ESSAY FEBRUARY 10, 2014
The New York Times ran a front-page story in September reporting a scholarly discovery pertaining to American slavery and its nineteenth-century literature. The Times recalled that, back in 2002, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the literary historian, announced that he had purchased at an auction a book-length manuscript called The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which bore the coolly sensational byline “Hannah Crafts, A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina.” Gates published the work, and contributed an introduction recounting everything he knew about the manuscript and its author.
He knew that a previous owner of The Bondwoman’s Narrative was a well- regarded librarian at Howard University, who, by relying on her instincts, judged the manuscript to be authentically what it seemed to be. Gates wanted proof, however, and he assembled a team of curiously specialized investigators, who examined the manuscript from several angles: its paper, which appeared to be from the 1850s (in the judgment of a specialist on paper); and ink, evidently from the same period (in the judgment of an ink specialist); and the text itself, its prose, historical references, assumptions, and ideas. The several inquiries converged on a single conclusion, namely that the manuscript had indeed been written by an escaped slave from North Carolina, who must have been a woman and must have composed it sometime between 1853 and 1861.
Gates's discovery of the novel was brilliant and dramatic.
The publication of the manuscript with Gates’s explanatory introduction made for a dramatic event, and not merely on antiquarian grounds. Great oppression is always surrounded by a cordon of silence, and, in the case of Southern slavery, the cordon was exceptionally tight. Even the slaves who escaped to the North and managed to compose autobiographical exposés discovered that, once their memoirs had gotten into print, the books themselves fell under attack, as if pursued by a breed of bloodhounds skilled at hunting down texts. The slave narratives were said, by the apologists for slavery, to have been doctored by white abolitionist editors, or to be outright hoaxes—documents manipulated or invented by the militants of the abolitionist cause for the purpose of maligning the philanthropic nature of Southern slavery, or for the equally deplorable purpose of defending, by means of invidious comparison, the unjust capitalist depredations in the North.
Something about these accusations ought to strike us as familiar. A couple of generations ago, people who escaped from the Soviet Union and wrote up their experiences came under vaguely similar attacks—accused of being dishonest agents of the CIA or the bourgeois reactionaries. Dissidents who get out of Cuba make a lot of people nervous even in our own time. There is the spectacle of people who flee the Islamists of Iran or East Africa and publish sober accounts of what they have undergone—only to find themselves reproached in the democratic countries as fakes or fanatics or imperialist agents. This does make a pattern, doesn’t it? An eloquent refugee has always seemed a guilty person in the eyes of the world. But the nineteenth-century accusations against the slave narrators—those accusations seem, by comparison, more aggressive still, and nastier, and it is easy to see why that was the case, if you recall the circumstances.
Everybody during slavery times recognized that virtually the entire white population of the slave states was engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the slaves from acquiring even a basic education, let alone the kind of literary sophistication that is generally needed to write a good book. The slave narratives demonstrated that, even so, some of the slaves had ended up at least modestly educated. The authors of those narratives appeared to be Houdinis who had made a double escape—from bondage and from enforced illiteracy. They were people of superior talent. Only, how could that be so, if the slaves belonged to an inferior race? Nor could their achievement be dismissed merely as the feat of isolated individuals. Gates observes—he makes this comment in the introduction to his anthology called The Classic Slave Narratives—that if you study a large number of the narratives, you will notice that somehow or other, the authors appear to have read one another’s books. And they have drawn inspirations from one another, as if their project were collective and not just individual, and the collective project required storytelling conventions and innovations all its own, which they duly invented.
They managed even to find readers. The memoir of Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, came out in 1853 and sold tens of thousands of copies—which means that Steve McQueen’s success with his movie version right now recapitulates an older and heroic success. The Southern silence did get broken, now and then. A general public began to pay attention. And yet the occasional literary triumphs of the ex-slave authors only goaded the system’s defenders to go on flinging the traditional and routine insults about black inferiority and white falsifiers. And because the insults were old and familiar, the accusations cast a shadow over the literature.
A shadow of the nineteenth-century shadow may fall across the slave narratives even today. And the mere thought of a shadow of a shadow, back in 2002, when Gates unveiled The Bondwoman’s Narrative, rendered his discovery still more brilliant and dramatic. This was because the manuscript was a pristine handwritten document, a “holograph,” marked by a sufficient number of misspellings and syntactic errors and vagaries of punctuation to indicate that, whatever else may have happened to the manuscript over the years, it had never fallen into the hands of a professional editor.
The manuscript was evidently a not- quite-finished draft, perhaps awaiting a few touch-ups, or perhaps a thorough revision, but in either case not yet ready to be sent to the printer. Gates sent it to the printer anyway. He wanted us modern-day readers to notice that here, at last, was an undoctored text. His introduction directed our attention to the hokey techniques of storytelling. The narrator and protagonist, Hannah, is a light-skinned house slave who finds herself pushed by hair-raising circumstances to flee to the North. She goes tramping through moonlit forests, and also through forests of female relationships—with other slave women; with various mistresses, the kindly and the cruel; with a mistress who turns out to be of mixed race and therefore destined to return to slavery, a tragic case; with a saintly and rebellious older white lady who secretly teaches her to read. All of this is supposed to make us clutch our armchairs in horror and suspense. A portrait on the wall clatters to the floor. A portent! The dastards are dastardly. But you would make a mistake to assume, amid your gasps and eye-rolling, that The Bondwoman’s Narrative is merely an exercise in novel-writing tricks of the trade.
The author recites her tale with a reassuring poise. She seems positively to enjoy draping over herself ever more veils of identity, such that, at a certain point, Hannah Crafts, the author, is writing in the voice of Hannah, the fugitive narrator, who is passing as a free young white person, who is cross-dressed as a male. A handful of sharp epigraphs about life in general, and not just under slavery, punctuate the tale: “It sometimes seems that we require sympathy more in joy than sorrow; for the heart exultant, and overflowing with good nature longs to impart a portion of its happiness.” (Though here you see the lack of a copy- editor.) About slavery, she observes: “But those who think that the greatest evils of slavery are connected with physical suffering possess no just or rational ideas of human nature. The soul, the immortal soul must ever long and yearn for a thousand things inseperable [sic] to liberty.”
The author’s modest preface is a mini- masterpiece. In the course of five sentences, she rises from a matter-of-fact mumbling to the invocation of an angry God. It is Lincolnian, her preface:
In presenting this record of plain unvarnished facts to a generous public I feel a certain degree of diffidence and self-distrust. I ask myself for the hundredth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received? Have I succeeded in portraying any of the peculiar features of that institution whose curse rests over the fairest land the sun shines upon? Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race? Being the truth it makes no pretensions to romance, and relating events as they occurred it has no especial reference to a moral, but to those who regard truth as stranger than fiction it can be no less interesting on the former account, while others of pious and discerning minds can scarcely fail to recognise the hand of Providence in giving to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruit of their doings.
The phrase addressing “those who regard truth as stranger than fiction” draws from Don Juan, and Byron’s name comes up later in the narrative. Only, whom did the author have in mind, in addressing “those who regard” truth in this way, as “stranger than fiction”? I have a theory about this. But there are other points to take up first.
The one cloud that hovered over Gates’s investigation into the manuscript, back in 2002, was his inability to come up with any further indications of the author. This is the circumstance that has just now changed. Julie Bosman, in her front-page story in The New York Times in September, informs us that a professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina named Gregg Hecimovich has spent many years trying to identify the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. He has come up with documents pointing to a slave named Hannah Bond, belonging to the Wheeler family of North Carolina—who, after escaping, disguised in male clothes, made her way to upstate New York and to a family named Crafts, which may account for the pen name, “Hannah Crafts.” Then she moved to New Jersey, taught school, and married, which suggests that, in real life, she may have enjoyed at least some of the modest domestic joys that are described in the idyllic and cheerfully goofy happily- ever-after epilogue to The Bondwoman’s Narrative—a touching epilogue precisely because of the simplicity of its yearnings, though we are bound to wonder how long the ever-after lasted, or what fate overcame Hannah Bond, given that she never succeeded in getting her manuscript into print.
The Times cites various scholarly authorities who concur with Professor Hecimovich’s findings, and no one at all who expresses skepticism. Evidently the matter is settled. Henry Louis Gates’s discoveries and surmises have been confirmed. No one will fail to see the meaning of this development. The silence surrounding the supreme oppression of the nineteenth century has been broken one more time, more convincingly than in 2002, therefore more piercingly—broken at a huge delay by the eloquent, storytelling, quaint, enraged, book-length cry of an author we know now to be Hannah Bond, pen name Hannah Crafts, free woman, and, thanks to Gates, best-selling New Jersey literary figure.
Additional details pertaining to the author and her circumstances are nonetheless bound to emerge, and I am pleased to remark that years ago, when I was a reporter in Nicaragua, a number of those details dropped by chance, like coconuts or mangoes, along my own pathway. The additional details bear on Hannah Bond’s last slave master, John Hill Wheeler, and in my estimation offer an insight into the single most mysterious aspect of her achievement. This is the question of how somebody like her, “coming from a sphere so humble,” could have summoned the literary sophistication and ambition to produce The Bondwoman’s Narrative—the awesome mystery that attaches to each and all of the slave narratives, though perhaps never so dramatically as in this very peculiar present instance.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative devotes a couple of chapters to the Wheeler household. The real-life John H. Wheeler, known as “Colonel” to his friends, was a North Carolina planter and career politician in the Democratic Party. In 1852, the Democratic ticket of Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and William R. King of Alabama won the election for president and vice president. Colonel Wheeler and his wife, Ellen Sully Wheeler, set out to reap the spoils, as described, maybe fancifully, in The Bondwoman’s Narrative. The description is not kind to Ellen Wheeler, which might lead us to suspect that in real life Ellen Wheeler might have been less than kind to her secretly book-writing servant. Mrs. Wheeler in The Bondwoman’s Narrative makes a comic fool of herself, disguised unwittingly in blackface as she wends her way around Washington, D.C., trying to inveigle a federal appointment for her husband—a scene of vaudeville farce slightly at odds with the air of tragic refinement elsewhere in the book.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative fails to mention, or hints only distantly, that Mrs. Wheeler’s husband did receive a federal appointment. Gates himself, in his introduction, recounts Colonel Wheeler’s experience with a second escaped slave during the period of his appointment, but devotes a mere half paragraph to the appointment itself. The appointment was major, though. President Pierce sent Colonel Wheeler to be America’s resident minister, or ambassador, to Nicaragua, where big events were going on.
The California gold rush of 1849 had generated a demand for a speedier transit from West Coast to East Coast, and Nicaragua appeared to offer the speediest transit of all. A canal merely twelve miles long, if only such a thing were built, would link the Pacific Ocean to Lake Nicaragua, which opens onto the silty but navigable San Juan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York nominated himself to do the job. Only, a preposterous series of obstacles instantly arose, as if puffing lavically from one of Nicaragua’s volcanos. Vanderbilt’s rivals among the New York tycoons plotted against him. The British plotted to take over Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. The Costa Ricans made claims against the southern border. The Nicaraguans themselves had initiated a civil war thirty years earlier and appeared to be keen on prosecuting it forevermore. Democrats from the city of León in red-ribboned sombreros fought pitched battles against the white-ribboned Legitimists from Granada. And privateer armies from the United States—the so-called “filibusters”—descended on Nicaragua, sometimes hired by American tycoons, sometimes harboring wild ambitions of their own.
Colonel Wheeler’s duty was to sort through these complexities and advance the policies of the Pierce administration. But Pierce’s secretary of state was an old governor of New York whose preferred policies favored sundry New York tycoons, whereas the secretary of the navy came from North Carolina and the secretary of war, who was Jefferson Davis, from Mississippi, and the Southerners tended to sympathize with the sometimes autonomous filibusters. Colonel Wheeler, at his ministerial residence in far-away Granada, discovered that, given the proto–civil war going on inside the Cabinet, America’s policies were pretty much up to him to decide. He decided in favor of the filibusters. He put himself at the disposal of the filibusters’ most dynamic chieftain, the filibuster general, who was a strange character from Nashville named William Walker. This proved to be unwise on Colonel Wheeler’s part.
General Walker threw his filibusters into the Nicaraguan civil war on the red-ribboned Democratic side. Then he swept aside the beribboned armies, established a puppet government of his own, and after a while swept aside the puppets and declared himself to be Nicaragua’s new president. He invited American emigrants and additional filibusters to join him in Nicaragua. He set about confiscating Nicaraguan properties to distribute to the arriving Americans. He annulled the existing Nicaraguan agreements with Commodore Vanderbilt. And he decreed the reinstatement of African slavery, which the Nicaraguans had abolished more than thirty years before. Also he ignited a regional war.
The red and white armies united against him. The armies of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica invaded—in Costa Rica’s case, with financial backing from a suddenly beneficent Vanderbilt. General Walker and his filibusters went down to a colossal defeat. Some three thousand of Walker’s men, out of an army of ultimately five thousand, died in the course of these struggles. Many more Central Americans died, mainly because of a plague that Walker appears to have set off by filling the wells of Rivas with corpses. The filibuster army burned down the cities of Masaya and Granada. The canal never did get built. The reputation of the United States was blackened in Latin America forever. And yet Colonel Wheeler, el ministro filibustero, stuck loyally by the mad general, and kept on doing so even after the filibuster defeat, which does raise a question about the colonel. Hannah Bond’s slave master, wreaking death and destruction with every foolish diplomatic move he made—what sort of man could this have been?
I can propose a few observations because, during my long-ago visits to the region, I adopted the town of Masaya as a sort of journalistic headquarters; and Masaya has its peculiarities. Nicaragua as a whole is crazed for poetry, such that every second person you meet, among the amiable educated class, will shortly press upon you his collected verse. But the municipality of Masaya has traditionally nursed a warm penchant, instead, for the writing of history, out of a civic spirit of anti-filibuster revenge. The historiographical penchant culminated, or perhaps erupted, in the late twentieth century in the compendious and sulfuric studies of a medical doctor named Alejandro Bolaños Geyer, from an old Masaya family whose properties, back in the 1850s, had fallen under the confiscation decree of William Walker.
Dr. Bolaños brought out several volumes of documents bearing on the American intervention, including a Spanish translation of Colonel Wheeler’s otherwise unpublished diary, which Gates mentions in passing in his introduction to The Bondwoman’s Narrative. And Dr. Bolaños set out to write a definitive biography of General Walker. There was something heroic about the doctor’s ability to complete this work. In 1978, fighting broke out in Masaya between the Sandinista revolutionaries, whom Dr. Bolaños detested, and the Somoza dictatorship, which he equally detested, and he fled to non-tropical Missouri. Still, he was undiscourageable in his labors. He brought out an early edition of the biography in 1988. In 1991, acting as his own publisher, he brought out a fuller edition in five volumes in English. And, in 1995, he brought out the final, full, corrected, and humongous edition in Spanish under the title William Walker, el Predestinado de los Ojos Grises: Una Biografía, replete with Freudian interpretations, excerpts from Colonel Wheeler’s diary, insider reports on conspiracies at the Willard Hotel and on Wall Street, poems translated into Spanish by distinguished Nicaraguan poets (Mario Cajina-Vega, Carlos Martínez Rivas), selections from General Walker’s journalism, and other piquant and appalling documents.
The biography has never been easy to get hold of. The final edition appears to be entirely unavailable in the United States, even from rare-book dealers. This is frustrating to me because, in 1995, at a moment when I happened to be visiting Masaya, one of Dr. Bolaños’s collaborators, the poet Cajina-Vega, invited me to attend the public presentation in Managua of the completed work and, knowing my interest in Nicaraguan history, promised to talk Dr. Bolaños into giving me a copy. Unfortunately I had something else to do that day, and afterward never did locate a copy. Perhaps the bookstores of Managua might have copies today—though Masaya itself, last time I was there, had no bookstores. Dr. Bolaños died some years ago, as did the poet Cajina- Vega, and what has rescued the biography from oblivion has only been the technological revolution that has meanwhile taken place. In 2002, Dr. Bolaños’s brother, Enrique Bolaños, was elected president of Nicaragua, and after completing his term of office, in 2007, he had the inspiration to create Latin America’s first presidential library, in a digitized form. The online library has offered to the computerized reading public the otherwise unavailable publications of the former president’s late brother, the scholarly doctor.
I have been spending a lot of time, as a result, in the gloomy caverns of the Internet, guided by Dr. Bolaños and wandering by myself among remote stacks and rare- manuscript collections in their dull gray pdf versions, where I have stumbled across many curiosities, including the writings of Colonel Wheeler. And I can dimly make out the colonel’s ghostly features. We are likely to think of a man such as Wheeler as an ignorant Viking, crude and rapacious. But this is not accurate. Gates describes the Wheeler household in North Carolina as, by contrast, “a middle-class, mid-century home” with a “small library.” This, too, is not quite right. The Wheeler family, it turns out, dwelled among the upper ethers of American civilization. Ellen Wheeler herself was a woman of cultural attainments, even if she cuts a ridiculous figure in The Bondwoman’s Narrative.
Ellen and the colonel kept up a fond relation with her father in Philadelphia, who was none other than Thomas Sully, one of the masters of American portrait-painting. Thomas Sully painted the portrait of Andrew Jackson and his muscular hair that served as the model for the twenty-dollar bill. He painted the Wheeler family several times, including a portrait of John and Ellen’s younger son Woodbury (which you can find reproduced online by the Frick Collection, though the portrait appears to be in a private collection) and a better-known dreamy painting called “Mrs. John H. Wheeler and Her Two Sons,” from 1844, which is at the Metropolitan Museum, unfortunately not on exhibit. Mrs. Wheeler was evidently a painter herself, even if no scent of oil paint lingers in The Bondwoman’s Narrative.
As for the colonel, he may have been a career Democrat, and the Pierce administration may seem a little tawdry, but the 1850s were nonetheless a high noon of the American Renaissance, and a few sunrays of literary glory fell even upon the corrupt and dismal White House. Pierce was at home with writers and big thinkers. His best friend was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was himself a career Democrat in Massachusetts and a loyal contributor to a Jacksonian and pro-Pierce magazine in New York called the Democratic Review. Hawthorne was the author, in 1852, of Life of Franklin Pierce, Pierce’s campaign biography, which may not be the finest of Hawthorne’s books. But Pierce did win the election. The president rewarded his biographer with an appointment to America’s consulate in Liverpool—which means that, as viewed from the State Department, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Hill Wheeler were comparable figures, top-hatted colleagues in the foreign service, each of them married to an artist-wife from an illustrious family, and each of them assigned to important postings overseas. Hawthorne of Massachusetts was, of course, a literary genius, and Wheeler of North Carolina was not.
Still, Colonel Wheeler pursued a literary career of his own, and it resembled Hawthorne’s in one large respect. Both of those men trod in the footsteps of the great historian George Bancroft, who looked upon America and its history as a story of democratic triumph, with universal implication. Hawthorne spun variations on the same story by composing chronicles of Massachusetts from earliest colonial times to his own day, naturally in playful and haunting versions of his own. In 1851, The House of the Seven Gables—the book that preceded Life of Franklin Pierce—managed even to present the Democratic Party as the late-blooming robust flower of the earliest Puritan rebellions. And Colonel Wheeler told the story in a North Carolina version: he published, also in 1851, his Historical Sketches of North Carolina, which traced the state’s evolution from still earlier colonial times into his own era, likewise with credit to the Democratic Party.
The colonel alluded to larger literary possibilities, too, by posting on the title page of his Historical Sketches the aphorism from Byron, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” without attribution. The epigraph, I must say, is fairly stunning, if you recall the preface to The Bondwoman’s Narrative—the wrath-of-God preface addressed to “those who regard truth as stranger than fiction.” The preface turns out to be a rifle pointed directly (such is my theory) at Colonel Wheeler himself. His own ability to invoke God or a providential view of American history was not large. His prose was flowery, and his talent secretarial. He reports membership lists. Still, he dedicated his book to Bancroft. And the combined epigraph and dedication make clear that, regardless of his talent, Colonel Wheeler had every wish to stand among the illustrious and avant-garde poets and thinkers of the age, conjuring, as Byron and Bancroft did, the Romantic dream of freedom and progress. And here has got to be the reason why Hannah Bond’s befuddled slave master, upon arriving in the tropics, fell into the arms of the mad filibuster. For who was William Walker, finally, in the eyes of a man like Colonel Wheeler?
Dr. Bolaños provides the answer. William Walker was one more literary personality with extravagant ideas. Bancroft, during his student years, attended the lectures of Hegel in Germany; and Walker, during his own student wanderings, spent a good amount of time in Paris and came home a disciple of Auguste Comte, the positivist. The doctrines of Hegel and Comte, as seen from the United States, added up to an argument for universal human progress, with room for America to march at the head of the procession. Hawthorne’s favorite magazine, the Democratic Review, specialized in essays along nationalist and historico-philosophical lines of that sort; and William Walker, in his pre-filibuster days at the New Orleans Daily Crescent, echoed the Democratic Review pretty closely. The writers who gathered around Pierce were, all of them, champions of the European revolutions of 1848, which made them left-wing, you could almost say (though anti-aristocratic would have been their own term); and solidarity with the European revolutionaries was Walker’s position, too.
The Democratic Review published essays predicting that Europe was going to end up either Americanized or Russianized, meaning democratic or despotic; and Walker issued the same prediction at the Daily Crescent. Walker even outdid the Democratic Review by contemplating East Asia, where he figured that Russia and America and their respective principles were likewise going to clash. He predicted that, in Canton and Beijing, “the language of Confucius will yield to that of Milton and Shakespeare.” These were pretty shrewd analyses for the mid-nineteenth century, if you don’t mind a touch of hyperbole. Walker wrote poetry in plagiaristic imitation of Byron, as Dr. Bolaños demonstrates. Walker modeled himself on Byron’s heroes. Tragic grandiosity was the opium in his pipe. And it is easy to picture how a plodding worthy such as Colonel Wheeler, having taken up residence on the banks of Lake Nicaragua, might have blinked in wonderment and admiration at the dashing General Walker and his bookish inebriations and even his crimes.
Something happened to these Democratic Party intellectuals, though, or, at any rate, to the ones with Southern orientations. Dr. Bolaños figures that, in William Walker’s case, he was psychologically twisted by the death of his beautiful and deaf-mute young wife in 1849. But I think these men fell victim to an unintended consequence of their own democratic enthusiasms. The world democratic revolution did seem at hand, in their estimation, and the events in Europe in 1848 seemed to prove them right. Exiles from the European revolutions filled the ranks of General Walker’s filibuster army in the 1850s. The soldiers sang La Marseillaise. Hungarian veterans of the campaigns of Louis Kossuth were Walker’s finest officers. One of the Hungarian commanders contributed to the Democratic Review.
The problem was that the revolutionary democratic cause, as it matured around the world and gained lucidity, made Southern slavery, which had once seemed easy for political thinkers to ignore, impossible to ignore. And the Southerners responded with a confused and defensive hysteria. Walker, in his early writings, had opposed the extension of slavery, which was a way of favoring its eventual abolition. He had declined to support the Mexican War. Only, the years progressed and the panic set in, and, by the time his invasion of Nicaragua was underway, he was calling for “a war of the races—the great battle of the mongrels and the white men,” with the black race serving as a slavish auxiliary. He wanted to conquer the whole of Central America, add to it Cuba and what remained of Mexico, and join these countries to the Southern cotton states in a vast new slave-owning confederacy.
Meanwhile, General Walker delighted in ordering executions in the plaza of Granada, with Colonel Wheeler in faithful attendance. General Walker ordered, for no reason at all, the execution of Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Mateo Mayorga, who had been boarding at Colonel Wheeler’s residence. Dr. Bolaños may have good reason to invoke Freud. Even Colonel Wheeler noted a scary inhumanity in the filibuster general. Then again, Colonel Wheeler was a frightening character in his own right. Dr. Bolaños quotes Wheeler’s diary entry reporting the execution of Mayorga, from October 1855:
Sun. 21—Read morning prayers and thanked a kind Providence for gracious protection—Called on Pedro Quadra and Mayorga in prison—and comforted them. Mayorga expressed great desire to be removed to a more quiet place ... and asked me to call on Walker with his request—which I did.
Mon. 22—At 4 o’clock this morning Mateo Mayorga was shot dead in the Plaza by order of Walker.... Genl. Walker called before sunrise to consult—I expressed my opinion that Corral [a Legitimist general] could not fight—must capitulate—that the Transit route must be opened—and Fort San Carlos taken.
This offers a glimpse, I would think, into Colonel Wheeler’s soul: stupid, cold, rancidly pious.
Nothing I have seen in Colonel Wheeler’s writings matches the zealotry of General Walker’s race-war oratory. Still, a memoir of Colonel Wheeler by a Senator Fowler of Tennessee, published in 1883, a year after the colonel’s death, draws a plausible comparison between the colonel and the general. About General Walker, Senator Fowler says with obvious admiration: “An ardent Anglo-American, he had not only contempt for the Spaniards and those mongrel races, who occupied with indolence and semi-barbarism one of the finest and most productive regions on the continent. He conceived the purpose of planting there another race of men who would open the land to a refinement and civilization that would make it the pathways of nations to the civilized world.” About Colonel Wheeler, the senator says, with equal admiration, that he “knew it was the destiny of his race to eradicate barbarism.” It all goes to emphasize Dr. Bolaños’s point that America’s Nicaragua intervention during the ambassadorship of John Hill Wheeler was “racist to the core.” And the barbarians turn out to have been the bookish Americans with their cult of Byron and the arts.
So this was the household, or one of the households, in which Hannah Bond went about wresting an education for herself and working up her literary ambitions. The Wheeler home was a barbarian headquarters, yet it did feature a library and, I would assume, excellent paintings on the walls. Is it reasonable to imagine that an enslaved servant might have drawn any sort of cultural advantage from inhabiting a home of that sort? Could a slave have absorbed the lofty air of self- confidence? A discriminating taste? A passage in The Bondwoman’s Narrative answers this question. A house slave named Lizzy chats with Hannah, the narrator: “She came, she said of a good family and frequently mentioned great names in connection with her own, and when I smiled and said it mattered little she would assume an air of consequential dignity, and assert that on the contrary it was a very great thing even to a slave to be well connected.”
Internal fissures within the home might conceivably have conferred still further advantages. According to the Times, Professor Hecimovich has concluded that someone in the household connived to help Hannah Bond make her escape. The professor has also concluded that Colonel Wheeler’s nephew held anti-slavery views, which makes the nephew a suspect, I suppose. No such anti-slavery nephew turns up in Dr. Bolaños’s history of the Americans in Nicaragua. And yet my further wanderings through the Internet lead me to suppose that, just as Professor Hecimovich has suggested, somebody in the Wheeler household must have been a dedicated enemy of the slave system.
The edition of The Bondwoman’s Narrative that Gates published in 2002 includes, as an appendix, a selected list of the books in Colonel Wheeler’s library, drawn from an 1850 catalogue. The archival depths of the Internet have grown since 2002, however, and today I notice a second catalogue of Wheeler’s library, an auction-house catalogue, dating from 1882, the year of his death. The 1882 catalogue lists titles published after the Civil War. But it also lists a good many antebellum titles, which, in principle, Hannah Bond might have seen, if the books had been purchased when new, and if there was ever a moment when she enjoyed the freedom to wander around by herself. The Bondwoman’s Narrative describes such moments, though not in the Wheeler household.
Some of those antebellum titles catch the eye: the memoirs of Frederick Douglass in two editions; a book called The Refugee: The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada; another called Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; not to mention writings by Harriet Beecher Stowe—together with still other titles that bespeak a serious wish to learn something about African American experience. Colonel Wheeler’s scholarly studies of North Carolina reveal no interest whatsoever in the slaves, which makes it difficult to suppose that he himself bought those particular books. Somebody else must have done it. Still, Colonel Wheeler does seem to have allowed the anti-slavery volumes to mingle promiscuously with the other volumes on his shelves. And here, listed among the other titles, are the memoirs of the scandalous Ninon de l’Enclos, the seventeenth-century courtesan, in a Philadelphia edition from 1806—a touch of the naughty! In the Wheeler household, then, more was going on than meets the eye. And Hannah Bond evidently did manage to blossom, educationally speaking. And Colonel Wheeler turns out not to have been the only book-writing author in the house, even if he thought he was. And Ellen Wheeler was not the only lady with a claim to an artistic vocation, even if she thought she was.
Hannah Bond’s literary talent did not rise to Frederick Douglass’s level, nor to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, nor to Hawthorne’s, but it was a talent nonetheless, such that even today you can read The Bondwoman’s Narrative with pleasure. The Narrative turns out to be one more memorable literary work from the age of Pierce—a late-arriving entry, offering an otherwise neglected angle on society. Perhaps the writings of Alejandro Bolaños ought to be regarded as still another late-arriving entry, given that he, too, has supplied a missing perspective—in his case, the story of the outraged Nicaraguans, angrily recounted. It is only a pity that Colonel Wheeler himself, the object of so much loathing in those other books, was not more of a confessional writer, capable of singing his own song a little more melodiously. I picture him, though. John Updike wrote a marvelous novel of the 1850s called Memories of the Ford Administration, in which he sent Pierce and Hawthorne and other figures of the era trudging across a lonely landscape of masculine unhappiness, as always in Updike’s novels; and Colonel Wheeler seems to me one more such animal, burdened by serial humiliations, the escape of various slaves, his fiasco in Nicaragua.
The Civil War must have been excruciating to Wheeler. The painting from 1844, “Mrs. John H. Wheeler and Her Two Sons,” by the colonel’s father-in-law, becomes even more dramatic when you realize that one of those sons ended up in the Union navy and the other in the Confederate army. The colonel himself appears to have ducked under the table. At the lowest point of the war, in 1863, he departed for London to continue his historical researches, and returned in 1864. Did his wife accompany him? Her father had painted a portrait of Queen Victoria, and she might have enjoyed a British prestige. I do not know whether she went. But I wonder why the colonel would have wanted to go. And why abandon his sons at the very instant when the boys might have needed their father to pull strings among powerful politicians?
I notice merely that, for the members of the Pierce administration, the years after Pierce’s retirement in 1857 proved to be, as Updike appreciated, less than easy. Maybe Jefferson Davis regarded his subsequent career as a glorious triumph, for a while. Everyone else was despondent. Pierce’s biographer and consul in Liverpool chose to linger in Europe for the next few years, avoiding the American crisis for as long as possible and becoming ever crankier. Pierce, too, spent large periods of time in Europe during the next years, drifting into melancholy and alcohol. Pierce and Hawthorne did a lot of moping together. And Pierce’s former envoy to Nicaragua—wasn’t he one more devastated veteran of the failed administration, trying to cope with disaster and distress by expatriating himself to the Mother Country?
In the preface to The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Colonel Wheeler’s escaped slave, Hannah Crafts (to use her chosen pen name), asks, in regard to slavery, “Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” She succeeded. The Civil War underlined her point in blood. She writes, “Discerning minds can scarcely fail to recognise the hand of Providence in giving to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruit of their doings.” Something of this sort, a providential distribution of rewards and punishments, seems to have taken place as well—even if, in her case, the reward for her righteous works, in the form of literary recognition and book sales, took a century and a half to achieve, and her successes conferred no benefit whatsoever on her heirs, whoever they may be.
Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic.