Born in 1844, Liberty Fish is the descendant of both Carolina slaveholders and New York abolitionists. In hopes of reconciling the warring strands of his heritage, he escapes his home in the North first into the cauldron of the Civil War, and then into the even more disturbing bedlam that follows.
The Amalgamation Polka showcases not only the brutality of this tragic passage in American history, but also its surprising compassion and hope. In language both true to its time and completely modern, it is revelatory and mesmerizing, a novel that "will bring a smile to your own lips as it sets your brain on fire." (Jason McBride, the Village Voice).
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The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud. Outsized country feet that just wouldn’t keep still, strutting and reeling all along that slippery stretch of flooded road. Yellow paste clung to the hems of their gowns, flecked sunburnt arms and whiskery cheeks, collected in thick earthen coins upon the lacy ruffles of their modest chests like a hero’s worth of medals artlessly arranged. A cold rain fell and continued to fall over the lost hills, the yet smoking fields, the rude, misshapen trees where light—vague and uncertain—struggled to furnish the day with the grainy quality of a fogged daguerreotype. And at the center of this dripping stillness these loud animated women without origin or explanation, refugees from a traveling circus perhaps, abandoned out of forgetfulness or deceit or simple spite, the improvised conclusion to some sorry affair of outrage and betrayal, and as they danced, they sang and reveled in the rain, porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand, the echo of their song sounding harshly across that desolate country:
Soupy, soupy, soupy, without any bean
Porky, porky, porky, without any lean
Coffee, coffee, coffee, without any cream
On a rise back of the road stood a tall white frame house with long white curtains flung twisted and sodden from the open windows. A solitary blackbird perched atop the brick chimney, its beaded prismatic head jerking mechanically about. Several emaciated hogs rooted with audible vigor among the stumps of broken furniture, the puddles of bright clothing littering the trampled yard. From out the shadowed doorway flew an enameled jewelry box, bouncing once, twice, and off into the weeds. Followed quickly by an English plate, a soiled pair of ripped pantaloons, a clanging case clock, an oval looking glass that vanished upon an upended table leg in a burst of twinkling confetti—the house methodically emptying itself out. A pregnant sow shifted its spotted flanks, then resumed gnawing at the gilded frame of a painting in the grand style of Washington and Cornwallis at Yorktown. A bearded lady appeared at the door bearing before her a magnificent rosewood chair, the ruby red brocade of its seat and arms mounting up in lurid flame. The hurled chair landed upright in the mud where it continued to burn, to reduce itself to skeletal blackness, to pure idea. The bearded lady watched, haloed in the fires now leaping madly behind her. Curds of gray smoke were crowding out from under the cedar shakes. The house began to make a great whooshing sound. Flakes of wet ash blew down out of an opal sky.
The figure was already running when the bearded ladies glimpsed it, rushing slantwise down the clay slope as if materialized in mid-stride out of some adjacent realm of unendurable horror and perpetual flight.
“It’s a nigger!” cried one of the ladies.
She was young and barefoot and clothed in woolen rags. The clear terror in her touched even them standing there astounded for once in their ruined fashions and waterlogged boots. They watched agape this sudden apparition go bounding up the road like a wild hare and as the size of her steadily diminished in the misting distance an unaccountable rage grew large among them. Without word or gesture they moved off as one in raucous pursuit. It was a remarkable sight. Splashing and howling, jostling for position like whipped racing ponies, all bobbing beards and bonnets, stumbling on petticoats, sliding belly down into the mire, they presented a spectacle of hermaphroditic frenzy such as few could imagine. In a moment they were strung out wheezing in the muck. All but one. Audacious in a poke bonnet and bombazine dress, she rapidly outdistanced the rest, she hounded her quarry, she ran like a mother possessed, in a fit of chastisement, hard on the heels of an impudent daughter. Over the near hill and down, up the far hill and gone.
When at last the others found them, they were fallen and half-buried in the melting loam of an eroded embankment, their partially clad bodies so slathered with mud as to be almost unrecognizable, ill-formed creatures who had failed some evolutionary test. The bearded lady was settled in between the girl’s thin bare shanks and well into her work, the bonnet wadded fiercely into the girl’s bleed- ing mouth, a crude brand of the letter D gleaming on the lady’s exposed cheek. The girl’s eyes were closed. She might have been unconscious. The stragglers stood about in an uneasy huddle, turning to study now and again the dreary emptiness of the road, the earth, the sky, waiting like patient cattle in the rain, the tattered remnants of contemporary finery hiked to their armpits, buttons undone on the filthy breeches beneath, waiting politely in turn, their pink manhood carelessly exposed. Someone belched; another laughed. Soon the last of the pale light would draw off into the pine hills, shielding from hostile eyes the occupations of these costumed shapes in a starless obscurity, in the cloaked freedom of the night.
There was a gorilla in the White House and a long-tailed mulatto presiding over the Senate chamber and the dreams of the Republic were dark and troubling.
He was born in the fall of the time at the end of time. The signs were plain for all with an eye to read: the noonday passage the previous spring of a great comet—“the marvel of the age!”—the swift echelons of croaking blackbirds flocking north for the winter, the collapse of the revival tent up in Rochester where, miraculously, not a single soul was harmed. Cows walked backward through the meadows; well water turned overnight into vinegar. Surely the advent of eternity was at hand. The vine was about to be reaped.
At dusk on the evening of October 22, 1844 (the date deter- mined by the divine computations of an ex-sheriff and self-taught biblical scholar), the ascension-robed faithful gathered anxiously in churches and meetinghouses, along rooftops, the branches of trees and out upon high desolate hillsides—the nearer to glory—hymns and prayers keeping them through the final chill hours of that long last day until, instead of the Bridegroom, there appeared in the eastern sky the tentative kindling of just another dawn, proof that, for now, time would have no end, the body no release, and outside Delphi, New York, the disappointed crowd, waistcoat watches ticking steadfastly on, descended the knoll out of Briarwood Cemetery past the leafless, unscorched elms, the cold, unharrowed graves and into the welcoming arms of no company of saints but a taunting, unredeemed mob from town brandishing brickbats and stones.
So the trials of America were not to be so speedily concluded. Hours more must be drowned in sin, the sun darkened to a seal of pitch, before God would deliver this errant nation from the wickedness of history.
Nine days later Liberty Fish was born.
His mother, Roxana, did not expect to survive the occasion, the birthing chair having served all too often as a makeshift gallows for women of the family, carrying off Grammy Bibb, several faceless cousins, a favorite aunt with dimples deep enough for planting and her eldest sister, Aurore, the blonde darling of Stono County, who stoically kneaded at her bedclothes for three frightful days before producing a male nonesuch that Father hastily wrapped in red flannel and buried in an unmarked hole behind the smokehouse on the morning she died, crying out at the end in a mystic guttural tongue none understood or recognized. Passage to that Good Land seemed to be neither fair nor fleet. The moment Roxana realized she was growing a baby she understood immediately what she must do: prepare herself like a warrior on the eve of battle. She had read The Iliad in the original Greek at the age of sixteen; she knew what was required.
The annunciatory instant, as clear to her now as present vision, occurred as she stood defiantly in the pulpit of the Pleasance Street Methodist Church in Utica, struggling to lift her modest voice above the clanging, the braying, the whistling, the clapping of the protest- ing horde outside. She had just finished reciting the Declaration of Independence—amazing the ardor those few simple words could still arouse almost seventy years later—when a boyish, moon-faced man in a rusty black coat climbed atop a pew and, shouting above the clamor of fists drumming angrily upon the walls, inquired of Roxana whether he could approach and feel her chin for evidence of a beard. A dozen men rose in outraged objection, and as Roxana waited patiently for the commotion to subside—a small, still figure at the eye of her nation’s storm—she felt an unmistakable flutter of ghostly deli-cacy, a kind of spiritual hiccough, pass hastily through her frame, and at once she knew: a skull had begun to swell between her hips.
“Nonsense,” declared her sister-in-law, Aroline. “No one’s departing this household just yet, as long as I have any say in the matter.”
“But I want this child,” Roxana said in her soft drawl that always struck Aroline’s northern ears as the sound a cloud might make if it could talk.
“And so you shall, my dear, and many more besides.”
The thought depleted Roxana. Did she truly want even this one? She fell into a prolonged and uncharacteristic period of distraction. Days came and went, but she was no longer a passenger. The most trivial tasks eluded her. The careless placement of a spoon or cup on the kitchen table, a particular patch of sunstruck wallpaper, acquired a mesmeric fascination. She could lose herself for hours (and go she knew not where) in the view from her bedroom window, the barren hills lying motionless in the bleak February light like a corpse sprawled on its side. A single spider dangling on a single thread from a peeling porch beam was the saddest sight in the world. She kept misplacing her heavy ring of house keys. The pauses in her evening conversations with Aroline grew so lengthy she’d forget she was even speaking to anyone. At night, during those rare intervals when sleep actually came, she’d persist in dreaming that she was awake and rise in the morning achy and exhausted, a dark and haunted look hovering prominently about her solemn brown eyes.
Aroline did what Aroline did best: she worried. She left copies of The Journal of Health and Longevity or The Cold Water Journal or any of the sundry ultraist periodicals she subscribed to lying strategically around the house, pages opened to pertinent passages. Ever fashion’s weather vane, she had already sampled a full course of the latest faiths, philosophies and fads, including vegetarianism, hydrotherapy, phrenology, perfectionism and harmonialism. She had been among the expectant number huddled atop the cemetery knoll, her presence testifying at least to the possibility, if not the hope, that the prophet’s words were more than mere animal sounds but actual reverberations of gospel thunder, just as she was convinced there were embers of revealed truth in every belief fervently held. Fervency was the key, the sign incontrovertible of spirit leaking in through the cracks of this darkling world.
Roxana ignored the magazines, left the room at any mention of Grahamizing her diet and, despite Aroline’s pleas, refused to consult a doctor, seeing no reason for outside advice on a matter women had been handling quite well on their own since Eve birthed Cain. Her attention was wholly bent on registering the most minute operations of her Internal Monitor, a phantom elusiveness that communicated at confoundingly irregular intervals through either a sort of coded rapping upon the walls of her soul or, more directly, in an actual voice, never her own, a child’s urgent whisper, so thin at times as to be practically inaudible. Such messages that she did receive—however obscure, paradoxical or contradictory—had always proven to be reliable governors through life’s terrible riddle. So it was clearly disquieting to suffer her faithful Monitor behaving like an inept, even outright fraudulent, fortune-teller. Giddily, it swung first one way, then the other, as if her heart were the dead pendulum weight of a great faceless clock. The chords of her desires seemed far, far out of reach, and she felt hopeless, lost, utterly alone. The sun was an egg, the moon a bone, and she couldn’t rid her mind of the singsong facts of that obvious perception. Such straw her head was stuffed with. But then, inexplicably, the color of her mood would flare into an afternoon’s, sometimes a whole day’s, conviction of supreme imperishability. Every significant event of her life, of everybody’s life, was bathed in the hard liberating light of inevitability, and backward through the dark confusions of her past was opened a route to those charmed moments when absolute rightness descended like grace, the radiance she had migrated beneath after turning her back on hearth and home and, like the distraught heroine of an Old World romance, fleeing the gates of Redemption Hall forever, or the exaltation of her first galvanic glimpse of the young Thatcher amid the marble and potted palms of the Congress Hotel in Saratoga Springs, the nimbus crowning his head savage as hellfire. But then, as abruptly as a wind-extinguished candle, the sovereign light would go out and the night rush in, attended by a whole motley zoo of familiars—chattering doubt, thumping care, heckling vexation—and thought was an anarchy of remains in a moldering tomb.
When Thatcher returned, several months overdue, from his latest provocative circuit of western churches, he found his wife out back, coatless in the bitter air, unmittened fingers clutching the wooden rim of the well, her boyish body angled out precariously over the hole as if she were searching for something precious she had dropped. Her face was blotched and wet and he was surprised—he had never seen her cry before. When he took her in his arms, she began to tremble.
“My life is over,” she sobbed. Around them the frozen trees swayed and creaked like giant chandeliers caught in a draft. Tinkling crystals of ice plopped without cease onto the thick carpet of snow.
“No, no,” said Thatcher, his own voice a stranger’s to his ear. “No.” He had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t know what to do but keep patting her mechanically on her quavering back, his uncertain hand running up and down the hard china knobs of her spine.
When Roxana finally dared to look up at her husband, her expression emptied of all defenses, she gasped, reaching out to touch the monstrous swelling around his half-closed eye where the skin bulged with organic color normally kept from view.
“It’s nothing,” Thatcher said, brushing her hand away. “The mark of Christian love. Tell me what’s happened here.”
So she did, and the very words themselves, spoken out loud at last to the one person they’d always been silently directed toward, settled like ballast deep inside her. “And I keep thinking,” she concluded, in a surprisingly firm voice, “of all those babies who need me.” She could see them, too, infinite acres of squalling infants, manacled each to each, horrible in number, every fresh tiny mind merely another receptacle of sufficient dimension to contain entire the whole of the world’s pain, the chorus of their shrieks and wails rising like incense unto the stone nostrils of the father whose true features were perpetually obscured by the human mask of God.
Thatcher smiled. “This is wonderful news. But our child will need you as well.”
“Yes,” she agreed, and the look she gave him quivered for a moment and then broke, and there were tears on her face again. She was terrified of failing, of loosening her grip for even an instant on the file she had wielded for so many years, her heart’s herald, the friction of her eloquence, rasping away in the gloom at the chain that bound up the land.
Thatcher hugged his wife tightly to his chest. “I doubt,” he said, “that the country will begrudge you the time spent caring for your own.”
“Is this pride?” she asked suddenly, pushing herself away, anxiously searching the mystery of his eyes. “Is this pride I am suffering from?”
A wind came up in a wild rushing from the valley floor, driving before it a hard, dry flurry, flakes as coarse as sand, stinging their cheeks, hissing across the sugary crust of fallen snow where the forked tracks of nameless birds and rodents traced a mad, illegible script.
“You are the least proud creature that I know,” said Thatcher, taking her icy hand. “Come now, let’s get back inside. You have to start taking better care of yourself. There’s a needy visitor coming to our life.”
They moved off, arm in arm, toward the tall stone house where from behind the curtains of an upstairs window watched the shadowy figure of Aroline, and the monotone sky moved over their bowed heads in a single seamless sheet of dunnest gray.
So, warily, with Thatcher at her side, Roxana settled into the facts of her condition. And as if to prove to herself that nothing had changed, nothing ever need change, she rediscovered the iron in her soul and, shamelessly exploiting her burgeoning belly as both shield and goad, ventured back out onto the lecture circuit, a leather fire bucket at her feet, delivering through the iridescent scrim of passing nausea a milky denunciation of the American Constitution. But the yeasty tide sweeping through her was undeniable, and as the shape of her body quickened and swelled so, too, did the shape of the world until both, strangely congruous, loomed large, unwieldy, insolently expectant. In other humors, however, she was attended by the notion that her being had been overmastered by a species of machine, the ruthless cogs and wheels of Nature inflexible, to which she must submit or risk prolonged breakage on the teeth of the mechanism.
One long unpleasant night Roxana passed under the shade of a terrible dream: the dreaded birth, pronounced a whacking success by the crush of obscure relatives and anonymous friends milling mindlessly about the bloodied bed, had come and quit with less fuss than a spring shower. The peril was past that she had, unaccountably, survived, and nestled in her arms lay the issue of all her anxiety: an infant well-formed and healthy and male and quite black—the latter trait gone strangely unremarked by all save Roxana, who had lately been seized by a nameless foreboding. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t unbend, her skin all full of furry spiders. In a panic, she stole her child and fled out into the countryside, past pasture and pond, down dark roads into darker woods. She ran and ran until her legs failed, and on the bank of a clear-rushing stream she placed the baby in a conveniently abandoned canoe and pushed it free of the mud on a journey to a far better shore.
She awoke with sweat on her brow and a trembling in her limbs, staring at the gray rectangle of her bedroom window until grayness dissolved in the slow, liquid light of dawn. She slept fitfully for weeks afterward, afraid of the places her dreams might carry her.
Then, one perfectly ordinary day, without fanfare or gonfalon, the great thing simply commenced. She was alone in the house at the time—Thatcher off on another hazardous mission across the Ohio, Aroline gone to town shopping—and she had been feeling slightly “vague” (there was no more precise word for it) since arising, a sensation she habitually associated with just being alive, when abstraction resolved itself into a pang, then another, and another, and she knew the contest had begun. She went out onto the porch and sat in the rocker watching the solid, solid hills and the bright autumnal sky. She was still sitting there waiting for whatever was to happen when Aroline, nose mask tied firmly across her face (a practical precaution she indulged whenever a nip entered the air), returned in the trap with a basketful of morally sanctioned supplies from the Requited Labor Grocery and Dry Goods Store and breathless news of the Grand Rally for Polk that had transformed their drowsy town square into a reveler’s midway, the normal day’s routine being apparently suspended for the duration. A Brass Band! Military Procession! Oratory and Cannonades! Oysters and Ices! Roman Candles at Eight! Then Aroline noticed what was written on Roxana’s face and, recognizing the text at a glance, immediately hustled her protesting sister-in-law up to bed where she ordered her to remain while Aroline went off in search of a reliable physician.
Two agonizing hours later, reliability presented itself in the disheveled person of Dr. Timothy Margrave, a small, narrow, agitated man with big, hairy ears and a disconcertingly blank gaze typically centered on a point several feet behind the head being addressed. He was wearing a frayed, ill-fitting coat speckled fore and aft with whitish stains of indeterminate origin. If his manner seemed lacking even its usual gruff charm, he hastened to inform the women, it was due to his having been called away from treating a considerable wound to Mayor Twiggs’s backside in order to observe a rather common labor. His Honor had just concluded a rousing stemwinder on behalf of the Democratic candidate for the presidency (“this loyal ‘Napoleon of the Stump,’ this fighting champion of independence, this patriotic foe of all foreign powers who would oppose our Union’s triumphant march toward its divine destiny”) and was basking in the cheers and applause, trying to collect his own breath, when a black-and-white mongrel no one in the crowd would claim ran up out of nowhere and planted a sharp set of little teeth into the invitingly ample seat of the mayoral pants. Town wags remarked that the animal must have been a Clay raccoon.
The doctor called for a sheet which he carelessly draped over Roxana’s recoiling body and, studiously averting his eyes, proceeded, with cold, rough hands, to examine her “down there.” Roxana stared at the molded plaster scallops on the ceiling and imagined herself up on the auction block, proud features washed and greased, enduring inspection by strange male fingers whose right to probe the very orifices of your flesh was sanctioned by law and blessed by the church. Dr. Margrave removed his arms from beneath the covering, announced that the business was progressing nicely and, clapping beaver to head, unceremoniously took his leave. He feared complications in the delicate case of that executive posterior.
The door had no sooner clicked shut than Roxana had sat bolt upright, torn the sheet from her body and flung the offending wad of linen into her sister-in-law’s stoical face. Then, leaning from her bolstered bed, she let fly a healthy gob of spittle onto the exact spot where the good doctor had stood, declaring that should another medical man dare set foot in this house ever again she would personally stick him in the ass with his own catlin. Without a word of rebuke, Aroline rushed over to wipe up the floor with a lavender-scented handkerchief, few surprises left for her in Roxana’s bag of tricks. My mother did this, Roxana declared fiercely to herself. She did it eight times. I can do it once. Trying not to dwell on such particulars as the roomful of family, neighbors, servants—women all—ministering to each of her mother’s deliveries, fetching water, massaging limbs, diverting her mind with gossip, while she (Roxana) would be forced to abide her maiden labor alone but for a scatterbrained spinster whose notion of nonpareil care was a cold compress and an electromagnetic machine.
On the wall opposite the bed hung a framed lithograph of the Water Witch, a full-rigged, canvas-bellied clipper ship heeling majestically before the wind (another of Thatcher’s divers fancies that he might, upon awakening, gaze dreamily from his pillow for a jeweled moment or two upon a reminder of realms the mind could populate to suit its occasional need for motion, space, unfettered light). A beveled tower of rounded sail and triangular line, the ship bore down upon the viewer like a charging elephant. From atop successively elevated peaks of pain and fearing the ranges yet to come, Roxana concentrated on the deceptively clean proportions of this picture, the geometry of rope alone offering numerous focal points within which consciousness might vanish, as the entire room moved and the air bloomed and the halyards sang and the pennants popped and the timbers groaned from truck to keel, amidships the atmosphere a virtual soup of noxious vapors (of garbage, feces, tar and mold), the dayworld present, when at all, in a slender pole of piercingly bright light that shifted about playfully from an opportune knothole in the planks overhead, as if wielded by some mischievous fellow up top attempting to torment further this wretched company of prostrate gentlemen, unkempt wives of the once and future variety, and a dozen or so weepy indentured servants with a random touch of his magic healing wand. Too late for sister Rosetta, already gone over, in Paradise ahead of the rest, the wasted body she’d left behind attractive bait for ship rats big as terriers that grew bolder by the hour. Her own strength failing, she didn’t know how much longer she could keep the vermin at bay. (Roxana realizing only now that this alien life she found herself occupying with such morbid intensity was, in fact, that of Great-grandmother May, braving Atlantic chop and the parlous unknown for one final turn of Fortune’s wheel.) Her lips were cracked, her throat swollen, her stomach unmoored, the water in the drinking casks having long since turned foul, strung now with intricate webs of a white sticky matter too horrid to contemplate, let alone swallow, while under her, now and forever, the lift and pull of the sea shuddering through the hull ancient as time, the force of God’s terrible hands moving mercilessly upon your body, and a voice cried out America! and, despite the captain’s injunctions against passengers above decks, all who were able rushed up to the rail to behold the dim horizon line slowly spread and thicken into a vernal ache of purest wonder.
“It’s a boy,” Aroline declared flatly, thrusting into dramatic view a wailing, wriggling, shimmery thing of mottled red and blue that Roxana recognized instantly as a glistening piece of her own heart.
Liberty was always afraid of the dark. Even as a young man he required the company of an attentive flame standing watch over his bedded self because the night, he had come to know, was populated by a host of ravening forms and the fear of being plucked, stolen away physically, even spiritually, from the familiar, from the family itself, remained a sentiment not easily outgrown.
“Born with an anxious make,” pronounced Aunt Aroline, “like all the Fishes—and no, don’t for an instant suspect I am excluding myself from such a judgement.”
It was a mother’s tender stratagem that first coaxed the reluctant boy from the trundle bed at the foot of his parents’ high poster and up the narrow complaining stairs to the snuggly roost prepared for him under the sloping rafters.
“This is the tower,” Roxana explained, in her best maternal voice, “of a great castle. And this”—she gestured rather airily about the truncated space in which they stood like museum visitors side by side, mother and son—“is the hidden keep where the prince resides until the fateful day he is called upon to become king.”
Liberty was skeptical; such a drab cubbyhole seemed, even to his untutored eye, to exhibit more of the characteristics of a prison cell than those of a richly appointed chamber for nobility. Roxana pressed a hand gently into the feathered ticking until it sank from view, demonstrating the sumptuous nocturnal pleasures awaiting a royal heir. She flung open the window, admitting the clemency of spring, its sweet pastoral breath, and the nervous twitter and rustle of sparrows on the roof. Liberty wheeled abruptly about and marched disdainfully from the room.
His inaugural night alone in the place, bound in a darkness so complete he might as well have been blind, he bawled inconsolably at such length and with such force he periodically lost his wind in prolonged fits of horrible gasping exaggerated only slightly for the benefit of any listening parental ears. Then, well past the death of all hope, the stairs awakened into their distinctive squeak, I’m coming, I’m coming, and the door suddenly swung open upon the forbidding specter of his father, splashed from the waist up in a wild fearful light that played eerily across his chest and cast the fond features of the paternal face into an inhuman mask of malign relief. Cupped in Thatcher’s enormous hands like a transparent chalice of fire was a half-filled tumbler of water topped by a layer of whale oil upon whose trembling surface floated a cork disk, its perforated center containing a lighted wick that dangled down into the clear liquid like an undulating worm. Placing this improvised night lamp on a deal table beyond the range of Liberty’s arm, Thatcher settled on the edge of the bed, took his son’s warm, damp hand in his own and waited patiently for the boy’s heaving body to subside. Then he asked, kindly, “Are you finished?” Liberty nodded. Unable to confront his father’s gaze, the boy studied the seemingly autonomous motions of his own fingers, writhing and rubbing endlessly one against the other.
“I appreciate your position,” began Thatcher. “Solitude, night, bumps and cries and all that, but I think you should understand there will come a time, believe it or not, when you will wish to leave home, to embark on your own adventure without comfort of escort or entourage. Remember, your grandfather Azariah didn’t help Colonel Knox haul sixty tons of artillery three hundred miles over the Berkshires in the dead of winter for you to squander the precious nights of your earthly sojourn blubbering like an infant because your parents weren’t snoring contentedly away in the same room with you. So, to help conduct you safely to the portal of that ordained future, I have brought you this lamp.”
He then proceeded to instruct his son on the manifold hazards of combustion, especially the trickiness involved in keeping it tamed within doors. Did Liberty know the tale of Brother Latimer out on the Old Cayuga Road? Well, one evening not so long ago, far past the midnight chimes, the good brother could be found hunched at his desk, desperately laboring over his accounts, endeavoring by a fantastic stroke of the pen to convert two dollars into three, when, the hour late, his vitality low, Brother Latimer fell dead asleep facedown in the wet ink, and sometime before dawn his unconscious hand, reaching out for an object in a dream, toppled the candle and up went the books, up went the house and up went Brother Latimer, his wife and three children. Do you want to go up? Do you want your mother and me to go up? Then don’t touch the taper.
Liberty’s eyes were yet as big as boiled eggs when his mother joined them, enveloped in the restorative aroma of warm gingerbread emanating from the platterful of cookies she presented to her son, each cookie cut in the shape of a kneeling slave, shackled arms lifted beseechingly in prayer.
Liberty rode out the night in the embrace of several large pillows, munching beaverlike through one gingery figure after another, ever alert to the least fluctuation of that dim yellowy bead wantonly adrift upon its isle of cork over immensities of dream tide, until morning light found him asleep at last, a half-eaten cookie clutched in one chubby fist, the abandoned plate lying slantwise beside him on the bed, empty now save for a dusting of crumbs and a scattered cairn of neatly nibbled little brown heads.
Any wonder then that his earliest memory was baptized in the magic of fire? He was perched on his father’s bony knee, clasped in arms of majestic strength, wine-scented masculine breath beating softly about his ears, the surrounding room hot, smoky, clamorous with strangers who kept approaching to pat his head, chuck his chin, screw up their faces and otherwise bleat, coo, croon and declaim, all of which Liberty pointedly ignored in favor of the intoxicating scene spread wide before him, the eternal drama of wood burning on the hearth where the wee orange people lived and capered among the crackling logs. Here was a world more real, playful strife and perpetual metamorphosis holding lovely reign, and as he watched, Liberty wanted to live there, too.
Reading Group Guide
“Endlessly beguiling [by] an extravagantly talented novelist. . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Stephen Wright’s ferocious and phantasmagoric novel The Amalgamation Polka.
1. What is the significance of the novel’s opening vignette? When and where might it be taking place? Who are the “bearded ladies” and in what way is their true gender revealed? At what other points in this novel do characters dress in the garments of another sex, and for what reasons? How is cross-dressing related to other kinds of imposture and transformation that figure in Wright’s book?
2. Liberty is born at a time when many people are expecting the end of the world and are alert to portents that foretell it. Discuss the role of portents and omens in this novel. Which characters are guided by them, and to what effect? How is this theme reflected in Liberty’s early conviction that “this world was not what it seemed, that closely hidden behind the mundane affairs of the day lurked layer upon unexamined layer of outright strangeness, of which what passed for ordinary was merely the protective outer covering, the skin, so to speak, of a beast so huge, so vital, it could never be discerned whole in all its proportions” [p. 207]? What might that beast be?
3. The Amalgamation Polka presents us with two families, the Fishes of Delphi, New York, and the Maurys of South Carolina. How would you compare these families, their views of race, their styles of child rearing, and their relative union or disunion? What do you make of the fact that both produce children who run away from home? Which family is better adapted to its time and place? Which one is happier?
4. Thatcher and Roxana are driven by a sense of duty so powerful that it sometimes causes them to neglect their child (indeed, Roxana worries that her devotion to Liberty may be mere pride [p. 11]). Do Asa and Ida Maury have anything comparable, or think they have? What relation does Wright draw between his characters’ sense of higher responsibility–to God or humanity, or one section of it–and their happiness as individuals? What might the parents among them think of their child-obsessed modern counterparts?
5. As a boy, Liberty has a number of teachers, beginning with Ma’am L’Orange and proceeding through his parents, Uncle Potter, and the former slave Euclid. What lessons do these teachers impart to him? Which of them does the most to shape his adult character? Does Liberty’s grandfather Asa also function as a kind of teacher, and if so what does he teach him?
6. Euclid’s way of teaching Liberty about slavery is to make him feel the scars on his back [p. 23]. Where else in the book is slavery presented as a state of injury, inflicted by one race on another? Are those injuries always physical? And do they only affect slaves?
7. The Fishes have dedicated their lives to ending slavery and freeing its victims. But the novel envisions more than one kind of freedom. Discuss the ideas of freedom embodied in such characters as the 146-year-old pirate Fife, Uncle Potter, and Simms, the Georgia farmer who has seceded from the Secession. Which of them is the most free? In the scheme of this novel, is freedom the same thing as happiness?
8. Just as The Amalgamation Polka encompasses multiple definitions of freedom, it also recognizes the diversity of opinion among those ostensibly fighting for it. Not all the men Liberty serves with are opposed to slavery, and some, like the odious McGee, hate “Ethiopians” as bitterly as any secessionist [p. 176]. What, then, might such men be fighting for? Do we see similar schisms among the novel’s Confederates? Does The Amalgamation Polka portray the Civil War as a conflict between two sides or as a war of all against all?
9. During their trip up the Erie Canal, Liberty and his father are entertained by a grisly public exhibition of dentistry, in which an unfortunate sufferer has a tooth pulled with the help of volunteers from the audience [pp. 95—99]. Where else in the novel do we encounter exhibitions, some comic, some nightmarish? Who is it that is put on display on these occasions, and who is meant to see them? How do exhibitions fit into the novel’s theme of an invisible world hidden beneath reality?
10. The Amalgamation Polka contains some bravura scenes of violence in which human destructiveness is sometimes indistinguishable from natural cataclysm (“Then, with a sudden whoosh, the night simply broke apart upon a rock of delirious flame” [p. 66]; “He also noticed in every direction small geysers of dirt were spraying into the air as if the bubbling ground itself were being cooked over a slow, mammoth fire” [p. 179]). What might this say about how the author sees the relationship between the human and the natural? Which of the book’s characters justify their behavior–or condemn other people’s–by invoking nature?
11. Just as it is preoccupied with what constitutes nature, The Amalgamation Polka is also concerned with what it is to be human. After testing Potter’s rifle on an imaginary “puke,” or slave-holder, Liberty realizes that “Pukes were not pards or pigs or pumas. Pukes were people” [p. 69]. Later, he scolds his grandfather for speaking of dead slaves as “articles”: “May I remind you that those ‘articles’ were once human beings” [p. 241]. In what other ways does Wright develop the theme of the human? At what points in the novel are human beings treated like beasts or machines or inanimate objects? At what points do they become them? And where in the novel are dehumanized humans restored to their original condition?
12. The primary narrative of The Amalgamation Polka is frequently interrupted or embroidered by lesser narratives, many of them told by its characters. What role do such stories–for example, that of Potter’s bloody expedition to Kansas or Roxana’s flight from the South–play within the larger narrative? How are they related to the many journeys the characters undertake, from Liberty’s voyage up the Erie Canal with his father to his later wanderings through the wreckage of the Confederacy? Discuss The Amalgamation Polka’s relation to such similarly digressive works as Huckleberry Finn or Gravity’s Rainbow.
13. Discuss the meaning of the terms “amalgamation” and “amalgamator” in this novel. Who uses it pejoratively? Who employs it as a term of pride? Given the grotesque experiments he turns out to be performing on his slaves–some of whom are also his children–might Asa Maury be the book’s truest amalgamator?
14. In the course of The Amalgamation Polka, families are shattered, innocent people die horrible deaths, and an entire nation is convulsed by war. For all that, would you describe it as a tragic novel, and if not, why?