by Matthew Pearl
Did bookaneers really exist? A few years ago, I stumbled on a stray detail indicating that nineteenth-century publishers would hire agents to obtain valuable manuscripts that were fair game under the laws. Because of their shadowy place in history, I could not find much else about this group, but I was intrigued.
Building on this fragment of legal and publishing history, I tried imagining more fully these freelance literary bounty hunters — the history of their profession, what they might be called on to do, who they were, their backgrounds, how their lives would bring them to this unusual profession and how the profession would shape their personal lives. As far as historical fiction goes, it fit one of my ideals: a bit of gray-area history that cannot be explored very far without the help of fiction.
In this case, it seemed to me to call for informed speculation — what I’d refer to as research-based fiction — plus plenty of imagination. I applied the term bookaneer, one I had noticed had been used in a generic sense in the nineteenth century about literary piracy (the earliest use I find is in 1837 by poet Thomas Hood).
I cast a few bookaneers in supporting roles in an earlier novel, The Last Dickens, in which we encounter Pen’s mentor-lover, Kitten, and hear about Whiskey Bill.
I realized I wanted to see more of these and other bookaneers, and reader feedback on this front encouraged me. This led me to create Pen Davenport and his assistant Edgar C. Fergins, whom I decided to follow on a journey that would test them professionally and personally. I envisioned my fictional characters crossing paths with a number of prominent authors in history, but my compass pointed them to Stevenson. I had been fascinated by Stevenson’s time in Samoa.
It was intriguing and mysterious to his contemporaries to think of a European author at the far reaches of the known world, and I had to imagine it would have been an irresistible quest for my bookaneers — a kind of moment of destiny for both sides in the (still raging) battle over creative property.
In June 1970 Roth, Stein, and Fliegelman were living with several others in an apartment they rented on Amity Street in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. Fliegelman had purchased dynamite in Vermont under an assumed name; he kept it in a garage they rented nearby. Forty years later, he shudders at the memory of that first bombing, at NYPD headquarters. “That first one was the scariest,” he recalls. “We knew if we did this, they would come after us.”
The “casers” identified a second-floor men’s room as an ideal spot to hide a bomb; it was just 125 feet from the police commissioner’s office. In the years to come, public bathrooms would become Weatherman’s favorite target. Stall doors allowed a measure of privacy, and many bathrooms could be locked from within. At the Amity Street apartment, Fliegelman built the bomb using his new design, about fifteen sticks of dynamite and a Westclox alarm clock purchased at a Radio Shack. The challenge was smuggling it into the building; they couldn’t risk having a backpack or briefcase searched. In the end, Fliegelman says, they hollowed out a thick law book and placed the bomb inside. Exactly who walked it through security and placed it above a ceiling tile in the bathroom has never been disclosed, but by Tuesday afternoon, June 10, the bomb was in place. “It wasn’t like they had metal detectors back then,” Fliegelman says. “There was just a guy at a desk, and we walked right past him.”
That night at 6:30 they telephoned in the warning. At that moment about 150 people were inside the building. Police operators got this kind of call routinely in 1970; it was ignored. Seventeen minutes later, at 6:47, the bomb exploded, its deep boom ringing through the narrow streets and alleys of Little Italy. The blast demolished two walls of the bathroom, blowing a hole in the floor twenty feet wide and forty feet long, destroying an office on one side, shattering dozens of windows and catapulting a cloud of soot and smoke into Centre Street; chunks of granite the size of cinder blocks crushed two cars below. Eight people were treated for injuries, none of them serious.
Forty years later Weatherman bombings can blur together, a string of dates and buildings. The attack on NYPD headquarters, however, was unprecedented; it left the department and the entire city government deeply shaken. “Our problem,” as one police commander put it, “is not the damage to the building or to our own morale. Our problem is the feeling that if the police cannot protect themselves, how can they protect anyone else?”
Ghostriders in the Storm
When do you want to meet the men, Lieutenant?” The Puerto Rican accent was always thick, but it got thicker when he was mad. We’d goad him on purpose, pretending not to be able to understand him, until Sergeant Claudio got so frustrated that he’d throw his hat onto the hot sand and stomp off spouting unintelligible Puerto Rican expletives. It never got old.
But that came later, after I’d met the men. “Um, now, I guess,” was my answer, sounding a bit more like the soft graduate student of international relations I’d recently been and less like the gruff, hardened first lieutenant of armor I hoped to project to my troops.
I’d just left Oxford in the summer of 1990. After allowing me to read books and drink warm English beer for two years, the Army had ordered me to remedial tank training at Fort Knox before an assignment to Fort Hood, Texas, the largest army post in the free world. More…
Sheila Weller is the author of The News Sorority. Full Bio
The News You Give Begins with the News You’ve Lived
Diane, Christiane, Katie: 1969, 1997, 2000
Twenty-three-year-old Diane Sawyer (she used her real first name, Lila, ironically, only in affectionate letters) was working as the first ever full-time female news reporter in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky—on WLKY, Channel 32—in mid-September 1969. She had been on the job for two years, and she—a Wellesley graduate and former beauty queen—was itching to leave for a bigger opportunity, in the nation’s capital. Still, Diane’s years at WLKY had not been uneventful. More…
The Question of World Order
In 1961, as a young academic, I called on President Harry S. Truman when I found myself in Kansas City delivering a speech. To the question of what in his presidency had made him most proud, Truman replied, “That we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America would have done this.” Conscious of America’s vast power, Truman took pride above all in its humane and democratic values. He wanted to be remembered not so much for America’s victories as for its conciliations. More…
François Furstenberg is the author of In the Name of the Father and When the United States Spoke French. Full Bio
STRANGE REUNIONS: AN INTRODUCTION
For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, Yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. Job 5:6–7
Revolutionary sparks, set off by the great explosion in France, fly upward. Most fall in Europe. Some, carried west by the trade winds, fall in the Caribbean and set off dry kindling. Others land deep in the North American forests. A few, following the gentle breezes drifting along the American coast, float up the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia. More…
WHEN AM I GOING TO USE THIS?
Right now, in a classroom somewhere in the world, a student is mouthing off to her math teacher. The teacher has just asked her to spend a substantial portion of her weekend computing a list of thirty definite integrals.
There are other things the student would rather do. There is, in fact, hardly anything she would not rather do. She knows this quite clearly, because she spent a substantial portion of the previous weekend computing a different—but not very different—list of thirty definite integrals. She doesn’t see the point, and she tells her teacher so. And at some point in this conversation, the student is going to ask the question the teacher fears most:
“When am I going to use this?”
Now the math teacher is probably going to say something like:
“I know this seems dull to you, but remember, you don’t know what career you’ll choose—you may not see the relevance now, but you might go into a field where it’ll be really important that you know how to compute definite integrals quickly and correctly by hand.”
This answer is seldom satisfying to the student. That’s because it’s a lie. More…
Buried in a Shanghai suburb, close to the city’s smoggy Inner Ring Road, the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong appears to have a military purpose. There is razor wire on the fences around the huge compound and guards at the gate. But drive into the campus from the curiously named Future Expectations Street and you enter Harvard, as redesigned by Dr. No. In the middle stands a huge bright red building in the shape of a desk, with an equally monumental scarlet inkwell beside it. Around this, spread across some forty-two hectares, are lakes and trees, libraries, tennis courts, a sports center (with a gym, a swimming pool, and table-tennis tables), and a series of low brown dormitory buildings, all designed to look like open books. CELAP calls all this a “campus” but the organization is too disciplined, hierarchical, and businesslike to be a university. The locals are closer to the mark when they call it a “cadre training school”: This is an organization bent on world domination. More…
Evolution, Race and History
Since the decoding of the human genome in 2003, a sharp new light has been shed on human evolution, raising many interesting but awkward questions.
It is now beyond doubt that human evolution is a continuous process that has proceeded vigorously within the past 30,000 years and almost certainly—though very recent evolution is hard to measure—throughout the historical period and up until the present day. It would be of the greatest interest to know how people have evolved in recent times and to reconstruct the fingerprints of natural selection as it molded and reworked the genetic clay. Any degree of evolution in social behavior found to have taken place during historical times could help explain significant features of today’s world. More…
Did you miss Ben Tarnoff‘s Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on April 15? Read the all of the questions and answers here. Ben talks about his favorite Twain story, what most surprised him in researching The Bohemians, why Mark Twain used a pen name, which Bohemian author would he most like to party with, and the role of new technologies such as railroads and the telegraph in getting the Bohemians’ work printed throughout the United States after the Civil War.
Q: Hi Ben, can you talk a bit about the relationship between Bret Harte and Mark Twain and why Twain is remembered so much more fondly than Harte? Was it that, in a scene this small (The Bohemians) only one could emerge as “the face” of the group—perhaps at the expense of the other? Or was Twain just a superior writer?
A: Great question. Twain and Harte are only about a year apart, and are intensely competitive with one another. They’re both Western writers trying to make it on the national scene—and, at first, Harte eclipses Twain. In 1871, Harte is arguably the most famous and certainly the most highly paid writer in America. Shortly afterwards, he completely self-destructs, and within a few short years he’s broke and fading from public view. Twain, on the other hand, continues his rise, and becomes a major national celebrity. Why did Twain succeed so spectacularly while Harte burned brightly for a brief period and then burned out? I’m not entirely sure. I think Harte’s combustible personality had a lot to do with it—once he moved back to the East Coast, he couldn’t find his literary groove again. I’d also credit Twain’s work ethic, which was ferocious. He just kept pushing ahead—experimenting in different genres, promoting himself incessantly, and pushing himself to become a better writer.