Monday, November 15, 2010

Dawn of Democracy

My initial intent for the novel, Benson's House, was to construct a historical fiction with each chapter a separate vignette standing independently, but when compiled together, documenting the evolution of pop culture. I deviated from that idea somewhat in the later chapters, but the first few can be read as individual sketches. This is especially true with the first chapter. It was written more with a desire to illustrate a conceived concept than to direct the plot.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a character who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and then returned to his former combat location on the day of the ceremony to consecrate the grounds as the Civil War Cemetery. His presence on the day of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address needed to be coincidental; it could not be preordained.

The chapter introduces the protagonist, Justin Benson, who meets the profile. His is a young, illiterate, naive, wander, who allows spontaneity to dictate his course of action. He serves in the Thirteenth Independent Battery during the three day Battle of Gettysburg and is positioned in the Union Army's infamous “fish hook” formation on the high grounds known as Cemetery Hill. The chapter depicts his regiment's successfully held rank in preventing General Lee's Army from forging an advance leading to the roads for Philadelphia.

On the evening following the second day of combat, Benson is given a lantern, and wanders off the ridge onto the vast battlefield below. He stumbles upon a dying Rebel soldier and comforts him during his final moments of life. Just before his demise, the soldier apologizes for his treatment of his fellow man.

“Man is God’s finest creation." He states. "It seem a shame, we treat his works, with such reckless abandon.

Benson never learns the boys name and becomes convinced that somehow his existence on earth is preventing him from passing onto the afterlife. He stands alone with the body as the howls of wounded soldiers echo in the night.

I initially wanted to create this scene, allegorically, as a metaphor to the insensibility of war. I also intended to illustrate a disturbing setting that seemed plausible of convincing the Benson character to spend the remainder of his life in support of humanity.

Justin Benson becomes one of the originating promoters of the music that became Rock 'n' Roll. Through stories describing the lives of future Benson generations, music stands the course of time in championing a defiance against human suffering and abuse. It serves as a fanfare for the common man and develops as the sound track of our current pop culture.

When a friend read one of the first drafts of the first chapter, he commented on how unrealistic it seemed for Benson to return to Cemetery Hill, during the twilight of morning, and falling immediately asleep at his former post. I argued the journey had kept the young protagonist awake for over a day and he was exhausted from the long march, but agreed that something was missing.

I was certain the scene was to have effective impact with him arriving at the former battle station in the dark of night, sleeping, and then awaking to find the stage for the ceremony had been placed above the spot where the Rebel soldier died. I felt it compelling to have Lincoln recite his ceremonial speech above the ground where the boy had perished. However, I agreed something needed to be added.

One day, while still struggling with a solution to the void, I was sitting at a bar, conversing with a stranger sitting beside me. I'm not sure how the topic was breached, but the person told me he had recently read an essay that claimed the concepts of political theory and the origin of democracy had more than likely been conceived under the intoxication of wine in a Athenian symposium. He enthusiastically ranted on with how euphoric inebriation had defined the ideals of a Utopian society, and how debauchery lead to Plato's principals in The Republic.

Being much less erudite, and not completely understanding all the references to Platonism, I instead heard elements that allowed me to imagine a surreal hall serving as a way station between life and death. I came up with an image of both Benson and the Rebel soldier wrapped in linen, lying on separate couches in a cavernous hall cooled by a surrounding wall of rigid stone glistening in cascading waters. Between the two former soldiers laid a large clay vase filled with wine. A young steward poured wine into the goblets they were holding, while a semi- nude courtesan entertained them with music she played on her flute.

The image was much more appealing than the boosterism for Athens coming from the man sitting next to me.

This became the setting for a dream Benson has while sleeping before the ceremonial dedication at Gettysburg. I felt the scene effectively filled the void and brought the chapter in line with the plot of the story. Benson would dream he was in a symposium, during the dawn of democracy, and would learn from the Rebel boy that he was destine to create a similar place on earth. This place was to become the center of a artistic universe, and the Rebel boy was to serve as his guide until he reaches his destiny. The symposium on earth would serve the common man and provide the songs of freedom; of the people; by the people; for the people.

This becomes the premise of the novel. Chapter 2 begins to tell the events of how the symposium on earth was established, and begins the portrayal of the role it played in developing music and art for over one hundred years. Justin Benson's destiny is brought to a brownstone building on Bleeker Street, in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1865. The activities in that building are what shapes pop culture for decades to follow.

My next post will concentrate on the origin of the music. It came from the elements of slave songs, sung in the fields to distract from the toils of arduous labor. The lyrics spoke of optimism; of hope. The songs of freedom; of one day reaching the Promise land found in place called Benson's House.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Bob Marley

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