractors drew harvesters through the fields on both sides of my route; steam ships waited in the harbors we passed and floated under bridges we crossed; steam engines turned generators that made the electricity on which our telegraphs ran; steam armored chariots defended our borders. As for the stocks — they soared as money chased after every inventor who purported to find new use for steam or new method of its generation, till a hundred years of dividends would not buy back its purchase price. This was the state of affairs that ended but a fortnight ago. Smart money divested first; the market crashed as other money followed.
“When you chose me for running mate,” I continued, “I was among those who questioned your sanity. So many good men — Davis, Seward, Grant… With any one of them you cold have had a fighting chance at the White House, even against Fremont and Lincoln, popular incumbents in the midst of great prosperity in which this country found itself after the first four years of their Presidency. Yet you chose me. Now I understand. You knew of two things that could not last another four years: your health, and the prosperity. You did not wish to be remembered for infirmity in office and and a disaster in economy. Yet there was one thing more you wished to add to your distinguished legacy: one more race for which you would win acceptance and full rights in law and in everyday life. And every vile slur that was thrown at us, was by their perpetrators remembered, and rebounded upon them this very month.”
“So you understand,” Custis said, and Robert once again squeezed my hand. “Father knew you would.”
I shook my head. “He thought too highly of me. As I left New Orleans I was still unenlightened. It was only as I stepped off the train in Washington that my epiphany came, and I knew that undefeated General Lee’s final battle plan had borne its fruit.”
The General’s hand fluttered once again, the half-smile grew, bidding me to continue. I drew a great breath and continued:
“I passed a man sitting on a bench, reading the NEW YORK POST. His clothes spoke of former affluence, now much reduced. As I walked behind him I heard him mutter: ‘I should’a voted for the Jew’.”
– Judah Benjamin, Memoirs, New Orleans, 1874
New York, 1876
My dear Emily,
Man, woman, lead…
I think at last the prophesy is coming true. Having outlived my friends, and reached the age of seventy-seven, and finding myself somewhat enfeebled, I sought counsel of a physician. He sent me to a colleague to be “scoped”.
I cannot tell which was the greater wonder: the scoping machine, buzzing and crackling with power, a screen that glowed when power was applied; or the doctor — the woman doctor! — who, having donned a coat that appeared so heavy I could hardly credit her staying upright under it, proceeded to turn me this way and that, seeing on the screen my ribs, my heart, and — the disease of which I will die. I am the man, the doctor is the woman, and her coat is made of lead, to protect her from the power of her machine. Man, woman, lead…
I am ready; there is, at last, no question of escaping fate, through still I have ‘a little bit of life’. I have had my forty-year reprieve; I lived as best I could; I but regret how little I accomplished. As for what time remains, I plan to spend it well. First, a stop at Mary’s grave — oh would she were here to see these wonders!; then — you know me well enough. If only you were here…
– A. S. Pushkin, letter to Emily Bronte, 1876
The melancholic Gogol, the alcoholic Poe, the consumptive Brontes, the grieving Shelley: all acknowledged a debt to Pushkin for bringing them back from the brink of death; all are acknowledged to have written their finest works under Pushkin’s influence. And each became a voice in the Great Reflection, an awakening of the American national conscience, a renewal of the American spirit.
My own homeland is not only the source of this renewal, but also its beneficiary. I am of the opinion that it was under the influence of American events that Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom and established constitutional monarchy on the British model, all within barely a year of his coronation. Were the monarchy still absolute at Alexander II’s death, one shudders to think what Alexander III, his demented son, would have done to my beloved country.
The dour, humourless Marx is surely sneering at these words from his grave: he who believed that slavery died a natural death, of industrial impotence and economic inefficiency. To which I say: were any institution’s life measured by its economic efficiency, we writers should have long become extinct.
– The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
On D’Anthes’ coffin lay and sobbed my wife:
She cried for me as much as for her love:
One lay below ground, one walked above,
And happy never would be either’s life.
I was condemned to walk the Earth and grieve
Till I could him, her, and myself forgive.
– A. S. Pushkin, For Mary, Richmond, Virginia, 1876
1877, New York
You have asked me, Your Honor, if I am sorry for what I done, and to that I must answer, without a doubt, yes. I am indeed most powerfully sorry. You heard, as did the gentlemen of the jury, my attorney as he recounted my humble origins and my need to feed my family when I was but a child myself. Grown up on a farm, I knew from boyhood all there is to know about livestock, and my first fortune I earned in the slave trade. I bought and sold and bought and sold until I have some thousand and more prime field hands, and then one day wasn’t nobody wanting to buy them no more on account of it was not done in the high society to own slaves and everyone was selling theirs. So I turned them all loose, gave them their freedom even before Damned Scot, didn’t keep but three house wenches as I was broke — and damme to hell if all three didn’t up and run off the minute they found out slavery wasn’t no more.
So, like I said, sorry I was that I ever traded slaves as this got me poor and nobody wanted anything to do with me for a long time after. But I did know horses and mules, could ride them like the wind and had the eye for colts and fillies that’d be worth something growed up and all, so I went into the horse trade and pretty soon had me a thousand head or more and an order for all them to be paid in gold by the United Goddam States Goddam Army — and then Washington decides not to chase Redskins around the Territory no more and to keep to the Indian treaties and all my horses are of no use to nobody and I turned them loose on the prairie, same as my slaves. Powerfully sorry I am that I ever believed the US government would deal straight with a man like myself.
Then, seeing as all the things horses and men used to do, steam is doing now, I invested in steam company shares, and y’all know how that came out, no need to tell.
So I went to New York and started a nice business selling fake British passports to Irishmen, seeing as the quota favored the English and they would have an easier time of it immigrating with papers from a civilized country, had myself a thousand or more of the best quality fake passports made, when Washington repeals the quota and lets the Irish into the country like they was white people and I got no buyers for the passports and I’m broke again.
And I sure don’t do much reading — hardly any, past what I need for my business — but I hear from people how there are these writers writing books that make fun of right-thinking white Americans like myself and making us like the demons and the Abolitionists like the angels, making things all upside down in peoples’ heads till they don’t know which end kisses and which end pisses. I don’t know who these people are, but I surely do know who my wife is, she’s the girl that was sixteen when her family gave her to me in trade for a stack of passports they hadn’t any money to buy and is now twenty and the purtiest Irish redhead you ever — sorry, Your Honor –
Anyhow, Your Honor, when I came back to my rooms after a day of seeking employment fit for a white man of fifty-five years old, and found my wife in my bed and not with me and not alone, neither, you can’t expect me to be sorry for taking out my Colt and plugging whoever don’t belong in there. But sorry I am, and powerful sorry I am, that I did not know who that was who turned to me and smiled all sweet when he saw my gun on him; for if I had known that gray old man was a Negro and if I had known he was one of that nest of troublemakers that ruined my life at every turn, I would not have put the first bullet between his eyes, no sir; I had a six-shooter and most sorry I am that I did not use all six to make it more entertaining, and that’s the truth, Your Honor, so help me God, or my name ain’t Nathan Bedford Forrest.