WIHWT: Octavian Nothing
This Wish I Had Written That is a novel I’m about 65% through: Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson.
Did you ever buy a book, tried to engage, and then put it down? This is one such novel: I’ve had it for years (6 years? 8 years?) on my nightstand, and somehow it shimmied back up to the surface, and yes, the timing is perfect.
The narrative flawlessly stitches together constructs from the pre-Revolutionary period: from the Age of Enlightenment to the burgeoning economic and social demands of the Colonies to England. The mythic narrative told to me while I was in high school included a one-direction, one perspective: England/King = Crazy: Patriots=Good and Righteous. They lost. We win, and then sing a song with a weird F sharp. (But modern singers get over this hurdle with their flourishes and trills.) Women and slaves are not represented, except by the odd, racist background chorus of servants, and the token Betsy Ross or Dolly Madison mention.
This novel made me research: willingly and joyfully. There is much mentioned where my background and knowledge is lacking. Does everything come at a cost? Every piece of enlightenment that betrays humanity, is that the price? Making the connections between when England began its emancipation process and abolition, and concurrently as the suspicions and fear of the Colonists grew over the slaves in their midst, it stands to reason that the U.S. would never willingly give up control over other human beings, and created a legacy we may never shake, and perhaps nor should we.
“…boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation. “Animum rege, qui nisi paret, imperat,” quoth the poet Horace. “Rule thy passion, for unless it obeys, it rules you.” I ask the Lord God Jehovah for strength to forgive. Whatever I have felt about those men, I have much to thank them for. They lavished luxuries upon me. They supported my every interest and encouraged my curiosity. They instructed me in the Christian religion. They taught me the tongues of the Greeks and the Romans and opened for me the colonnaded vistas of those long-forgotten empires, in this, the dawning of a new empire. They schooled me in music, which is my greatest delight. These are not little things.
I do not believe they ever meant unkindness.”
Anderson, M. T. (2011-01-25). The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (p. 13). Candlewick Press. Kindle Edition.
There is disturbing irony in this idea, of not intending harm.
This has my full attention now, in between grading, preparing for conferences, and relatives coming over to our broken-down house for Thanksgiving. But I am grateful for my home, and for my family, and those who strive for peace and equity.
The novel may be too much for my seventh-grade students. The voice is 18th Century Enlightened Man With Classical Education, a voice in a modern work I’ve never been exposed to until now. But this isn’t just any Enlightened Man, it’s Octavian.
Thank you for voices as of yet unheard.