Another America [A Trenchant Edges Digression]
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes, 41 seconds. Contains 2939 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about surviving fringe culture.
I’m your host, Stephen Fisher, and this weekend is about realizing it’s a lot harder to type on a laptop in a car or while visiting family than I’d really considered.
Things are rather pleasant for this weekend. I’m blessed with excellent family members whose company I enjoy. A precious gift in these dark days.
So anyway, at the best hotel Christmas breakfast I’ve ever had, my mom asked me a question about what I’d write if I had the time and resources to write anything.
While much of it would be what I’m doing now, there’s a fiction angle I’d like to explore a bit.
Because it’s tightly bound to certain strands of our discussion around America’s corrupt politics and countercultural religion.
A Different City On The Same Hill
Revolutionary Era settler-colonists were staggeringly religious. Many came from sects driven out of their European home countries by enforced orthodoxies intolerant of their beliefs.
As we’ve discussed before, the First Great Awakening created a new wave of charismatic revivals of that Old Time Religion.
Now, especially at first, this wasn’t heaven for religious tolerance but oppressed people thrilled to finally have a place to do their own oppressing. That’s a complicated story, but it’s adjacent to another we need to discuss.
One of the less-discussed events in pre-USAian Colonial history is the North Carolina Regulator’s Rebellion. The Regulators weren’t revolutionaries per se, as they mostly just wanted a just system rather than a new one, but they fought North Carolina for five years starting in 1766.
And while they lost, they helped establish a more conflict-oriented colonial population. And things would escalate from the sparks they started into this strange country many of us now live in.
The most interesting figure of the Regulator’s rebellion was a former quaker and pamphleteer named Herman Husband. A prosperous planter who soured from the corruption of the colonial state and drifted away from conventional statecraft and conventional religion.
He’d end up on the run from the Crown after the rebellion was quashed where he fled to what’s now central Pennsylvania where he found a cave and some privacy and had visions.
Few Christian mystics really catch my interest, but it’s what Husband did with those visions that caught my eye.
He tried to codify his visions of the heavenly city into a legal system that would eliminate corruption rather than fester it. A righteous theocracy.
Now that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d be interested in.
But the fact he came up with it in the 1770s and 1780s and that it included ending slavery, respecting indigenous nation sovereignty, and a wholly different basis for finance focusing on preventing the kind of capital accumulation that makes modern capitalism so much… fun to live through.
All that makes me *very curious*
As does the work he did later in life in opposition to the Constitution and involvement with the Whiskey “Rebellion.” Though, he was eventually found not guilty of treason from that last one.
There’s a lot of detail to work through.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s not only because of Husband’s penchant for picking losing fights or his blend of millennial religious enthusiasm and populist, anti-speculation politics but because he pulled together an alternative vision of America that was staggeringly progressive for its time.
If he’d somehow succeeded, the United States of America would probably not be a globe-straddling superpower today. Perhaps some other version would have prevailed more or less according to the way history played out this time.
More than the common alt-history subjects of “What if the confederacy had won the civil war?” or “What if Nazis had won WW2?”, it’s an intriguing possibility of a place that might have avoided some of our worst mistakes.
A place that may not have been great but might actually have been good.
I doubt it’d have been much of a Utopia.
For one thing, if held to his ideals it wouldn’t have grown nearly as fast geographically or economically. You probably would have lost the southern states immediately once chattel slavery was limited or eliminated.
And a thousand other complications besides.
So what kind of world might that have become?
On Great American Novels
I loathe the idea of the Great American Novel, but here I am setting y’all up for exactly that. Since the term was coined back in 1868 by John William DeForest, it’s represented the exact kind of millenarian grasping undercut by all too human foibles that the “American Experiment” is most known for.
Maybe I dislike it because it reflects my own failed grasping for something higher and worthy of all the blood and shit it took to get here. To say nothing of all the blood and shit it’ll take to get to someplace better.
It’s extremely pretentious to even consider trying to write a novel that captures the soul of a nation, even just a little. And I’m no great talent, especially with fiction.
Yet, if one’s considering writing as a vocation, it also seems kinda sinful not to look at that mountain and ask, “Could I?”
And it was in reading Herman Husband’s dreams of a less sinful world that an idea that a sufficiently skilled writer might raise to that level. It’s the only story idea I’ve ever had to meet that test.
But even if you set aside any pretense at literary greatness, it’s a whale of a project. Even just creating a believable early alternate history will require a significant commitment of research. To collect enough details, learn the language, and get the feel for the forces shaping the early nation to pull those forces out of their initial context and create an unlikely alternative history.
In a way, this newsletter is practice for that work. And, no, this isn’t going to end with a Kickstarter pitch or announcement of a project.
It’s just the end of the year and I’m mulling over options. And this strange Jerusalem project has been a splinter in my mind since I was in Memphis.
As my politics have sauntered further to the left, my opinion and relationship to the American Revolution has changed a great deal. While I still appreciate it getting rid of the monarchy, I now see how real estate drove a great deal of the tensions between the colonists and their ruler.
And since the need for more real estate and the wealth that goes with it was driving the westward expansion that drove the massive land theft, fraudulent treaties, and genocide that marks one of the USA’s two original sins… well, I’m less enthusiastic about the whole thing.
And since it was the British offering to free enslaved people willing to fight against the Patriots, well, the second original sin doesn’t hang too well with this story either.
Founding myths tell important truths about how a nation wants to think of itself. And imagining yourselves as scrappy rebels fighting against the evil empire feelx great, but the reality behind that myth was far from so clear-cut.
But if we’re going to escape the nightmare of history, we need to learn to tell new stories about who we are.
So I think about the world that must have felt close enough to touch, the New Jerusalem waiting for anyone willing to work and fight to claim new land away from the people already living there.
I think about how cursed that dream was from the beginning. And if it was even possible to break that curse.
It all seems pretty doomed to corruption, war crimes, and the tectonic horrors driven by careless resources extraction.
The dream of an utterly fresh start has always been as seductive as destructive.
So I can’t tell you how this story if I ever write it, might end. I don’t really understand all the factors in play, nor even what lead up to them. I can speculate on a few details though.
I’m writing this on Christmas Day from the hotel my mom and stepdad got. A few hours of peace before the chaos and noise of family Christmas Dinner.
As I often like to do, I try a bit of classical divination. Bibliomancy, to be precise.
Divination is any practice used to gather nonrational information from elsewhere. Tarot cards, the I Ching, reading dice or cards or entrails, and so on are all techniques. Bibliomancy is doing the same.
If you need a rationalist explanation, by pairing randomly generated information with your present mindset, you can generate novel understanding and perspective. It’s a neat trick.
I have an old habit of doing a little bibliomancy with hotel Gideon bibles because they’re an interesting class of object: Something I rarely have access to, but that I can always expect to find again.
And so I opened it up to Judges 3:18-23. Slight content warning for those of you not familiar with Judges. It’s kinda about Gurellia warfare so things can be pretty gnarly.
18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them.
So, Ehud ben‑Gera is an Israelite Judge bringing King Eglon’s Tribute (think coerced gift mixed with taxes) who fuckin’ murders Elgon.
What sort of lesson is this for me? I suppose the depends on who’s who. If I’m Elgon, perhaps the message is not to accept messages from God without armed witnesses. If I’m supposed to be Ehud, perhaps it’s that success will come from hiding my blades and to, uh, keep my enemies closer.
But I like a simpler interpretation: Cut your shit out.
Always good advice. A new year for discipline.
Hints From that Other City
I don’t know much about this novel I want to write.
But I can already tell a few things: First, it’s probably not going to end well. Unless I learn some real mind-blowing stuff in the writing, I just don’t see how it could end with the American project not descending into the same bloody chaos it has.
One of the real challenges for this project is avoiding any kind of modern partisan preaching.
This is about the rot that was there from the first seeds, not a simplistic morality play.
Part of what that means is having multiple characters with conflicting points of view showing the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s ideas. But mostly I think it means working more closely to the original politics of the country.
There are two key issues with the When of this story.
When does the timeline deviate?
When is the book set?
#1 pushes for a way to simply take the development of the USA in a different direction. What key pieces could be removed or changed to make the way history played out be utterly unbelievable within the world.
So anyway, I think that means I need to kill George Washington.
His personality, values, relationships, and economic priorities shaped so much of the early USA that he’s by *far* the hardest single piece of the USAian puzzle to change.
There are no shortages of moments that could have killed him. From his failed excursions as a commander in the French and Indian war to many, many moments during the revolution itself. I’d think the latter would be ideal.
His legacy could become a natural magnet for the opposition, like John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. That’s a bit heavy-handed, but *waves hand at the whole project*
The other thing #1 pushes on the story is a need for an addition. Some kind of uniting event that shows Husband’s visions and plans to be some kind of inspired writing. With enough oomph to push the plan in place more or less intact despite a hurricane of different kinds of resistance.
Now, this kind of unifying moment only usually happens through stories, and despite Husband’s rhetorical skills and output, his suggestions were largely ignored. So there needs to be a new element to make his ideas more compelling than they proved in history.
Offhand, the only thing that makes sense to me, is a successful long-odds prediction against common wisdom. Something to make his visions more than mere hearsay.
The Christmas story provides some inspiration here. After all, this is a Christian utopia. What could possibly unite a disparate population over long distances and also tie together both Husband’s credibility & the Christian millenarian themes?
Or, wait, hold on.
A star or comet or supernova. Maybe even an eclipse in a pinch.
But some celestial event.
Because this was right in the middle of the dawning age of rationalism, a vision predicting the precise time and place of something strange and unignorable in the sky would be very compelling.
Initial skepticism would only make vindication more potent.
One thing leads to another and suddenly what has been a fringe movement has mainstream credibility. Especially within the context of the “Old Lights” and “New lights” discourse from the era.
This leaves the question of when the novel would be set
Unlike the first question, this seems to have a specific best answer.
After its initial founding, and the reset of the constitution, there was one event that expanded many of the early forces of the founding: The Lousiana Purchase in 1803.
Prior to that agreement, there was a great deal of concern, particularly among slaveholders, that Napoleon might reassert the French empire in the New World. Particularly in New Orleans and Haiti. Alongside European racial solidarity, this was part of why the US encouraged France to retake their primary colony from its rebellion.
I’m not clear on how the politics would shake out exactly, but an attempt to support the Haitian revolution from the USA would be staggeringly expensive from domestic politics.
And one that would potentially provoke renewed French colonial expansion, even shifting the Napoleonic wars from a European conflict to a renewal of France’s colonial empire.
All while pissing off the former slaveholders even more. Perhaps it’d even lead to a much earlier confederacy, powered more by Virginia tobacco than cotton country.
Lots of ways for that to explode in unpredictable ways.
That also leaves plenty of time for an alternative reaction to the articles of confederation and founding the baseline new political system.
All this has been from the colonizer’s perspective, of course. And there are plenty of alternatives to look at. We can be pretty sure that even if this different USA didn’t approve of westward expansion, that the border pressures would still exist and even if the state wanted to protect the sovereignty of say, the Northwestern Confederacy’s territorial claims, they’d have to side against their own citizens.
Which would have broader implications.
After all, the Northwest Indian War would still probably have started. Which is one of many topics I’d need to understand much better.
Savvy readers at this point might ask at this point about the characters or plot. And I have no solid idea of either. I mean, the plot will just be, “Here are some people in a hard circumstance trying to work and scheme their way out of it with terrible consequences.”
As for characters, I think the cast will be 4-5 different people of various ages and backgrounds, probably occupying liminal spaces. At least one of them will disagree with me on absolutely everything.
At least one will be a young politician coming up through Husband’s more complicated system of local politics building up to the nation.
But I think their personalities and points of view will come from the research and I don’t really want to push more without having a lot more done.
On The Newsletter
Ah, that felt good to get out.
It’s tricky to do much more work since I’m now writing this from a family member’s house where I don’t know the wifi PW and my dozens of open tabs are useless at the moment.
It’s always a nice treat to see the kind of domesticity I don’t really have personally, even if it means no wifi.
We started this newsletter in June 2020, mid pandemic. And we’re now kind of winding down what I’ve been thinking of as our third season of content here.
Things are trending in the right direction if nothing else. I’m more consistent than I was a year ago, y’all. And the writing itself has improved.
I was going to do a little analysis of the emails themselves and whatnot but without the Internet that’s unlikely. And I’m not feeling it’s that important now anyway.
What matters, really, is that we’re here and having a moment. Reader and writer. Cut rate telepathy enabled by lightning, crystals, and math.
And we don’t even have to get electrocuted or know shit about math to make it happen.
The family golden retriever is visiting me which means I’m typing one handed. Heh.
Well, I don’t know y’all. The world seems to be going to hell and I seem pretty sure it’ll all work out for me.
Doesn’t sound particularly sane. But what has sanity done for anyone?
Hope y’all are having as good an experience as is possible in these wicked times.
Thanks. It was kinda cathartic to think, at least for a moment, in those What If's of history. Those are spaces to weep, wonder, lament and hope. I also believe that the US as a project would eventually turn to horrid crimes and bloodbaths regardless of way of birth. I've been lagging on a similar idea, but with a sci-fi undertone, of time travellers murdering Reagan and Thatcher while keeping the USSR as a decaying superpower in the XXI century. Gives space to think that a phoenix of emancipatory socialism could emerge from the husk, but then again, it could be squashed as well. In the end, I believe that to write is to imagine and to do so is to go outside the defined boundaries today.