Monday, June 25, 2012

The Past Is a Foreign Country

Dan Allosso

So I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Keene New Hampshire, writing a biography of freethinker Charles Knowlton.  I’m doing a chronological first draft; there’s plenty of detail, background, explanation, and interpretation that I’ll need to add to this, but I figured getting down the skeleton of the story is the first step.

Pun not intended, but there it is.  I’m writing about the first time Knowlton goes up to the “medical lectures” in Hanover (they formed the basis of what later became Dartmouth Medical School).  The fourteen-week lectures cost $50, which neither Knowlton nor his traveling companion Herman Partridge could scrape together.  So the two men decided to steal a body, since it was an open secret that Hanover paid $50 for “subjects” they could use in anatomy lectures.

This was probably Knowlton’s idea.  He had already stolen a body and gotten away with it by this time.  He was 22; his companion Partridge was 31.  Ironically, Partridge later became the Coroner of their home-town Templeton, Massachusetts.  They found one body, but it was badly decomposed when they got to it and only yielded a skeleton.  Then they heard of another burial, ten miles in the wrong direction.  Desperate (the lectures had already commenced and they were missing them!), they went out in the night and stole this body too.

Carrying the corpse into Keene, where I now sit writing about it, Partridge was sure they had been discovered.  Their wagon was old and their horse slow.  They had to get out and push when they went up hills.  Certainly there would be no chance of an escape, if they were caught.  Partridge’s panic, however, was premature.  They avoided the town and tavern, staying the night with a farmer who had lived in Templeton.  The eighty-mile trip took them three days, and when they arrived in Hanover, the corpse was unusable and the anatomy professor was not buying.  But he gave them $20 to dispose of the body.

As I write these events, I find myself trying to imagine what Keene looked like in 1822.  What it was like to drive an old wagon over country paths, taking three days to make a trip we can now accomplish in two hours.  And I hope that, since it’s interesting to me, it will be to my readers when I satisfy my own curiosity and fill in these details.

For every sentence of narrative, it seems as if there’s another sentence of explanation and context.  So it’s not just that these things happened in this particular sequence, but that they happened in this alien world where you can’t pass over the meaning of carrying a body through town at a snail’s pace.  The suspense would go on for a much longer time, if people on horseback or even running on foot could catch up to you.  The anxiety that someone was going to smell the foul thing decaying under the covers in the wagon must have built to an extreme level, when hours passed under the hot sun as the old horse trudged on.

But here I sit, in an air-conditioned café.  The past really is a foreign country . . .


Shelley said...

So we are living lives that will be a foreign country to our children and grandchildren.

dan allosso said...

Yeah, I think so. Unless we leave them stories that explain how it was and how it felt...