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By Joyce Carol Oates
HarperCollins Publishers Copyright © 2013 Joyce Carol Oates
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ASH WEDNESDAY EVE, 1905
Fellow historians will be shocked, dismayed, and perhaps incredulous — I am daring to suggest that the Curse did not first manifest itself on June 4, 1905, which was the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade's wedding, and generally acknowledged to be the initial public manifestation of the Curse, but rather earlier, in the late winter of the year, on the eve of Ash Wednesday in early March.
This was the evening of Woodrow Wilson's (clandestine) visit to his longtime mentor Winslow Slade, but also the evening of the day when Woodrow Wilson experienced a considerable shock to his sense of family, indeed racial identity.
Innocently it began: at Nassau Hall, in the president's office, with a visit from a young seminarian named Yaeger Washington Ruggles who had also been employed as Latin preceptor at the university, to assist in the instruction of undergraduates. (Intent upon reforming the quality of education at Princeton, with its reputation as a Southern-biased, largely Presbyterian boys' school set beside which its rival Harvard University was a paradigm of academic excellence, Woodrow Wilson had initiated a new pedagogy in which bright young men were hired to assist older professors in their lecture courses; Yaeger Ruggles was one of these young preceptors, popular in the better homes of Princeton as at the university, as eligible bachelors are likely to be in a university town.) Yaeger Ruggles, was a slender, slight, soft-spoken fellow Virginian, a distant cousin of Wilson's who had introduced himself to the university president after he'd enrolled in his first year at the Princeton Theological Seminary; Wilson had personally hired him to be a preceptor, impressed with his courtesy, bearing, and intelligence. At their first meeting, Yaeger Ruggles had brought with him a letter from an elderly aunt, living in Roanoke, herself a cousin of Wilson's father's aunt. This web of intricate connections was very Southern; despite the fact that Woodrow Wilson's branch of the family was clearly more affluent, and more socially prominent than Yaeger Ruggles's family, who dwelt largely in the mountainous area west of Roanoke, Woodrow Wilson had made an effort to befriend the young man, inviting him to the larger receptions and soirees at his home, and introducing him to the sons and daughters of his well-to-do Princeton associates and neighbors. Though older than Ruggles by more than twenty years, Woodrow Wilson saw in his young kinsman something of himself, at an earlier age when he'd been a law student in Virginia with an abiding interest in theology. (Woodrow Wilson was the son of a preeminent Presbyterian minister who'd been a chaplain for the Confederate Army; his maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in Rome, Georgia, also a staunch religious and political conservative.) At the time of Yaeger Ruggles's visit to President Wilson, in his office in Nassau Hall, the two had been acquainted for more than two years. Woodrow Wilson had not seen so much of his young relative as he'd wished, for his Prince ton social life had to be spent in cultivating the rich and influential. "A private college requires donors. Tuition alone is inadequate"— so Woodrow Wilson said often, in speeches as in private conversations. He did regret not seeing more of Yaeger, for he had but three daughters and no son; and now, with his wife's chronic ill health, that had become a sort of malaise of the spirit, as well as her advancing age, it was not likely that Woodrow would ever have a son. Yaeger's warm dark intelligent eyes invariably moved Woodrow to an indefinable emotion, with the intensity of memory. His hair was very dark, as Woodrow's had once been, but thick and springy, where Woodrow's was rather thin, combed flat against his head. And there was something thrilling about the young man's softly modulated baritone voice also, that seemed to remind Wilson of a beloved voice or voices of his childhood in Virginia and Georgia. It had been a wild impulse of Woodrow's — (since childhood in his rigid Presbyterian household, Woodrow had been prone to near-irresistible urges and impulses of every kind, to which he'd rarely given in) — to begin singing in Yaeger's presence, that the younger man might join him; for Woodrow had loved his college glee clubs, and liked to think that he had a passably fair tenor voice, if untrained and, in recent years, unused.
But it would be a Protestant hymn Woodrow would sing with Yaeger, something melancholy, mournful, yearning, and deliciously submissive — Rock of Ages, cleft for me! Let me hide myself in Thee! Let the water and the blood, that thy wounded side did flow ...
Woodrow had not yet heard Yaeger speak in public, but he'd predicted, in Princeton circles, and to the very dean of the seminary himself, that his young "Virginian cousin" would one day be an excellent minister — at which time, Woodrow wryly thought, Yaeger too would understand the value of cultivating the wealthy at the expense of one's own predilections.
But this afternoon, Yaeger Washington Ruggles was not so composed as he usually was. He appeared to be short of breath, as if he'd bounded up the stone steps of Nassau Hall; he did not smile so readily and so sympathetically as he usually did. Nor was his hurried handshake so firm, or so warm. Woodrow saw with a pang of displeasure — (for it pained him, to feel even an inward rebuke of anyone whom he liked) — that the seminarian's shirt collar was open at his throat, as if, in an effort to breathe, he'd unconsciously tugged at it; he had not shaved fastidiously and his skin, ordinarily of a more healthy tone than Woodrow's own, seemed darkened as by a shadow.
"Woodrow! I must speak with you."
"But of course, Yaeger — we are speaking."
Woodrow half-rose from his chair, behind his massive desk; then remained seated, in his rather formal posture. The office of the president was book lined, floor to ceiling; windows opened out onto the cultivated green of Nassau Hall's large and picturesque front lawn, that swept to Nassau Street and the wrought iron gates of the university; and, to the rear, another grassy knoll, that led to Clio and Whig Halls, stately Greek temples of startling if somewhat incongruous Attic beauty amid the darker, Gothic university architecture. Behind Woodrow on the wall was a bewigged portrait of Aaron Burr, Sr., Princeton University's first president to take office in Nassau Hall.
"Yaeger, what is it? You seem troubled."
"You have heard, Woodrow? The terrible thing that happened yesterday in Camden?"
"Why, I think that I — I have not 'heard' ... What is it?"
Woodrow smiled, puzzled. His polished eyeglasses winked.
In fact, Woodrow had been hearing, or half-hearing, of something very ugly through the day, at the Nassau Club where he had had lunch with several trustees and near the front steps of Nassau Hall where he'd overheard several preceptors talking together in lowered voices. (It was a disadvantage of the presidency, as it had not been when Woodrow was a popular professor at the university, that, sighting him, the younger faculty in particular seemed to freeze, and to smile at him with expressions of forced courtesy and affability.) And it seemed to him too, that morning at breakfast, in his home at Prospect, that their Negro servant, Clytie, had been unusually silent, and had barely responded when Woodrow greeted her with his customary warm bright smile — "Good morning, Clytie! What have you prepared for us today?" (For Clytie, though born in Newark, New Jersey, had Southern forebears and could prepare breakfasts of the sort Woodrow had had as a boy in Augusta, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South; she was wonderfully talented, and often prepared a surprise treat for the Wilson family — butternut corn bread, sausage gravy and biscuits, blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, creamy cheese grits and ham-scrambled eggs of which Woodrow, with his sensitive stomach, could eat only a sampling, but which was very pleasing to him as a way of beginning what would likely be one of his complicated, exhausting, and even hazardous days in Nassau Hall.)
Though Woodrow invited Yaeger Ruggles to sit down, the young seminarian seemed scarcely to hear and remained standing; in fact, nervously pacing about in a way that grated on his elder kinsman's nerves, as Yaeger spoke in a rambling and incoherent manner of — (the term was so vulgar, Woodrow held himself stiff as if in opposition to the very sound) — an incident that had occurred the previous night in Camden, New Jersey— lynching.
And another ugly term which made Woodrow very uneasy, as parents and his Virginian and Georgian relatives were not unsympathetic to the Protestant organization's goals if not its specific methods — Klu Klux Klan.
"There were two victims, Woodrow! Ordinarily, there is just one — a helpless man — a helpless black man— but last night, in Camden, in that hellish place, which is a center of 'white supremacy'— there was a male victim, and a female. A nineteen-year-old boy and his twenty-three-year-old sister, who was pregnant. You won't find their names in the newspapers — the Trenton paper hasn't reported the lynching at all, and the Newark paper placed a brief article on an inside page. The Klan led a mob of people — not just men but women, and young children — ho were looking for a young black man who'd allegedly insulted a white man on the street — whoever the young black man was, no one was sure — but they came across another young man named Pryde who was returning home from work, attacked him and beat him and dragged him to be hanged, and his sister tried to stop them, tried to attack some of them and was arrested by the sheriff of Camden County and handcuffed, then turned over to the mob. By this time —"
"Yaeger, please! Don't talk so loudly, my office staff will hear. And please — if you can — stop your nervous pacing." Woodrow removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed at his warm forehead. How faint-headed he was feeling! This ugly story was not something Woodrow had expected to hear, amid a succession of afternoon appointments in the president's office in Nassau Hall. And Woodrow was seriously concerned that his office staff, his secretary Matilde and her assistants, might overhear the seminarian's raised voice and something of his words, which could not fail to appall them. Yaeger protested, "But, Woodrow — the Klan murdered two innocent people last night, hardly more than fifty miles from Princeton — from this very office! That they are 'Negroes' does not make their suffering and their deaths any less horrible. Our students are talking of it — some of them, Southerners, are joking of it — your faculty colleagues are talking of it — every Negro in Princeton knows of it, or something of it — the most hideous part being, after the Klan leaders hanged the young man, and doused his body with gasoline and lighted it, his sister was brought to the same site, to be murdered beside him. And the sheriff of Camden County did nothing to prevent the murders and made no attempt to arrest or even question anyone afterward. There were said to have been more than seven hundred people gathered at the outskirts of Camden, to witness the lynchings. Some were said to have crossed the bridge from Philadelphia — the lynching must have been planned beforehand. The bodies burned for some time — some of the mob was taking pictures. What a nightmare! In our Christian nation, forty years after the Civil War! It makes me ill — sick to death ... These lynchings are common in the South, and the murderers never brought to justice, and now they have increased in New Jersey, there was a lynching in Zarephath only a year ago — here the 'white supremacists' have their own church — the Pillar of Fire — and in the Pine Barrens, and in Cape May ..."
"These are terrible events, Yaeger, but — why are you telling me about them, at such a time? I am upset too, of course — as a Christian, I cannot countenance murder — or any sort of mob violence — we must have a 'rule of law'— not passion — but — if law enforcement officers refuse to arrest the guilty, and local sentiment makes a criminal indictment and a trial unlikely — what are we, here in Princeton, to do? There are barbarous places in this country, as in the world — at times, a spirit of infamy — evil ..."
Woodrow was speaking rapidly. By now he was on his feet, agitated. It was not good for him, his physician had warned him, to become excited, upset, or even emotional — since childhood, Woodrow had been an over-sensitive child, and had suffered ill health well into his teens; he could not bear it, if anyone spoke loudly or emotionally in his presence, his heart beat rapidly and erratically bearing an insufficient amount of blood to his brain, that began to "faint" — and so now Woodrow found himself leaning forward, resting the palms of his hands on his desk blotter, his eyesight blotched and a ringing in his ears; his physician had warned him, too, of high blood pressure, which was shared by many in his father's family, that might lead to a stroke; even as his inconsiderate young kinsman dared to interrupt him with more of the lurid story, more ugly and unfairly accusatory words — "You, Woodrow, with the authority of your office, can speak out against these atrocities. You might join with other Princeton leaders — Winslow Slade, for instance — you are a good friend of Reverend Slade's, he would listen to you — and others in Princeton, among your influential friends. The horror of lynching is that no one stops it; among influential Christians like yourself, no one speaks against it."
Woodrow objected, this was not true: "Many have spoken against — that terrible mob violence — 'lynchings.' I have spoken against— 'lynchings.' I hope that my example as a Christian has been — is — a model of — Christian belief— 'Love thy neighbor as thyself '— it is the lynchpin of our religion ..." (Damn! — he had not meant to say lynchpin: a kind of demon had tripped his tongue, as Yaeger stared at him blankly.)
Excerpted from The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright © 2013 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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