“My Dear Master Liszt” left me with a pit in my stomach. Ben Stroud’s epistolary story—which appears in the Oxford American’s Fall 2016 issue—made me confront what it means to be a proud Southerner in a region responsible for racially charged crimes both past and present. Miszner, the narrator, is our everyman, the well-meaning bystander to historical tragedies. Of course, there is no such thing as a bystander to history. The fury that mounted in me as I read Miszner’s claims came from my growing realization that, in a way, I am Miszner. I am white and privileged, made safe by my own denial. As a reader, my reconciliation begins, as Stroud puts it, with simply being aware. Of not hiding the history. And then going from there.”
Stroud’s collection of stories Byzantium (Graywolf Press, 2013) received the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize; the Kansas City Star named it a Top Book of the Year and Publisher’s Weekly and Chicago Tribune each called it a Best Summer Book. More than one reviewer has equated Stroud’s capacity to write from both the past and the present with the work of a magician, while others compare him to Jim Shepherd, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. But he seems to me to be just a guy who wants to know who he is and where he is. This summer I corresponded with Stroud about white guilt, being an unTexan, and the difficult facts of fiction.
You write something of an artist’s manifesto in “My Dear Master Liszt”: “the role we artists must play—light-bringers, revealers of passion, sympathizers with the oppressed.” Although you now reside in Toledo, Ohio, you are originally from Texas, where the story takes place. Do you feel any obligation as a Texan to illuminate the darker corners of the state’s history? How does pride in a place coexist with recognizing the place’s brutality?
To the first question I’d say, Yes! One of the things I think about a lot is the way Texans, Southerners, Americans think about our history. Part of this is because my father is a historian, and I grew up being told about real history versus the myths so many of us cling to. Texans, especially, love their historical myths. But I think it’s important, in order to fully understand our past and our present, to look at those things these myths often hide, to look at the (often horrible) truths that are there.
So, in one way, it’s about countering whatever grand Confederate myths still exist. That’s important, because a lot people still hold to them. On the other hand, I imagine few neo-Confederates or Confederate apologists will read this story. So that’s not the only goal. The other goal, the greater goal, I think, is to remember that this happened.
(And I should say the events in this story are based directly on events that occurred in Henderson, Texas, in 1860, in the run-up to the Civil War. And much of this story is based on research my father did.)
As far as how this coexists with pride—that’s a really tough question. My Texas ancestors run back to the days of the Republic—so I have as much a right as anyone to claim Texan-ness. And yet I’ve often not wanted to claim it. Texans can be so into Texas identity that sometimes it can get a bit . . . annoying? And most of the markers of Texas identity never really applied to me. I’m not a mournful exile. And yet, even as I felt like a fairly unTexan Texan, and even as I’ve thought much about the lurking horrors in Texas history, I do still have that pride, I can still be affected by that. I return to the state on average twice a year—to see family—and when I get there, I do feel that sense of home. Not just because I’m around family—but because I’m in the place I’m from, and these are the first places I knew, the foods I grew up with, etc. So there is a measure of pride-in-place. And how that fits with understanding the problems with the past, and the present—that’s what’s so tough, that’s what I return to. How do you fit that together? That’s a question that can’t really be fully answered, I think, which is why, of course, it’s worth exploring again and again.
So writing historical fiction excavates historical truths, pulls off the dusty sheets from the molding furniture we would rather leave covered. It sounds like your father was an excavator, too. How does your personal history influence historical fiction that you set in a familiar place? You’ve told previous interviewers that you don’t want to get too comfortable in writing about a time or place. How do you revisit Texas in ways that upset our security?
Before this story, I’d mostly avoided writing any historical fiction about Texas (there are a few exceptions, of course). I wasn’t that interested in the place and I wanted to spend time (imaginatively) elsewhere. Sort of a writing-version of the desire to flee your hometown after high school. So with this story, and the larger project it’s part of, I really started thinking about: what have I been missing in not looking at Texas? What might I have been avoiding? It took me some time, I think, to get over that rejection of the home place for brighter locations so that I could really look at East Texas and see it. But then, because it’s a place I know—from growing up there, from having a father who focused on local history, from having ancestors from there—it was in some ways easier to write about, at least from a research perspective. Easier to think about who these people would be rather than, say, trying to render believable characters living in the seventh-century.
Part of it is by varying my subjects. Now that I’ve written this story and its larger project, I’ll probably take a break from East Texas, and then hopefully come back to it with a newer sensitivity. An important element to writing (or any art) is simply time. This was the subject I wanted to visit now, and some of that has to do with getting older and gaining more perspective, and some of that has to do with paying attention to the news and thinking about the world; i.e., in many ways this story is a direct response to white denialism. Lots of (white) people are still invested in the idea that racism is done, or that the past wasn’t that bad, etc., and you can see the problems with this pretty much every day. One of the aims of the story is simply to say—look at this horrible thing that happened and that nobody talks about. Do you think the legacy of this act just disappears?
Whenever I next go to East Texas fiction-wise, I’m not sure who I’ll be then, or what I’ll be thinking about, or what perspective I might have. At this point, I can’t see that far. There is no plan. I’m done. Though, I hope, I’m done only for now.
“My Dear Master Liszt” immediately resonated with me as a comment on the current climate around race in America.
You say the story directly responds to “white denialism.” Your protagonist, Miszner, is plagued by his own mediocrity. But he’s a white man in the antebellum South. He has a level of social capital unimaginable to the county’s six thousand enslaved. He has the power to stand up for Henderson’s slaves, to stand against the slave owners. He doesn’t. The power Miszner exercises pales in comparison to his power to enact change. A character willfully ignorant of his potential for change, more comfortable exercising his power of apathy, or what you call “denialism,” resonates strongly in today’s debates over human and civil rights. The legacy of racism and the denial of racism hasn’t disappeared.
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to this character. He’s based on a real guy, who has a spot in the local history museum and some books on local histories. Not much is known about him: just that he turned up in Henderson in 1845 after spending a brief amount of time in Cuba, and that he’d studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and with Franz Liszt. He lived in Rusk County until his death, long after the Civil War. I found myself thinking a few things. First, what could his life have been like? And then second, what would he think of all these events, which he would have witnessed?
And I was drawn to him, too, as a way of thinking about the mindset of the bystander who, by being a bystander, enables—a mindset that can be pretty uncomfortable to explore, I think, because it’s perhaps a bit too close for many of us. He knows this is wrong, but he doesn’t fully know how wrong: he’s just too limited, too much in his moment and existence. He thinks being an outsider and more “free-thinking” excuses him, but it doesn’t. He has power, but not that much. (He’s probably right to think that if he objects at any point he himself would be targeted.) When fiction explores the long-reach of slavery and racism in our culture, it most often (and rightly) focuses on the victims, and sometimes (and also rightly) looks at the out-and-out racists and oppressors. But I was interested here in that person in the middle, who might be considered more “benign,” who might not approve of or consider himself fully part of the system, who might be “right-thinking” or, in Miszner’s case, if taken out of this context, simply comical and minor. But he is, instead, implicated. Or, to use the character’s own words, stained with guilt.
“Bystander” might accurately describe whole swaths of the country. I think a lot of people, myself included, exonerate ourselves with thoughts not unlike Miszner’s line, “It is outside me.” But is it? Is injustice ever truly outside our capacity to change?
I think that’s what makes this such a hard question. Miszner has a chance to help Missy May when she asks him, but he hesitates. Other than that moment, there’s really not much he can do for her. (And even in that moment, her escape might be doomed.) He tries to make amends, by buying Missy May’s daughter, but he’s still caught in the overall system. Is there a pure way to act, if you’re already implicated in the system? Probably not. Does that mean you don’t try, even if you’ve hesitated? No, you still try, in whatever way you can. Does that mean you’re innocent? No, not at all.
Of course, there’s a more courageous option—for him to become a full-on abolitionist, etc. But this story isn’t about the people who are on the forefront of justice. It’s about those well-meaning but flawed people (though, who isn’t flawed?) who are too hesitant to act, who get caught up in their own existence—which is, I think, really most of us, despite ourselves. But it’s not really an apology for those people. It’s a look at their special kind of guilt.
Miszner has an active conscience, and like you said, he is well-meaning. But he never saves the day like I hoped he would. I wanted to yank on his blonde ponytail until he took action! I despised him for his inactivity just as I despised the executioners for their activity. But my own white guilt was at play. Are we who are privileged with white skin made culpable in this story by our very act of reading? Can we ever be comfortably removed from the atrocities these white men committed?
Lots of people don’t like the idea of white guilt, for a whole variety of reasons. But I think it’s useful, and important. The simple answer is that if you’re white and live in the South—or, more broadly, America—you are connected to these actions. They are part of what made the world we live in today—part of what built the various structures of privilege, etc. We live in a culture that loves to deny guilt. And in some cases, that’s very useful. Shame can be really inhibiting to living a fulfilled life, and it can be a tool of repression/oppression. But certain kinds of shame and guilt can be useful, are necessary, and I think the oft-derided white guilt can be one of these.
I’d say the goal of the story is to make the reader feel uncomfortable. And to perhaps share in the culpability you mention. The reason so much of this history gets suppressed is that it’s not comfortable, not for white people. It makes us feel things we don’t want to feel. Because lynchings happened and happened and happened. What’s the chance that, if we’d lived then, we would be the one to step in and nobly stop a lynching? Probably zero percent. And that doesn’t feel good. That’s not flattering.
So we have full-on abolitionists, the people we white people often like to imagine ourselves as; the bystanders, the role most of us would probably play; and the slave-owning perpetrators, the people we now want to see as simply evil. In your story, they seem to lead double lives—cultured gentlemen by day, racist vigilantes by night. This breed hasn’t died out, has it? How did you humanize the perpetrators of these crimes in the story?
In some ways, I’m not sure I managed to humanize them. For me it’s one of those constant, baffling questions: how could people actually do this? And it leads to the related, equally baffling question: how could people who would have liked various high-cultural things, the sort of stuff we tend to associate as refining and bettering, be capable of such awful acts and beliefs? While it is an accident of history that the man who settled in Henderson, Texas was a German musician, it wasn’t necessarily an accident of the story, if that makes sense. I mean, perhaps the biggest come-uppance for art-appreciation as an equalizer for humanity will be happening a little later (from the story’s point in time) in Miszner’s native land, with the rise of the Nazis. In some ways, this quandary is almost a cliché. But we come back to it, I think, because it’s so hard to answer. How could people do this? Real, live, actual, breathing, complicated people? Because for the most part these people weren’t/aren’t monsters, and that’s what’s so terrifying.
Comparing the situation in Henderson with Nazi Germany chills me. We’ve all heard stories from WWII of people too scared to speak out or who denied knowledge of the atrocities taking place next door. I’ve always wondered, would I have had the courage to defy the regime? To risk my life smuggling Jews out of Nazi territory, for example? As an American, I like to believe, perhaps naively, that the Nazis’ atrocities are “outside me,” to borrow again from Miszner. As a white woman who can trace her lineage back to the American Revolution, I can’t say the same about American slavery. I worry about my ancestors’ involvement in slavery; I wonder if I would have acted differently in their place.
We’ve only mentioned Missy May, the victim of the story’s crimes, in passing. Speech invests your characters with power; I’m thinking of Miszner’s line, “Our voices are but instruments of our spirits.” Missy May, the female slave sentenced to execution, has little voice. How does Missy May’s identity—her Blackness, her womanhood—contribute to her silence?
Yeah, I think it’s a difficult thing to think through, considering our ancestors. (I have a similar lineage.) In part, too, because it’s so abstract—it’s hard to get your head around. And the question of what to do with this knowledge, or guilt, can be a heavy one. But I don’t think it means we have to be overly mopey or something—that would be useless. I think it begins with simply being aware. Of not hiding the history. And then going from there. For me, in a way, writing this story is one response to that awareness.
But to the question about Missy May: this was a real worry for me. How do I represent her on the page? I think it’s a problem for her to be purely silent, only a victim. But I also wasn’t sure if I would be able to show her—is that another violation? History says little about her. (In the historical record, she doesn’t even have a name.) And so in some ways I wanted her relatively small presence here to be a reflection of that history—of the way she’s been erased. That is, I hope that what we don’t see of her is glaring. I should add, too, that I’m still not sure about this. This is the truth for most writers, I think. A story (or whatever) might be “finished,” but that doesn’t mean we’re fully confident about everything, or that everything is ever settled. (And I think that’s good, because it means you’re risking something.)
It occurs to me without insignificance that the Oxford American is publishing this story in the era of #BlackLivesMatter. The silences, the erasure of black bodies, is hardly over. You gave this enslaved woman, whose identity history erased, a name. In the wake of the most recent deaths of young black men, we’ve seen a refusal of silence. Did you write this story during these last few volatile years? Did these deaths influence your relationships with these characters?
I did—I first drafted it in 2014. I want to be careful of drawing too direct a line. One of the things about fiction is that choosing what to write about isn’t rational. But it’s certainly true that the recent, growing awareness of enduring racial inequality, mainly through the highly visible cases of so many young black men killed and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, influenced this story, provided a good bit of the drive behind it. Being a white Southerner, I have witnessed a lot of denialism, mainly these days through my Facebook feed. And some of that denial, I think, is rooted in a failure to reckon with history. (It’s rooted in other places, too—mainly in the desire to be blameless.) And so this is just one little story, and just one example—but there’s an effort here to remember how brutal the past really was, and—I hope, though in some ways this is beyond the story itself--to consider what it might be like to have grown up on the other side of this history. That past is more extreme than our present. But that past led to our present and is still here.
Read “My Dear Master Liszt” by Ben Stroud, from the Fall 2016 issue.
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