These thirteen tales are populated by an assortment of fictional as well as real characters, all of them vividly sketched and true-to-life: the botanist Linnaeus, the composer Offenbach, the poet Hart Crane, the visionary horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a southern sheriff, a dealer in rare books, a country singer, an old maid (and her suitor), and a mathematician. Whether these stories are deemed disquieting, comic, prophetic, or tall in the telling, they show us worlds where the truth reveals itself in many shapes. Throughout the writings comprising More Shapes Than One, Fred Chappell's storytelling magic transforms the commonplace.
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About the Author
Fred Chappell is the award-winning author of over twenty books of poetry and fiction. His previous novels include I Am One of You Forever and Look Back All the Green Valley. He teaches at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he lives with his wife Susan.
Fred Chappell is the award-winning author of more than twenty books of poetry and fiction, including I Am One of You Forever, Brighten the Corner Where You Are, and Look Back All the Green Valley. He has received many major prizes, including the Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University and the Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives with his wife, Susan in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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More Shapes Than One
By Fred Chappell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 Fred Chappell
All rights reserved.
The year 1758 was a comparatively happy one in the life of Carl Linnaeus. For although his second son, Johannes, had died the year before at the age of three, in that same year his daughter Sophia, the last child he was to have, was born. And in 1758 he purchased three small bordering estates in the country near Uppsala and on one of these, Hammarby, he established a retreat, to which he thereafter retired during the summer months, away from the town and its deadly fever. He was content in his family, his wife and five children living; and having recently been made a Knight of the Polar Star, he now received certain intelligence that at the opportune hour he would be ennobled by King Adolph Fredrik.
The landscape about Hammarby was pleasant and interesting, though of course Linnaeus long ago had observed and classified every botanical specimen this region had to offer. Even so, he went almost daily on long walks into the countryside, usually accompanied by students. The students could not deny themselves his presence even during vacation periods; they were attracted to him as hummingbirds to trumpet vines by his geniality and humor and by his encyclopedic knowledge of every plant springing from the earth.
And he was happy, too, in overseeing the renovations of the buildings in Hammarby and the construction of the new orangery, in which he hoped to bring to fruition certain exotic plants that had never before flowered on Swedish soil. Linnaeus had become at last a famous man, a world figure in the same fashion that Samuel Johnson and Voltaire and Albrecht von Haller were world figures, and every post brought him sheaves of adulatory verse and requests for permission to dedicate books to him and inquiries about the details of his system of sexual classification and plant specimens of every sort. Most of the specimens were flowers quite commonly known, but dried and pressed and sent to him by young ladies who sometimes hoped that they had discovered a new species, or who hoped merely to secure a token of the man's notice, an autograph letter. But he also received botanical samples from persons with quite reputable knowledge, from scientists persuaded that they had discovered some anomaly or exception that might cause him to think over again some part of his method. (For the ghost of Siegesbeck was even yet not completely laid.) Occasionally other specimens arrived that were indeed unfamiliar to him. These came from scientists and missionaries traveling in remote parts of the world, or the plants were sent by knowledgeable ship captains or now and then by some common sailor who had come to know, however vaguely and confusedly, something of Linnaeus's reputation.
His renown had come to him so belatedly and so tendentiously that the great botanist took a child's delight in all this attention. He read all the verses and all the letters and often would answer his unknown correspondents pretty much in their own manner; letters still remain to us in which he addressed one or another of his admirers in a silly and exaggerated prose style, admiring especially the charms of these young ladies on whom he had never set eyes. Sweden was in those days regarded as a backward country, having only a few warriors and enlightened despots to offer as important cultural figures, and part of Linnaeus's pride in his own achievements evinced itself in nationalist terms, a habit that Frenchmen and Englishmen found endearing.
On June 12, 1758, a large box was delivered to Linnaeus, along with a brief letter, and both these objects were battered from much travel. He opened first the box and found inside it a plant in a wicker basket that had been lined with oilskin. The plant was rooted in a black sandy loam, now dry and crumbly, and Linnaeus immediately watered it from a sprinkling can, though he entertained little hope of saving — actually, resuscitating — the plant. The plant was so wonderfully woebegone in appearance, so tattered by rough handling, that the scientist could not say immediately whether it was shrub, flower, or a tall grass. It seemed to have collapsed in upon itself, and its tough leaves and stems were the color of parchment and crackled like parchment when he tried to examine them. He desisted, hoping that the accompanying letter would answer some of his questions.
The letter bore no postmark. It was signed with a Dutch name, Gerhaert Oorts, though it was written in French. As he read the letter, it became clear to Linnaeus that the man who had signed it had not written it out himself but had dictated it to someone else who had translated his words as he spoke. The man who wrote the letter was a Dutch sailor, a common seaman, and it was probably one of his superior officers who had served him as amanuensis and translator. The letter was undated and began: "Cher maître Charles Linné, père de la science botanique; je ne sçay si. ..."
"To the great Carl Linnaeus, father of botany; I know not whether the breadth of your interests still includes a wondering curiosity about strange plants which grow in many different parts of the world, or whether your ever-agile spirit has undertaken to possess new kingdoms of science entirely. But in case you are continuing in your botanical endeavors, I am taking liberty to send you a remarkable flower [une fleur merveilleuse] that my fellows and I have observed to have strange properties and characteristics. This flower grows in no great abundance on the small islands east of Guiana in the South Seas. With all worshipful respect, I am your obedient servant, Gerhaert Oorts."
Linnaeus smiled on reading this letter, amused by the odd wording, but then frowned slightly. He still had no useful information. The fact that Mynheer Oorts called the plant a flower was no guarantee that it was indeed a flower. Few people in the world were truly interested in botany, and it was not to be expected that a sailor could have leisure for even the most rudimentary study of the subject. The most he could profitably surmise was that it bore blooms, which the sailor had seen.
He looked at it again, but it was so crumpled in upon itself that he was fearful of damaging it if he undertook a hasty inspection. It was good to know that it was a tropical plant. Linnaeus lifted the basket out of the box and set the plant on the corner of a long table where the sunlight fell strongest. He noticed that the soil was already thirsty again, so he watered it liberally, still not having any expectation that his ministrations would take the least effect.
It was now quarter till two, and as he had arranged a two o'clock appointment with a troublesome student, Linnaeus hurried out of his museum — which he called "my little back room" — and went into the main house to prepare himself. His student arrived promptly but was so talkative and contentious and so involved in a number of personal problems that the rest of the afternoon was dissipated in conference with him. After this, it was time for dinner, over which Linnaeus and his family habitually sat for more than two hours, gossiping and teasing and laughing. And then there was music on the clavier in the small, rough dining room; the botanist was partial to Telemann, and sat beaming in a corner of a sofa, nodding in time to a sonata.
And so it was eight o'clock before he found opportunity to return to his little back room. He had decided to defer thorough investigation of his new specimen until the next day, preferring to examine his plants by natural sunlight rather than by lamplight. For though the undying summer twilight still held the western sky, in the museum it was gray and shadowy. But he wanted to take a final look at the plant before retiring and he needed also to draw up an account of the day's activities for his journal.
He entered the little house and lit two oil lamps. The light they shed mingled with the twilight, giving a strange orange tint to the walls and furnishings.
Linnaeus was immediately aware that changes had taken place in the plant. It was no trick of the light; the plant had acquired more color. The leaves and stems were suffused with a bright lemonish yellow, a color much more alive than the dim dun the plant had shown at two o'clock. And in the room hung a pervasive scent, unmistakable but not oppressive, which could be accounted for only by the presence of the plant. This was a pleasant perfume and full of reminiscence — but he could not remember of what the scent reminded him. So many associations crowded into his mind that he could sort none of them out; but there was nothing unhappy in these confused sensations. He wagged his head in dreamy wonder.
He looked at it more closely and saw that the plant had lost its dry parchmentlike texture, that its surfaces had become pliable and lifelike in appearance. Truly it was a remarkable specimen, with its warm perfume and marvelous recuperative powers. He began to speculate that this plant had the power of simply becoming dormant, and not dying, when deprived of proper moisture and nourishment. He took up a bucket of well water, replenishing the watering can, and watered it again, resolving that he would give up all his other projects now until he had properly examined this stranger and classified it.
He snuffed the lamps and went out again into the vast whitish-yellow twilight. A huge full moon loomed in the east, just brushing the tree tips of a grove, and from within the grove sounded the harsh trills and staccato accents of a song sparrow and the calmly flowing recital of a thrush. The air was already cool enough that he could feel the warmth of the earth rising about his ankles. Now the botanist was entirely happy, and he felt within him the excitement he often had felt before when he came to know that he had found a new species and could enter another name and description into his grand catalogue.
He must have spent more time in his little back room than he had supposed, for when he reentered his dwelling house, all was silent and only enough lamps were burning for him to see to make his way about. Everyone had retired, even the two servants. Linnaeus reflected that his household had become accustomed to his arduous hours and took it for granted that he could look after his own desires at bedtime. He took a lamp and went quietly up the stairs to the bedroom. He dressed himself for bed and got in beside Fru Linnaea, who had gathered herself into a warm huddle on the left-hand side. As he arranged the bedclothes, she murmured some sleep-blurred words that he could not quite hear, and he stroked her shoulder and then turned on his right side to go to sleep.
But sleep did not come. Instead, bad memories rose, memories of old academic quarrels, and memories especially of the attacks upon him by Johann Siegesbeck. For when Siegesbeck first attacked his system of sexual classification in that detestable book called Short Outline of True Botanic Wisdom, Linnaeus had almost no reputation to speak of and Siegesbeck represented — to Sweden, at least — the authority of the academy. And what, Linnaeus asked, was the basis of this ignorant pedant's objections? Why, that his system of classifying plants was morally dissolute. In his book, Siegesbeck had asked, "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies, and onions could be up to such immorality?" He went on for pages in this vein, not failing to point out that Sir Thomas Browne had listed the notion of the sexuality of plants as one of the vulgar errors. Finally Siegesbeck had asked — anticipating an objection Goethe would voice eighty-three years later — how such a licentious method of classification could be taught to young students without corruption of minds and morals.
Linnaeus groaned involuntarily, helpless under the force of memory.
These attacks had not let up, had cost him a position at the university, so that he was forced to support himself as a medical practitioner and for two barren years had been exiled from his botanical studies. In truth, Linnaeus never understood the nature of these attacks; they seemed foolish and irrelevant, and that is why he remembered them so bitterly. He could never understand how a man could write: "To tell you that nothing could equal the gross prurience of Linnaeus's mind is perfectly needless. A literal translation of the first principles of Linnaean botany is enough to shock female modesty. It is possible that many virtuous students might not be able to make out the similitude of Clitoria."
It seemed to Linnaeus that to describe his system of classification as immoral was to describe nature as immoral, and nature could not be immoral. It seemed to him that the plants inhabited a different world than the fallen world of mankind, and that they lived in a sphere of perfect freedom and ease, unvexed by momentary and perverse jealousies. Any man with eyes could see that the stamens were masculine and the pistils feminine, and that if there was only one stamen to the female part (Monandria), this approximation of the Christian European family was only charmingly coincidental. It was more likely that the female would be attended by four husbands (Tetrandria) or by five (Pentandria) or by twelve or more (Dodecandria). When he placed the poppy in the class Polyandria and described its arrangement as "Twenty males or more in the same bed with the female," he meant to say of the flower no more than God had said when He created it. How had it happened that mere literal description had caused him such unwarrantable hardship?
These thoughts and others toiled in his mind for an hour or so. When at last they subsided, Linnaeus had turned on his left side toward his wife and fallen asleep, breathing unevenly.
* * *
He rose later than was his custom. His sleep had been shaken by garish dreams that now he could not remember, and he wished he had awakened earlier. Now he got out of bed with uncertain movements and stiffly made his toilet and dressed himself. His head buzzed. He hurried downstairs as soon as he could.
It was much later than he had supposed. None of the family was about; everyone had already breakfasted and set out in pursuit of the new day. Only Nils, the elderly bachelor manservant, waited to serve him in the dining room. He informed his master that Fru Linnaea had taken all the children, except the baby asleep in the nursery, on an excursion into town. Linnaeus nodded, and wondered briefly whether the state of his accounts this quarter could support the good Fru's passion for shopping. Then he forgot about it.
It was almost nine o'clock.
He ate a large breakfast of bread and cheese and butter and fruit, together with four cups of strong black tea. After eating, he felt both refreshed and dilatory and he thought for a long moment of taking advantage of the morning and the unnaturally quiet house to read in some of the new volumes of botanical studies that had arrived during the past few weeks.
But when he remembered the new specimen awaiting him in the museum, these impulses evaporated and he left the house quickly. It was another fine day. The sky was cloudless, a mild, mild blue. Where the east grove cast its shadow on the lawn, dew still remained, and he smelled its freshness as he passed. He fumbled the latch excitedly, and then he swung the museum door open.
His swift first impression was that something had caught fire and burned, the odor in the room was so strong. It wasn't an acrid smell, a smell of destruction, but it was overpowering, and in a moment he identified it as having an organic source. He closed the door and walked to the center of the room. It was not only the heavy damp odor that attacked his senses but also a high-pitched musical chirping, or twittering, scattered on the room's laden air. And the two sensations, smell and sound, were indistinguishably mixed; here was an example of that sensory confusion of which M. Diderot had written so engagingly. At first he could not discover the source of all this sensual hurly-burly. The morning sun entered the windows to shine aslant the north wall, so that between Linnaeus and his strange new plant there fell a tall rectangular corridor of sunshine through which his gaze couldn't pierce clearly.
Excerpted from More Shapes Than One by Fred Chappell. Copyright © 1991 Fred Chappell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Ladies from Lapland,
The Snow That Is Nothing in the Triangle,
The Somewhere Doors,
Mankind Journeys Through Forests of Symbols,
Books by Fred Chappell,
Readers across the country praise Fred Chappell and More Shapes Than,