Whatever comes out (of Bill’s keyboard), we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.
Maximus Decimus Meridius (AKA Russell Crowe, Gladiator)
by William Charles Furney
(Note: This article was originally published as introduction to the January 2022 edition of The Next Chapter Literary Magazine. For more information about the magazine and the store, please visit The Next Chapter Books and Arts.)
Although the proprietor of our town’s cozy bookstore and patron to its (extremely talented) local writers is not usually given to lapses of sound judgment, in a moment of cognitive impairment or perhaps desperation, Michele Flye tapped me for the honor of introducing 2022’s first edition of The Next Chapter Literary Magazine. So, at a moment when everybody else is trying to slam the door on the horrid memories of Covid and are stampeding into the promise of brighter, healthier days with open arms, I have the untimely task of reminding everyone of the importance of history in literature. (Thanks, Michele!) And that’s OK because I love history! You do too, even if you don’t know it. Are we not, after all, making history right now?
Before I continue, I’ll make three promises. Unlike previous contributors, I will not subject you to my poetry. Nobody deserves that. Second, I promise not to be too sarcastic or irreverent. Emphasis on the “too.” After all, I have a reputation to uphold. And third, I won’t bore you to death. This is about the beauty and lore of writing stories about the past. This is not the mind-numbing regurgitation of the U.S. History facts that we were tortured with in middle school.
Case in point – does anyone recall the 1997 novel Love in the Time of Cholera? Who would have predicted that a love story that begins in 1875 during an outbreak of cholera would become a NY Times bestseller and a movie? (Honestly, I still don’t get it. But I digress.) As the Wikipedia synopsis of the novel explains, “Even after (the main female character) Fermina's engagement and marriage, (the main male character) Florentino swore to stay faithful and wait for her; but his promiscuity gets the better of him and he has hundreds of affairs. Even with all the women he is with, he makes sure that Fermina will never find out.” Wait. What? So, either poor Fermina is an idiot or Florentino kills off hundreds of women so they can’t talk? Now that would be a plot twist worthy of a movie.
The novel isn’t without merit, though. The part where Fermina’s husband falls off the ladder while trying to rescue his pet parrot from a mango tree is truly inspired. I mean, a freakin’ mango tree. I seriously doubt there are many writers among us who have combined such ornithological and botanical perfection in our pros.
OK, I’m totally off point now, but as an aside to my fellow writers; if you don’t understand why your story isn’t a best seller but this story is, you are not alone. Could this novel even be published today? That said, the gods of literary success are both capricious and cruel. It is best not to dwell on the undeserved favors they bestow on others lest we all go insane…or perhaps suffer death by cholera.
If my sarcasm is beginning to bleed through, I’m sorry. I just can’t help myself. It is the filter through which I experience life. A coping mechanism, perhaps. On the other hand, I assure you that my novels do not share this affliction. One or two of the minor characters may be so impaired but I assure you, they deserved it.
The truth is, North Carolina has a long record of witty and sardonic writers of history. (See how I brought this back on topic?) As noted historian Marshall DeLancey Haywood attested in the April 1907 edition of The North Carolina Booklet…
The writing of history has never met with much encouragement in North Carolina. Our first historian [John Lawson] is said to have been burned alive. Should another, in this day and generation, adopt historical work as the sole means of gaining a livelihood, he might meet his death in no less miserable manner – by starvation. But, notwithstanding these trivial obstacles, the work goes forward.
Those who do not know the details of Lawson’s fiery demise may be excused for missing the profundity of Haywood’s quip. As Marjorie Hudson described in the Summer 1992 edition of the North Carolina Literary Review…
The pitch pine [fatwood] split by the (Native American) women is ready, a clay pot full of splinters, and now, one by one, the women thread these needles into his flesh, pushing just hard enough to bring the blood, to press past the strange white skin to the devil underneath. The man stands quiet at first. Then he begins to scream.
The fatwood was then set ablaze. As writers subjected to the unkindly cuts and stabbings administered by soulless editors and literary agents…we know exactly how that feels. And please allow me the distinction of noting another amazing detail that previous documentarians missed. Lawson’s expedition logs may well have been used to help light the fire that brought him to a smoldering end, establishing him as the first historian to make Kindle. (I know, I know. I have no shame.)
But it’s not just me! We cannot discuss the history of historic history historians without acknowledging the wittiest master of history pros and understatement…my hero Edward Barnes Ellis, Jr. Among other notable works, Bear Town’s native son Eddie Ellis wrote New Bern History 101 – The Essential Facts for the Native, Newcomer or Visitor to the Colonial Capital of North Carolina.
One of my favorite recountings in this book is his explanation of our town’s origins. As introduction, Ellis laments the off-used description by other historians that New Bern was settled by the Swiss and the Palatines because none of those texts ever explain “what the heck a Palatine is!” Cutting to the chase, he tells us that they were “people of one small region of Germany along the Rhine River” who were escaping persecution. That aside, it is the description of the monarch persecuting them where Ellis demonstrates his mastery…
The problems for the Palatines began with the death of a genetic oddball. Charles II, King of Spain, sprang from a line of European monarchs so inbred that people who fully understood his lineage would never repeat another rude joke about Arkansas or West Virginia. His father married his own niece. Therefore, Charles’ mother was his cousin. And the Empress of Spain was both his aunt and his grandmother.
From early childhood, Charles II manifested physical, mental and emotional problems of the first magnitude. He couldn’t chew. His tongue was so large he could hardly speak. He drooled a lot. He walked for the first time at age eight. He never went to school. (Somehow resisting the urge to invoke comparisons to any politicians of the day, he concludes with a masterpiece of subtlety and snarkatude by saying...) He assumed full power upon the death of his mother-cousin at age fifteen. The reign was not impressive.
If I had had history teachers of this caliber during my youth I might have been enticed to be a scholar of history. If so, I could now be a starving historian as Haywood warned rather than starving as a writer of historical fiction. “O fortune, fortune! All men call thee fickle.” Shakespeare. (Writer’s hack: Always use famous quotes in nonfiction writing to sound more intellectual and erudite.)
But back to topic… There are many such quips and slightly twisted insights in Ellis’ writing. It is the special seasoning added to the magnificent gumbo that is history. He is an excellent writer because he sees past the rote and the mundane, a talent we can all envy. And if there is a secret to my writing, it is the ability to ask, what if? Like Ellis, I love peeling back the layers to see what was going on behind the scenes, what the people were thinking and doing, and why.
For example, in New Bern History 101, Ellis tells of another Bear Town “historian” who shares our sardonic sense of humor. And while the person’s name is unknown to me, the inscription in the historical marker-box attached to his or her home on New Street is a great example of how the catalyst of the “what if” is set in motion. To wit…
On this site on September 9th in the year of our Lord 1782 absolutely nothing occurred.
Not only do I find this humorous commentary on the Historic District's snootiness, as a writer I consider it a challenge. Historically speaking, something is always happening, whether we are aware or not. Immediately, my mind begins to create stories to fill-in the blank that was 09/09/1782. Indeed, although Cornwallis had surrendered in York Town a year earlier, Redcoats along with some 800 North Carolina loyalist soldiers still occupied Charlestown. (The name “Charleston was still a year away from becoming a thing.) How many of the New Bern’s revolutionary soldiers and sailors were returning from battle? Were local slaves plotting to escape and make their way to Charlestown and freedom? What were town leaders planning to restore prosperity? What the hell happened to the Palatines? Surely there must have been an illicit affair or perhaps an errant cow knocking over a lantern in a barn. The possibilities are endless. And THAT’S what makes history so much fun to write about.
A few final thoughts to wrap up this chocolate mess of an introduction. To all the teachers who turned the subject of history into a boring, mind-numbing exercise of memorizing dates and places without context and relevance…a pox upon your houses. Oh, wait, that’s what we just lived through. And in some weird twist of cosmic injustice, one day this episode will be part of a World History lesson future teachers will use to verbally beat their students into a stupor.
In terms of fulfilling my initial promises, I can certainly say that I assaulted no one with my poetry. (You’re welcome.) I also believe that by my standards I was not too sarcastic or irreverent. You may disagree, and that’s OK. And finally, in regard to my promise to not bore you, I would like to leave you with a quote by a famous character from historical fiction. I hope you recognize it.
Are you not entertained?