[another mouthful of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
My argument now is what it always was. Compromise, though it might be necessary at some moment of extreme circumstance, is not by itself a good. And its impossible for me to imagine what would have been if I had been willing to compromise with Margaret. My guess is that our marriage would have been shortened by many years and possibly by several children. Certainly the bookshop would be long closed, if ever opened at all. (She had wanted to go to Europe, remember, and asked me to go with her. Instead, when I refused, she had stayed home to help me get things going. It was she who compromised and was never happy for it. And for my part, had I gone along with her and our natural difference rubbed to a shine by the adventure, could the relationship have lasted? The writing would have been made secondary to some other job in the end, and in my misery I would have made Margaret more miserable than she was to be. Given the choice, I would not give the children up, nor would she, I believe, but the subject has often dawdled in my brain.
From the personal and particular, back again to the spectacular: it is interesting to imagine—conjecture really—what would have happened if James Wilson had not fashioned his three-fifths compromise. There would have been no United States. More likely there would have been three nations, at least two of them above the Mason Dixon line, and all at odds and teeming with the vigor of youth. Such a novel of alternative history still needs to be written.
But then it was more intriguing for me to think, what if Benjamin Lay, a man seemingly incapable of compromise, had not lived. James Wilson’s fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania was Benjamin Franklin. And Franklin too had once been accepting of slavery.
Years ago I wrote a play about that man, Benjamin Lay. He is much forgotten now but his thoughts are still with us. That is the power of ideas. Lay was one of the first abolitionists and fought for the end of slavery when that idea was dangerous and long before there was any gain of apparent virtue to be had out of it. Importantly, he was a Quaker when the Friends had not yet forbidden the ownership of other human beings as wrong, much less evil. His dramatical harangues at Friend’s meetings were once widely accepted as instrumental to that change of heart.
Lay was born in the textile region of Essex, England in 1682, into the comfortable circumstances of a Quaker farm family, but received little formal education. For a time he worked as a shepherd and came to see his own part of following Jesus in ‘The Lamb’s War’ of his faith to build the New Jerusalem on Earth. When he was apprenticed to a glove maker and made to work with the skin of dead animals, a ‘stinking trade’ for the odors of tanning and curing the hides, he came to abhor all such use. At 21, with brothers aplenty and opportunity scarce, he went to sea instead, shipping from London. A sailor’s life was hard and exactly the sort of stringent duty, as a budding ascetic, that he wanted for himself, while allowing him to mingle among and learn to respect all manner of men. It was there that he faced the absolute authority of a ship, and the near slavery of the seaman, and his own character was further formed.
In 1718, at the age of 36 he married his beloved Sarah and settled again in Colchester, Essex, having inherited his mother’s property there. Throughout this time he had already become a thorn of contention at Quaker meetings, often protesting hypocrisy and hierarchy. His wife Sarah was no better, being an evangelist in the new faith, as Quaker women were wont to do. As a sailor Benjamin had visited the Holy Land, drunk from Jacob’s Well, and first witnessed actual slavery as well as despotism toward women. But his disputes with his neighbors seemed to plague him and the couple decided to leave, first emigrating to the Barbados, where they saw the full cruelty of human enslavement used to harvest the sugar cane that was in turn made into the rum for trade to make the money that bought more slaves. They moved on. By the time he and Sarah had reached Philadelphia in 1730, he had become a radical on the subject of slavery, as well as a vegetarian, refusing to eat meat or wear any product of forced labor.
The olden Friends had a practice of prayer at their meetings where there is no designated preacher but each member of the congregation might speak if the holy spirit moved them. Benjamin was often moved and had much to say—more of it in admonition of others sitting in the pews with him who were slave owners. He was expelled as a trouble maker. He came back, again and again, once famously with a bladder containing red berry juice that he had hidden in a hollowed book, as well as a sword, concealed in his coat, for the Friends had already sworn themselves to nonviolence. Dramatically, and in a faithful theatric tradition of early Quakers, he once again spoke against slavery and to those apostates who presumed to own other human beings, as he revealed the sword and speared the book so that the juice spatter anointed anyone close with the blood red. The event was retold for years after.
It is important to know that throughout his life, Benjamin Lay was a reader, and self-taught in subjects ranging from farming and husbandry to politics and religion, in time amassing a considerable library. And important also that, in Philadelphia, Lay became a friend to a printer, Benjamin Franklin. It was Franklin who printed Lay’s first book, All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, in 1737, and likely many of his pamphlets as well. This was not a careless act. There were penalties for printing such tracts. Franklin, the Quaker, who assiduously cultivated many connections, and who himself had owned at least two slaves, had much to lose. He refrained from putting his imprint on the book, but it is certain his own opinions had been altered. I thought to write a play about the man who changed them, and with them much that would follow.
But consider, the thing that most people would notice first about Benjamin Lay was not the uncut beard that made him look all the more fierce as he entered into a full throated harangue, or the plainness of the clothes, which he fashioned himself from flax on a spinning wheel in order to avoid using lamb’s wool, but the more obvious fact that he was a dwarf, little more than four feet tall, hunch-backed, with a chest that protruded like the bow of a boat and spindly legs that moved—danced people said—beneath him. And Sarah, his proselytizing mate was also a dwarf. What a match they must have made!
I have often been shamed by my lack of courage. This can happened more easily when I am actively writing because I’m trying to understand the mind of my subject and I usually write about better people than myself. The discrepancies gape from the dark recesses of my mind. It was just this feeling of personal failure that hovered over and nearly enveloped me in the years immediately before my divorce, but most especially as I was trying to write the novel then about that great little man, Benjamin Lay. For all he wrote, not very much is known about the abolitionist and so I had spent some time reading his own words looking for clues. Perhaps it was the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 that was still in me when the idea came the following December. But what I still remember now, most clearly, was a realization of my own failings and moral cowardice when compared to his.
What had further inspired me in that dark time was a movie, the first of several fine efforts taken from the work of J. R. R. Tolkien by the director Peter Jackson. His depiction of the Hobbits and Dwarves was excellent and achieved the sense of fully realized human lives that is usually lacking in movies where those characters are chosen only from the limited number of good actors of such dramatically smaller stature. But it was Bilbo Baggins’ home in the Shire that completed the impact.
That famously small man, Benjamin Lay, had built a sort of underground abode for himself and Sarah, and for his accumulating books as well, at Abington, on the York Road just north of Philadelphia. Talk about underground politics! There is a now famous painting of the man, which had once been owned by Benjamin Franklin, with Lay standing in front of this dwelling and the very idea of the fellow living underground had so many points of reference for me, and so much resonance, that the image had stuck in my head, and when I first saw the Jackson movie I felt as if the story was already begun. But the quest I saw for ‘Little Benjamin’ as he called himself, was in his abolitionist zeal. Franklin had printed several of Lay’s many pamphlets and they had apparently been friends. What struck me out of that relationship was that Franklin had also owned slaves, and Lay had already shown himself to be both vociferous and obnoxious toward his fellow Quakers who engaged in this wrong. I could only imagine the arguments! And it was these arguments, conducted in my own head, that turned the prose of my novel into a play.
My story worked outside the famously narrow scope of Franklin’s ‘Autobiography’ and his letters, which were nearly always circumspect, in that he understood, as Postmaster, that there was no privacy in such correspondence, so I leapt happily to the conclusion that it was his friendship with Lay that turned Franklin’s thinking on the subject of slavery long before the American Revolution. And that by extension, without Franklin, that great cause would have failed.
Benjamin Lay’s features were sometimes described as grotesque—or what could be seen of them as they projected through his uncut and graying beard. And the core of my tale was his relationship with his wife, which I could only believe was extraordinary. And naturally, I was brought to wonder at my own failure in that regard as well. Margaret, by any standard, was beautiful. But her beauty had not been enough for me, nor her intelligence and ever critical wit.
Lay’s campaign against slave owners was by all accounts as Biblical as the Good Book which had been his primary source of eduction. He quoted scripture often and his writing clearly shows the influence of William Tyndale and Edmund Spencer and of the King James Bible. But to him, slavery was “the poison of dragons,” and this was simply too Tolkienesque to be ignored.
That this novel was never finished remains a sore in me now. Plays are the more difficult matter as they involve others—actors, directors, and all the rest. It is yet another failure of my courage to have seen the novel through and published it myself, as old Ben Lay would have done. Had I finished the novel, it would have require me to seek the reasons for my own lack of faith—in myself, as well as in Margaret, though I’ve heard it said, you can mend a broken cup for appearance sake, but it will never hold the hot liquid quite the same again.