Sunday, November 15, 2009
Carolyn McCleary is an 88-year-old flash drive, and on a recent day in Evansville, Indiana she waited patiently in a chair on the second floor of the University of Evansville library to transfer some of her data to me. I almost missed out on the opportunity because I felt like my own working memory was getting full, but fortunately she didn’t let that get in the way.
The University of Evansville and its host city are not well known, really, for anything. When you fly over Evansville you see a low-rise metropolis sprawling on the banks of the Ohio River, surrounded by square farm fields, random swatches of forest and a few smokestacks venting minor smudges toward the horizon. It doesn’t look like a notable destination. It’s the sort of place that seems to exist only as a passing landmark beneath your plane, like a miniature model of a Midwestern town that you wouldn’t be inclined to visit on the ground.
But as I made my way to the last venue of the official Sultana book tour, the small Evansville airport prevented me from relegating the place due to lofty oversight. The tiny Chautauqua Airlines jet banked over the city and gently touched down, taxied past a nondescript building that must be the world’s smallest Foreign Trade Zone, then rolled to a stop outside the terminal. As I deplaned, my friend Margaret McMullan was on her way to the airport to pick me up, with the top down on her silver Audi. Margaret, who lives in Evansville with her husband Pat and their son James, and who is an accomplished novelist who teaches English at the university, was about to put the city on the permanent mental map of my life, mostly by unveiling a cast of remarkable characters, including, inadvertently, Carolyn McCleary, who made my stopover in Evansville one of the more inspiring and energizing of the tour.
I flew to Evansville to talk about Sultana as part of a lecture series put on by the university’s English department called “Coffee Hour.” It sounds dull, but wasn’t, not by a long shot. Though there are still a few small Sultana events on the horizon, the official tour, which began in New York City in March, effectively ended on Nov. 12 in Evansville, a few hours west of the home turf of the three primary characters in the book. Among the many pleasant surprises was meeting Carolyn McCleary, who ultimately raised more intriguing questions than she was able to fully answer. Unanswered questions are the mainstay of writers, who tend to be both attracted to and deeply disturbed by them.
The Carolyn McClearys of the world are how stories are kept alive, how memory and wisdom and knowledge are passed along in cases where the institutional record fails. In such cases there needs to be someone, like an elderly woman in Evansville with files in her head and hands who is determined to fill in the blanks. Which is precisely why McCleary made her way with her cane across the long expanse from her car to the library, where the author she had read about in a recent edition of Evansville Living – me, the stranger, the writer flying in from New York -- had agreed to give her some of his precious time.
Talking with anyone about their family history is fraught with tiny perils. The conversation may turn out to be either truly enlightening or stupefyingly tedious. Earlier in the day, when Margaret informed me that she’d received an email from one of the event’s organizers about an old lady who wanted to meet with me and show me her family’s old Bible, I initially resisted. A person with an old family Bible brings the threat of long conversations about dead ancestors who mean a great deal to the person but not necessarily much to anyone else. Such conversations, while invariably pleasant, tend to be endless reels, with no beginning or end. I say this as someone who both enjoys talking to old people (and particularly old ladies) and who writes books about long-running, largely submerged stories that are often evoked in forgotten, yellowed documents with notes scrawled in the margins, typically in a shaky hand. The problem with such conversations, for me, at least, is inherent in the very Bible that McCleary loaded into her car but was unable to carry into the library due to its weight and her comparative frailty: The begatitudes, as I call them, the “Ruth begat Isom” or whomever, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The truth is, while it matters to Carolyn McCleary that Sarah Elizabeth Harris Davis was born in 1850, married T.A. in 1869, and died in 1916, it doesn’t really matter to me. Like many people, my working memory and my hard drive are forever on the verge of being full, so I have to pick and choose. Which is why I asked Margaret to tell the person to tell the old lady that I’d have only about 15 minutes before the talk, and that perhaps we could continue the conversation after the book signing. In that way I imposed limits that could, if warranted, be lifted.
Margaret and I found McCleary sitting by the window, with her cane leaning against the chair and her files in her lap. She is an exquisite example of old ladydom, with neatly beauty-parlored hair, proper dress, remarkably clear skin and very bright eyes. Margaret introduced us and left us alone to talk. She had this to show me: The aforementioned Bible, which she said came from the steamer Sultana, though it is dated 1852, 10 years before the boat that blew up in 1865 was built; handwritten notes that she’d jotted down for me about how she came to possess the Bible, and related details; a few newspaper clips about the Sultana disaster and about a church bell in Equality, Illinois that once belonged to her family and purportedly came from the Sultana; and several other documents, including a crew roster from the boat. My first thought was: How was this possible? Then: Is it? And finally: Carolyn McCleary is very organized, far more so than I; and that I was sorry I didn’t have more time with her. As I said, she’s 88; her husband, who she said was brilliant, recently died; and what she told me piqued my interest.
I’m not sure what light any of this might shed on the Sultana story, but I intend to find out. It’s plausible that the bell was cast for one of the previous boats christened Sultana, each of which was destroyed, after which it (the bell) could have been transferred to subsequent, new boats by the same name, and that it was ultimately recovered from the 1865 wreck during salvage operations. It is also possible that people got confused about which Sultana was which, and that the bell has no relation whatsoever to the Sultana disaster. But it matters because there are so few artifacts from the Sultana, and the bell’s survival could mean there are others. Mrs. McCleary was open to either possibility. Her aim was merely to raise the questions for me, since I wrote the book.
Her mother, she said, was raised by an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom was one of several owners of, or perhaps investors in, the Sultana (or, at the very least, a Mississippi riverboat named Sultana). With each successive death the Bible passed down the line, eventually to her. The bell was given to the Methodist church in Equality, where it yet rings; it is inscribed as having been cast in Pittsburg in 1848 and used on the Sultana. It will take further research to determine what, if any connection, there is to the Sultana disaster. The point is, I nearly missed the chance to even hear the questions because I was wary of having too much information – an odd concern, considering what I set out to do. It has to do with oversaturation with meaningless details and related errata, though in all honesty it also relates to a question I was asked during my Sultana talk, which was whether I considered my book complete when it was clear that I had everything there was to have, or because my deadline was approaching. It was a good question, one that in an ideal world my editor might have asked, and the answer was that it was something of both. You never know that you have everything, and deadlines are violated at your peril. You have to stop somewhere, and you end up making a judgment call. Faced with Carolyn McCleary, I now wonder. I also feel a strange sense of guilt. Any writer will tell you, you never really finish writing your book.
The crowd at the Coffee Hour talk was large and mixed, comprised mostly of students and teachers of varying ages and locals who had read the article in Evansville Living. They asked good questions, and throughout the event I could see Carolyn McCleary, seated in the back, smiling now and then. Among them, many later gathered at Margaret’s and Pat’s house for an after-party, including a man from Ireland with a twinkle in his eye who teaches history at the university; a guy from Scotland who also teaches there and has a friend back home who – by coincidence – published a book about a group of Scottish soldiers headed home from the First World War whose ship went down in the North Sea -- an odd parallel to the story of the Sultana (the author’s name is John MacLeod; the book is titled When I Heard the Bell). There was also an enthusiastic student who wanted to know why I didn’t rewrite the book after I discovered the inimitable character, George Robinson, to which I answered that it was too late, and that I was making up for it by focusing on Robinson in a Sultana screenplay that my friend Danny and I are writing; a man who each year helps stage a week-long writing workshop in a little town called New Harmony, on the Wabash River; a particularly genial man named Mike Carson, soon to retire from U of E, with white hair and beard, who asked the question about when I knew the book was finished; a guy who knows as much about politics as anyone I've met, and is a go-to guy for NPR; and a witty guy who recently returned from studying in England, who teaches my book Mississippi in Africa in his creative nonfiction class. All interesting characters, and not only because they came specifically to listen to me, though there was that, but who are interesting in their own right and especially because they somehow came together in Evansville.
I knew about the University of Evansville only because of Margaret, whom I met a few years ago when we both spoke at the Oxford Conference for the Book. But after the Sultana talk last week I have a new appreciation for the place, if only because it brought this erudite, informed, creative bunch together in a place that seems, on the surface, to be in the middle of nowhere. The teachers and others I met would make any university proud, so much so that they’d represent an implausible cast of characters were they assembled for a work of fiction set in a small Midwestern city. I was supposed to be the entertainment but they also entertained, telling funny and illuminating stories late into the night, by which time Evansville had proved itself to be far more than an insignificant flyover town.
Over the course of the time I was there Margaret and Pat also showed me the local sites, including a virgin forest in the middle of town and a lovely old farmhouse on a high hill with a great post-and-beam barn that was being refurbished from the ground up by Amish craftsmen. They made me feel very much at home. Margaret, in particular, has a way of making a person feel welcome in myriad thoughtful ways, and of enlivening any event, and it was almost embarrassing to hear her describe me in her introduction to the Coffee Hour as someone who could have shared a notorious apartment in Brooklyn with W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee.
There was, inevitably, the one sleeper in the audience, though I took comfort in the fact that she was nodding off before I even started to talk. I only wish I’d had more time in Evansville, and especially, to talk further with Carolyn McCleary, who declined my offer of help her back to her car, saying, “I want to stay as independent as I can, as long as I can.” In the end, Evansville was as close as I got to returning to Jefferson County, Indiana, where my version of the Sultana saga begins and ends. I haven’t heard from anyone from there except Janice Stanley, who helped me research John Maddox, and Romulus Tolbert’s descendent, Anne Woodbury, who helped me more than anyone, who now lives in California, and who attended the University of Evansville once upon a time, during which she developed a long-running friendship with Mike Carson. In any event, Evansville was enough.
The final leg of the Sultana tour ended with a bumpy flight back to New York City, which threatened to become its own survival story, during which everyone seated around me in the exit rows – including a Delta pilot who was being shuttled to JFK – deigned to actually read the emergency exit information. The woman next to me asked if I would take the responsibility to open the door, if it came to that. It was, I should point out, Friday the 13th and we were seated in the 13th row. Our pilot came on before we even took off to say it was extremely windy in the New York area and so was going to be a rough ride, which I resented hearing. Why would we want to know? If he had read Sultana, he’d be aware that it’s sometimes better not knowing what the future holds.
In the end, he was right, of course. It felt like we were on a runaway bus careening down a steep and rutted mountain road for 45 minutes. When we finally touched the ground, the pilot came on again and said we’d be deplaning on the tarmac, and that those of us who were wearing hats should hold onto them. Literally, we were to hold onto our hats. I suppose the specter of crowds chasing their hats across the runway was pretty daunting, but in the end his admonition proved helpful, and it offered confirmation that we’d been through something meaningful, and that it was, finally, over.