On writing The Vagabonds.
October 2, 2004
Oct 2, 2004
9 Min read time
On writing The Vagabonds.
My first novel (The Martlet’s Tale) takes place in Greece, my most recent (What Remains) largely in England. In both the overarching subject is—or so it seems to me now—inheritance: what we get and keep or get and lose from the past. In The Martlet’s Tale inheritance was explicit—a hidden treasure a grandmother bequeaths a child; in the recent book such leavings are spiritual, implicit. There are adjacent subjects: the stay-at-home and the wanderer, the nexus of family and generations, the self-possessed and the dispossessed. Yet in one way or another I seem to have been writing about legacy since I began to write.
This is the sort of perception, it scarcely needs saying, we attain in retrospect and not early on as prospect; such patterns emerge over time. I have written more than 20 books and to the best of my ability have shifted both topic and tone. Once this enduring interest became clear, however, I decided to be literal and tackle the issue head-on; the first working title of The Vagabonds was, in fact, Inheritance. If nothing is certain except death and taxes, then inheritance is the crucial intersection. As one of my characters puts it, “It’s the crossroads, the conjunction of the two; it’s where that pair of certainties becomes a third because everyone goes through it and it isn’t a question of whether but when: death comes when it will come. So it doesn’t matter, really, if what we inherit is money or debt, a set of cats or cutlery or a portrait of Grandfather Aaron: what matters is the way we deal with what’s been left behind.”
It remained, of course, to put fictive flesh on those thematic bones and body forth an action where the “set of cats or cutlery” would come to have some meaning for my invented clan. They are three children (two sisters and a younger brother) who receive a legacy that takes them by surprise. Most of the action of The Vagabonds deals with this bequest and its ramifications, the way that such an inheritance can alter the sense of the past. If the child is father of the man, then the reverse is also and equally the case; “what’s been left behind” may be—and the name of the game for both is inheritance—$10 million or a rocking chair.
My family and I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1985. Soon thereafter I began to frequent the astonishing museum complex in Dearborn known as Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. It is now consolidated as The Ford Museum and has a new CEO, but then Harold Skramstad served in that post and invited me to act as guest curator for a show he hoped to mount. The museum’s holdings are enormous, and “Skram” had uncovered photographs, letters, and journal entries from a group called “the Vagabonds.” Dimly I had heard of them but knew little more than the name. It turns out Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford had dubbed themselves as such; for several years (from 1915 through the early 1920s) they roamed the continent together on camping trips, roughing it, with hand-picked pals and a gaggle of retainers to string up their hammocks and cook their healthful meals.
In the course of time, two presidents would join them: Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Various proud locals (shopkeepers and farmers, a preacher and his daughters) posed for the photographers who followed in their wake. But the man who caught my attention—much more famous then than now—was the naturalist John Burroughs, a Walt Whitman lookalike who perorated sagely on beekeeping and garden-tending—the virtues of the simple life. He built his own house and wrote pamphlets and books about self-reliance—inveighing, for instance, against that newfangled conveyance, the automobile. Burroughs made an improbable fourth in the group, since he and Henry Ford were philosophical antagonists; but they liked each other, and on these trips agreed to disagree.
The naturalist represented, in effect, precisely that rural America the Vagabonds were in the process of changing forever; no trio of entrepreneurs, I’d guess, has done more to alter the physical face of our nation than Edison and Firestone and Ford. They traveled to California, to the Adirondacks, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, always in the service of that pastoral rusticity their servants were at pains to render painless and passive. It intrigued me then and intrigues me still to picture this quartet of eminences engaging in log-splitting contests and rambling over hill and dale when in a time not all that distant they would engender parking lots and interstate highways and arc-lit shopping malls.
We did not mount the show. The Ford Museum does display the picnic table at which the men regaled themselves, and a set of photographs. The old men wield axes; they pose athwart a water wheel; they take impromptu naps. But the material did not lend itself to more than that, so I left the project alone.
But it was an itch I continued to scratch. And by the kind of conjunction it is easy to describe but impossible to predict I came to join this history to the present circumstance: research and invention proved two sides of the one coin. From my initial desire to write a historical novel to the final version of the book, a writing process of four years, draft after draft moved forward until well over half the completed text takes place in 2003. What my characters inherit—here all accurate reportage ends—was bequeathed them by the Vagabonds after their visit to Saratoga Springs on August 31, 1916.
The group did visit Saratoga on that date and took a meal on the porch of what was described as “grandmother’s house.” Apparently they were unwelcome, shooed off by the suspicious owner, but I enlarged the argument and transformed it into a seduction, made of that house a trysting place and of that tryst a child. The illegitimate child of this union is the occasion for the legacy. Then, after the first draft or two, I decided that the father should not be an historical grandee (for fear the descendants of Firestone or Ford might prove litigious) and gave Firestone a valet. The Vagabonds, in effect, buy off the by-blow of their hired man’s romance, and the action of the novel consists of what the present generation makes of that earlier gift.
All writers are familiar with the shifting blend of accidentality and intention I’ve been trying to describe. Some part of the process of composition is conscious, and some of it is instinct—flying blind. The proportion varies book by book, and it varies also as one nears completion; for me, at least, the final stages of a draft have more to do with the rigors of logic and less with the pleasures of invention. One becomes, as it were, one’s own critic, and the harsher the better, the least self-indulgent the best. I wrote, for example, a full 50 pages about Namibia—a country I’d just traveled to and wanted one of my characters also to explore. But it became unhappily clear that the whole expedition was pointless; it simply had to be cut.
Geography was a principal issue: where would the story take place? Saratoga Springs is a necessary venue, but almost by titular definition I needed more than one. From that first book set in Greece to the last in England, I have moved my people around. Small Rain takes place in southern France, the Sherbrookes trilogy in southwestern Vermont, and landscape proves of consequence to the rooted or the rootless folk who in my pages hunt home. Too, this particular novel—as its name should suggest—was a conscious attempt at map-traversal. The opening chapter, for instance, shows a character on the East Coast (in Wellfleet, Massachusetts), one on the West Coast (in Berkeley, California), and one in something like the middle: Ann Arbor. Much of the action takes place in Florida and in upstate New York; I tried to be expansive in terms of both space and time.
But this expansiveness raised problems of rhetoric and tone. We do not speak today with the vocabulary that was current in 1916, and since I follow my generations from that year through the century (there are chapters set in 1940, 1952, 1972, 1976, and 1996), I had to shift my style. The excerpt that accompanies this essay comes from the novel’s fourth chapter and its earliest action. I suspect I overplayed my hand in an attempt to bluff it persuasively; the diction may well belong more to the 18th century than 20th, and we no longer take for granted that such wordplay as “ford the ford in a Ford” will amuse a readership, but in any case (“willy-nilly”? “nothing loath”?) I deployed it. Here, then, is what I imagine a witness might have made of the Vagabonds’ antics while pitching camp on their actual journey and invented way.
Excerpt from The Vagabonds:
They have been underway, now, four days. The vagabonds’ progress has been unimpeded: thirty-five miles since they broke camp at breakfast and nothing untoward. The roads proved surprisingly good. That this region of the country should have well-paved arteries was no revelation to Edison, or less a revelation than a confirmation of his long-held faith in the all-leveling impulse toward advancement in and of the populace: take that tree, that hillside, that mountain stream and cut and level and ford it. He laughed. He must remember to tell Henry of the happy nature of such word-play, the accident of nomenclature that caused them to ford the ford in a Ford, though regrettably not as yet with . . .
So they traveled in some style. Not wasteful or inordinate, he told Minna when she queried him and he was taking his husbandly leave; we do not shave at breakfast time when breaking camp nor dress for dinner routinely. We’re roughing it, old girl. Next year perhaps you’ll join us and we’ll smooth the rough-hewn edge of what behavior might offend you: the tall tales and the stories and the old men being jocular and sleeping on the ground. John Burroughs in particular enjoys a salty story and we trade them turn by turn; do you know the one, I asked him, about the farmer’s son who pushed the outhouse off the cliff? Burroughs had not heard the tale, or claimed not to remember, and so I gave him the rest of the jest, the way the farmer asks his son, Now answer me and tell the truth, did you push that outhouse off the cliff? The boy admits it: Yes sir, I did, I. cannot tell a lie. So the farmer wales away with strap and stick and when finally the beating is done the tearful young fellow protests: But father you instructed me always to be truthful, to behave as did George Washington and confess all error, as when he felled the cherry tree. Then the father says That’s true enough, but George Washington’s dear papa wasn’t in the tree!
© 2004 by NICHOLAS DELBANCO. Published by WARNER BOOKS. All rights reserved.
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October 02, 2004
9 Min read time