for a Muse of the Night, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A ‘sundered nation for a stage, to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the Harried South
It was almost Summer, Florida’s token Spring a mere calendric habit; ‘mad, naked...night’ indeed, as the sweat poured from his brow.
Assume the guise of Mars; and at its heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirit that has dared
On this paltry page to bring forth
So great a struggle: can these, our heads, hold
The vasty fields of Gettysburg? or may we cram
Within this conjuring, the very shots
That did affright the air?
Let us, mere printed ciphers to this great travail,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these wood-hewn leaves
Are now confined two mighty armies,
Whose abutting fronts
The perilous narrow quarrel parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Think when we talk of ships, that you see their
Humble prows part waters, troubled;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our deeds,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus master to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear of, kindly to judge, our benighted play...
And its fallen knight.(1)
ACT, The Last, or, a Reversal ‘O The Clock....Night Afore Day
[wherein, our deflated Player makes for a watery exit under cover of night, and south winds]
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom'd night - press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds - night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night - mad naked summer night.(2)
He cared not that his habitual poetry recitation---now, within his capacious head---invoked the words of the Lincoln-worshipper Whitman---he thought he had met him, once, in the New Orleans street, he, a broadsheet man there, and thought him warm, not unlike this, and other warm nights, when ‘twas his wont to expound poetical, even philosophical, at such times, his fondest resource, to both himself and admiring, often envious others. It was almost Summer, Florida’s token Spring a mere calendric habit; ‘mad, naked...night’
indeed, as the sweat poured from his brow. ‘Are not these woods more free from peril than envious court?’
(3) While currently alone, his guide having abandoned him out of fear of Federal troopers lusting after his charge on orders of an enraged bounty-offering Stanton, he believed he had sympathizers in this southernmost appendage of that Confederacy; she had seceded nearly as quickly as his first home, South Carolina, and they were near, by his reckoning, that nearness possessed of such irony that the benighted countenance of Judah P. Benjamin became emblematic of the ancient state of languid Judaic exile: this of all nights, so very different from all other nights, for this night would set in motion his hurried exodus, his passing over unto bardic shores.
The signature smile he seemed to share with the vaunted Mona Lisa---hers so rife with mystery (named sfumato
by the painter’s countrymen), his paler version, a cryptic near- smirk, featured on the worthless Confederate two dollar bill--- shone mistily, over its sleepy stout visage. Would that his enviers could see him now, he who had been the highest intellect of that defunct rebellion, manipulator of the very right hand of Jefferson Davis, laid low, literally, amongst the bushes and briars of sandy-soiled Florida. Fitfully cat-napping in forests and swamps by day (for the night was marginally cooler, and safer), it came to pass that his fittingly feline sleep was disturbed by a playful parrot perched in a tree above, sqwaking, “Hi, for Jeff! Hi, for Jeff!”
And, irony, above all Nature’s faculties, was the feathery quill which had signed that smile across his sheepskinned face, lurking, with its perfect quality of surprise, often proving more verb than noun in his cat-like many lives’ maneuvers. What else might have inspired such an aviary angel, let alone cause its messenger to appear just there, precisely then. That same force which had so moved a parrot had fashioned a friendly Florida ‘cracker’, equally hungered for by both avian and human. Squatter Judah’s thrown pebble dislodged the squawking bird-brained savior, and both now flew to that reward they both craved.
This particular salvation-in-waiting had come to be of so vital geographic assistance to the future (now former) U.S. Senator by dint of Congress’ enactment in 1842 of the Armed Occupation Act, enticing one William Whitaker to settle what is now Sarasota. Such a bill of fare’s repast (4) possessed a strange aftertaste, as Mr. Whitaker was known to be sympathetic to runaway slaves; largely owing to the memory of those same pursuing Union troopers’ malicious disruption of goods and supplies reaching even neutral frontiersmen like Whitaker, Benjamin found himself, after a sojourn of tremulous cain
-raising nights, at the homestead of another of that law’s beneficiaries, one Major Gamble (a.k.a.,‘I am Judah’s constant reminder of fateful irony’), embarking upon a scrounged humble yawl from Whitaker Bayou for British Bimini, and Britain, that other Eden awaiting this able son of Adam’s abler
Federal agents, now frothing these waters, soon intercepted the vessel, poised to extract several pounds of flesh from the plump fugitive, the debt owed a scofflawed nation adjudged by the mercilous, Lincoln-avenging Stanton. Enter, now, Judah’s Old Testament deity, stage director, crafter of things benighted (as well as those lighted), actual deus ex machina of the five acts of Judah Ben-Harried. At his (holy) host’s direction, Benjamin became a lesser Shylock, in skullcap, apron, and soot-smeared face, the Jewish cook of an already motley crew, and, voila, the quality of mercy, alas, was not strained
Now ashore in the Florida Keys, our ‘chosen’ thespian wasted no time obtaining a small craft and guides for the crossing of the Florida Straits. In keeping with its occasional wrathfulness, his hovering deity deigned that its chosen tribesman endure rough seas, in the form of a sudden waterspout storming their dinghy, this natural agent less dissuadable than the bluecoats. Swept in the direction of those Keys’ sandy shores, now was Judah.........‘Sitting on a bank, weeping again my fathomless wrecks, this music crept by me upon the waters, allaying both their fury and my passion with its fair sweet air.’
Such music as there may have been was fast-faded, as his next ship, laden with a cargo full of sponges, embarked for the Caribbean, only to have its thirsty little passengers expand with moisture, bursting the very hold which belied its name, landing our more tragic than heroic lesser Odysseus in a lifeboat, overfilled with seawater and recurring irony’s own night-hued Negroes, with, at leat, one oar----very near Bathos’s infamous‘Upthe Creek’.
One final trial awaited our, now, less courtly lawyer, by fire. His final aquatic carriage went ablaze and made for emergency docking at St. Thomas, British Virgin Islands (a re-berthing
, as 1811 had first birthed him thereabouts); still smoldering, the ship, nonetheless, sailed for England. She might have been named The Southern Cross
, as his grip upon her railings, after all his fitful embarkations, was as if nailed to her. (7)
He nightly hung about the deck, his eyes fixed across that ocean named for another, albeit mythic lost continent; contemplation of his own forlorn landscape was his reverie. Holding in his hand a few memento CSA two dollar bills, valueless to him (save for their fair likeness of that hand’s owner) or anyone, he enlisted the salty wind as his newest elemental ally, fire having done the yeoman’s work with his other sundry papers. The proverbial language of the synagogue echoed: ‘For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’. ‘Omain’
, he added, his Hebrew percolating. ‘And, yet, there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’
. (8a) Prompted further by night personified: ‘I have done the state some service....when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am...speak of one who loved not wisely, but too well.’
Act, the First; or A Swarthy Dark kNight, He
[wherein, a Louisiana Rebel dwells in King Abraham’s Court]
Jack Kennedy’s private secretary was often his confidant, not least when imparting his wry, often private humor: “Washington, a town of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” The South returned the ‘favor’, and for both names.
To the British born, perennial outsider Jewish statesman Judah P. Benjamin such pithiness would have been anything but charming, for its denigration of the region of the new republic which had so welcomed his family, or, humorous, for its recounter’s name, Evelyn Lincoln.
Why, his father has naturalized in Charleston, South Carolina, the night-colored slave-trading center of the South; allowed to worship freely, that patriarch had been part of the founding congregation of the first Reform synagogue in the nation. And, his precocious son Judah had been enabled in his higher education by proper southern schools. Indeed, his only academic rebuff took place in that ‘mannered’ North, whilst at Yale’s Law School, where his matriculation began aged 14, and, from whose hallowed halls he found himself expelled, owing to allegations of “misconduct akin to gambling and other public amoralities of the night”; perhaps, a thin veil for anti-Semitism (he, an avowed teetotaler, his gambling confined, and only later, to serious commodity trade), nonetheless, charges quite unlike his most private, reserved nature.
New Orleans beckoned, not least for its ethnic stew, where even many shades of night-pigmented Creole could rise, at least in wealth, hence, what de Tocqueville soon would call de facto American aristocracy. He took work there with a notary, and soon became a lawyer of note, especially in the prevailing Whig political climate (ironically shared with the young Lincoln, due north) of railroad construction and commodities export, particularly cotton and sugar. In that latter commodity he became a notable plantation owner, and, whilst tutoring a young Creole lovely, Natalie St. Martin, in English, became affianced and, very quickly, betrothal ripened into wedding. Oddly, this trophy marriage made Judah P. Benjamin a cuckold and, as a logical consequence, gave further impetus to his existing penchant toward tireless workaholic (his nights being thusly free), bent on ever-rising. Annually, he would travel to Paris, his long-distance spouse’s and only daughter/child’s voluntary home; a loveless yet ‘beloved’
union, he would remark: “What I require is warmth----will it ever come?” ( It is plausible that he first did think those rhetorical words, later written to a friend, standing in the Louvre before DaVinci’s intricate puzzle of impenetrability, his eyes treating her cryptic smile as platonic mirror to his own silent swansong to humane engagement). Had Judah P. Benjamin and F. Scott Fitzgerald been contemporaries, either might have claimed inspiration for Tender is the Night
with its expatriate espousings involving difficult southern women.
Yet, in the 1850’s, Washington was far less ironically contradictory. A southern town, full of Marylander sympathizers with the slaveholders to the south, so much so that Lincoln himself soon enough would enter that Denmark-rotten hamlet, wearing the night’s very cloak unsure, as were his Pinkerton protectors, of whether he would continue to be, or not, at the business end of an assassin’s pistol or bodkin.
And, it was in the very hotel where the northern President quartered, awaiting his Inauguration, that, not too long before, a conference (9) may have taken place, there, in the confines of the growingly infamous Willard Hotel’s barroom, between one former U.S. Secretary of War, now Senator, and his colleague, revealing Benjamin’s needful swarthy night, to Davis’s too plain day.
“Ah, Judah, that scoundrel Sen. Wade's intemperate remarks—‘Hebrew, in Egyptian clothing’—pshaw.... But, your reply, knightly, indeed, sir, a trait soon required, I fear
“Yes, it is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving the Ten Commandments from their immediate Deity, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.” Judah, both smiling and speaking, replied: “If it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.”
ACT, the Second, or, a kNight Playing at a Fool’s Errant
[herein, of three thorny crowns, a la his distant Hebrew cousin]
Such a friendship, tempered with fiery flashes of passion (an understandably paranoid Jewish Senator, that chamber’s first, mistook commentary by Senator Davis, leading nearly to a duel challenge, for which Davis promptly and profusely apologized) was to elevate that Hebrew tribesman to lofty heights of power, albeit in a newborn nation. Benjamin, no longer a U.S. Senator (a position for which he eschewed appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court), hadn’t anything else to do, beyond mastering his plantation interests, and plying his legal skills privately; he was offered the successive posts of Attorney General, Secretary of War, & Secretary of State, C.S.A. And, it was in that latter post as essential foreign minister, that he worked day and night to ensnare England, his future home, in the conflict whose outcome that wiser nation discreetly viewed with insouciance of a ‘pox on both your houses’ variety.
As for perhaps his thorniest crown’s tenure, suffice to say that his was a temperament suited for lawsuits and their nonviolent, if impassioned, pursuit, leaving enforcement of judgments, often won, to the civil constabulary. Hence, the familiar role of scapegoat, a decidedly Hebraic tribal ritual role, was heaped upon him rather easily, all the while covering President Davis’ stubborn overlording of the southern armies, often observed more in the breach by the field commanders. (It has been accurately observed that the only military mind Lee was unable to defeat was Davis’). ‘Benjamin Hardtack’ was a lasting bitter epithet for the resulting mismanagement of war food (and other) supplies, an unsavory staple of the rebel armies, when and if available, consisting of
cornbread soaked in bacon drippings, dried beans, and hot water with salt or brown sugar sprinkled on it, a barely palatable brick-like lump. No doubt, the pork belly component was as repugnant to Judah as he was to the meal’s consumers.
According to Davis’s wife Varina, Benjamin was never lacking for effort, her diary recounting work habits beside her husband like none other in the Cabinet, bordering on the slavish, depriving (some have said, relieving) her of Jefferson’s nightly companionship; as Judah was, in turn, a large fraction of it, over time, this may be seen as objective hourly tallying rather than opinion. And, yet, Davis' own memoirs make only two perfunctory references to Benjamin’s efforts. It is unknown whether he merely fell on his own sword, playing at the good Roman, or allowed Benjamin to twist in that same wind which would carry away the Confederacy, and, eventually Benjamin himself, via sail, and steam, to England, where the diffidence of both men, for decidedly differing reasons, would find welcome.
Ambition had, it seems, been made of this, their sterner stuff
ACT, the Third, or, a Darkening kNights’ Round Table
[herein, of the last leavings of the CSA’s table, and provisioning for flight to the land of Arthur’s]
South, from the Commonwealth’s Danville rail line (Virgil Cain nowhere to be seen, or heard) (11), their capital for eight days, to various locales, ever southward, until at Fort Mill, South Carolina, on April 27, 1865, on the lawn of a private home, their final sit-down would be had. Arriving with a dwindling cavalry detachment, and treasury, in heavy gold and silver coinage, Davis, whilst seated, allowed his mind to magically carry him first to Lynchburg, then Texas where his imaginary forces would continue guerilla warfare in the name of a republic, of sorts, which had ceased to materially be. The sole material physicality of that lost country consisted of approximately $300,000 worth of bullion and coins, and a third of that was said to belong to Virginia and Louisiana banks. One such bank, Citizens of New Orleans, issued paper bills denonimated ‘dix’, French for ten. Such was the realm of ‘Dixie’, then, that its banks backed their local currency with Confederate gold; as collateral for loans, this and other credit institutions which dealt with lords of the plantation sub-culture like Judah P. Benjamin, often took slaves, the oldest sin, committed in the newest kinds of ways
. (12) (Reparations notwithstanding, in 2005, in compliance with an extant Chicago city ordinance, Bank One, later acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase, announced the formation of a scholarship program, Smart Start Louisiana, which provided $1 million annually [for five years] scholarships for African American students from that state who attend college there. The filing made by Bank One featured specific Louisiana landowners, and the names of enslaved individuals.) Approximately 1,250 slaves became the property of this and other southern banks due to default on those loans; how many Creole ethnics were among them is unknown, but it is likely that there were many. How many may have been distant relations to the lovely Creole debutante bride of plantation owner/client Judah P. Benjamin, Miss St. Martin, was a question of fact neatly consigned to that same neutral wind by the disciplined mind of the future barrister of England---where such practices had been outlawed, albeit only since 1833----as was the legal paperwork underpinning such chattel dealings to an always accomodating fireplace.
Armed with such secreted knowledge of the fleeting, not to mention messy, nature of paper, Mr. Benjamin most assuredly availed himself of what fungible coinage of that dying realm as would facilitate his passage to law’s parnassian heights in the realm of his birthright, Britain.
ACT, the Fourth, or, A New South, ‘ Where Black is the Night, & the Stars are still White...’
[herein, of Os Confederados, & ‘Viva, Brasil!’]
It was and is the unlikeliest planned outward migrations from North America ever to take place. And that destination’s place was to be Brazil, where those human-seeming beings often called ‘black as night’ were legally enslaved well after the gringo civil war. Had Jeff Davis not been captured in Georgia, it is likely that he would have contemplated Brazil, in lieu of Texas’s inhospitality (no longer its own Republic, thanks to Sam Houston). He had intended to embark from New Orleans or Florida to foreign shores, in any event. Had he made it to the Crescent City, near to his Gulf home, he might well have signed on, as a kind of aristocrat, with Dr. James McFadden Gaston of South Carolina, the state where Davis’s sad dream had begun. Perhaps he read the loyal doctor’s 1867 book, Hunting a Home in Brazil
, while prisoner of the Union.
There he could rebuild his dream, much further south, to be sure, and absent his native tongue. Dr. Gaston met in June 1865 with agents of the Brazilian Emperor, Dom Pedro II, along with southern civilian leaders to plan scouting expeditions, for which the Brazilians would provide finances and land for the cultivation of various commodities, and especially cotton. What would Judah P. Benjamin have done, had he sought to return to the city of his enoblement? His wife and only child long-established in Paris, it is hard to imagine such a case, however brief, even apart from the risk of capture. There was, after all, a friendlier land much more safely distant, yet one of his birthright, and of his tongue. The undiscovered country, from whose bourn this traveller might not return, puzzles my will, and makes me rather bear those ills I have, than fly to others that I know not of’
. (13) The law, the timeless harlot, there for the legitimization of all manner of human affairs---including slavery from the Revolution through, at least, the Civil War---cast her charm before his accustomed path, and, so,
‘.........once more, unto the breach.........
........ when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect....
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.....’
Upon that wild ocean, then, he did seek its ‘wasteful’ manner, so to wash away his past, at least, such as did abide the flames of his Yankee foes, and his own hand.
ACT, the Fifth, or, the Foggy, Foggy Night of a Mighty Life
[herein, of an object lesson concerning one Fitzgerald’s proscription of secondary scenarios in American life]
During the Second World War the structure known as Inner Temple Hall, the scene, in 1883, of the prosperous, top-of-the barrister heap Judah P. Benjamin’s farewell address to the profession which had redeemed him many times over (its record, like its speaker’s own private papers, lost to the long night of history) was bombed to smitherines.
Having begun his law practice in London in 1866, he rose to the high post of Queen’s Counsel, QC, by appointment in 1869. He retired in 1883 with full panoply and highest honors.
Yet, his life, his property, even his slim claim to progeny are vanished as if having never been save for a few remnants of officialdom for the U.S. and C.S.A. Of his many dwellings in New Orleans, Paris, and London we have only, tangibly, the still-available Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property
. How fleeting, yet haunting, both his name and his once scandalous personal definition of ‘property’.(15) His was the stuff that foolish dreams are made on, his larger than little life suffused by the rounding night
EPILOGUE: The Author’s Little Night Musing..............
[herein, of his wonderings of his wanderings, @ The Willard Hotel]
His farewell to service to the U.S. Government having come, this, then, young lawyer pondered his fate in the wider world; that same venue where he sat, nicely updated by late 1970’s standards, no longer a flop house for political creatures of all stripes, had hosted his now deserted goodbye repast and, as he stared into and beyond that historic space, his idle mouth birthed a nascent smile. He was, after all, a devoted Anglophile, and lover of Albion’s literature, determined not to go gentle into that good night, rapidly approaching........... jolted from his torpor, his ears awoke to his mind’s accompaniment, the piped-in Musak featured, at crescendo, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Note: All double quote symbols (“ ) denote actual attributable quotes; all italicization denotes our Players’s sometimes inexact remembrances, as internal thoughts, of his schoolboy Shakespeare, or Hebrew Bible
(1) King Henry V
(2)’Song of Myself’, W. Whitman, 1855, variously titled ‘W.Whitman, American for a While’
(3)As You Like It
(4) ‘Repast’: both a pun (forgiveable?), and a reference to an old southern post-funeral customary prayer
(5) The Merchant of Venice
(6) The Tempest
(7)The name of the ship is unknown, hence poetic license of no consequence to fact, save for art.
(8) Othello/ (8a) Julius Caesar
(9)The substance of this conversation is a composite of several such alleged confidences (recounted by diarist Mrs. Varina Davis, et.al.) between two later intimates in a foreign government; key quotes are based upon The Congressional Globe
(10) Julius Caesar
(11) The fictional ‘narrator’ of The Band’s song, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’
(12) King Henry IV, Pt. 2
(13) Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
(14) King Henry V
(15) A slaveholder’s ironic expertise, i.e., personal property, a legal concept centered upon ‘chattels’, which had included night-colored human beings.
(16) The Tempest