Eccentric history, eccentric historian

Outwitted

by Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Of seven current book projects in which I’m engaged as an editor, chapter author, or co-editor, there is only one about which I feel at liberty to blog, because the prerogative of announcing each of the others belongs to someone else. Every one of them involves individuals or groups that are eccentric in one way or another, and the one that has most deeply engaged my heart, mind, and soul is the most eccentric of all. Sarah Stanley Grimke defied racial norms and her own family to marry an African American in 1879, a time when this placed her completely outside the circle of respectable society anywhere but among radical Boston Unitarians. When she abandoned her husband and daughter to cohabitate in California with a married Englishman who had likewise abandoned his family, the circumstances of their collaboration were completely outside the norms of respectability. And when she turned from the orthodox Christian faith of her father to Unitarianism, and then became a writer of Mind Cure lessons and subsequently of Hermetic astrology, she was as eccentric spiritually as she had been sexually and racially. This has a certain resonance with other subject matter about which I have written.

Although my mother’s Quaker ancestors were at the center of North Carolina history in the late 17th century, their position in society eroded and became progressively more marginal in the 18th and 19th centuries and by the 20th their religious community was extinct in the county where they had lived for many generations. This was largely due to their opposition to slavery which placed them more and more “outside the circle.” The main emphases of my book about my father’s ancestors was their mulatto status in the colonial era and their Union affiliation in the Civil War. To be in the mainstream of writing about the Civil War, I’d have told a story about North versus South, Unionists versus Confederates, white plantation owners and black slaves. But my story—that of my ancestors which I chose to research for years—was about border states, racially ambiguous origins, and poor white Unionists in the midst of rich Confederate slaveholders. This is eccentric subject matter, and my preference for such “marginal” populations makes me as eccentric a historian in this dimension as in others.

This theme of eccentricity in historical interests recently hit home as I participated in a book festival in my city, Martinsville. All up and down the main area were fiction writers of various genres. At the end were the handful of non-fiction writers. One big tent was occupied by a local history publisher of many illustrated works—definitely in the mainstream, but at the corner where one had to turn left to get to the other nonfiction writers. Turning left, we had a humorous columnist dressed as Mark Twain, a charming lady who had authored two books about her experiences with afterlife communication, and an African American writer whose book was about the challenges facing parents of young black boys—a very timely topic this week of all weeks. Then, farthest left, was me with Pell Mellers, my book on mixed-ancestry Unionists, Carolina Genesis, a collection from the same publisher with a chapter on the plight of Quakers on the margins of the Dismal Swamp in the wake of the Nat Turner insurrection, and Edgar Cayce in Context. Like me, the raising-black-sons author had missed the message about “bring your own tent or broil in the sun” but the New Age author and her husband kindly allowed us both to share the shade of her tent. This seemed symbolic of the eccentric non-fiction types lending mutual support.; I had a lot of fun but it was all down there in the non-fiction ghetto.

Reflecting on how perfectly Grimke as a subject matter suited my proclivities as an author, it occurred to me that Edgar Cayce and Melungeons occupy the far geographical corners of my home state, one at the eastern extremity of the Virginia Beach strip, the other at the western extremity in the corner bordering Tennessee and Kentucky. If the preoccupations of middle and upper class Richmonders are taken as defining mainstream Virginiana, Cayce represents the most eccentric figure in the religious history of the Commonwealth, and Melungeons the most eccentric element of its racial history. This doubtless has a lot to do with the fascination they hold for me.

Two decades have passed since my only books that generated any controversy, and yet interested parties have been quite effective in defining me by the label “controversial author.” While the Masters and disciples of Madame Blavatsky could be considered equally eccentric subject matter as anything that has more recently engaged my interest, my two books on Theosophy resulted in being labeled and targeted for disrespect as “outside the circle” in ways that were downright sinister and threatening, initially by Theosophists, and subsequently by Baha’is. And yet, paradoxically, they have generated far more mainstream respectability than anything I’ve written since.
(To be continued with reflections on discovering the Grimke family story to be very much part of the mainstream of Unitarian history.)

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