Writing Right with Dmitri: More Entertaining Than Fiction
Imagine this scene in a movie:
The year: 1895. The place: Virginia.
CENTRE see a statue of Stonewall Jackson. In the background, the song 'Dixie' is being played by a brass band. An elderly, white-haired man in a shabby suit comes slowly up the path. He squints up at the statue, but he can't read the inscription. To see better, he takes off his broad-brimmed hat and shields his eyes from the glare of the sun.
CUT TO a newspaper headline:
'DANIEL DECATUR EMMETT, AUTHOR OF 'DIXIE', SALUTES STONEWALL JACKSON'
CUT TO next scene: The same elderly man alights from a train. The sign says MOUNT VERNON, OHIO. The STATION MASTER greets him.
STATION MASTER: Welcome back, Dan! How was the big 'Dixie' tour?
EMMETT: Tiring and confusing, Jake. You know, those folks down South think I wrote that walkaround song for the Confederacy?
Both laugh heartily.
This is a completely true story, as far as my research can make it out. Daniel Decatur Emmett, Ohio musician, accidentally wrote the Confederate anthem. He didn't mean to. And a Virginia newspaper really did mistake his gesture for saluting a Confederate general.
As I always say, you can't make these things up. So why try?
Instead, go exploring. I have just spent several hours gleefully laughing at the pretensions and bad taste of the past. It's cold outside, and I didn't have anywhere I had to be. Besides, laughing at the past makes me feel better about the follies of the present. I also noticed that a lot of things hadn't changed since the old days. Fake news happened then, too. People made a 'thing' of something that wasn't a 'thing', as John Oliver would say. They were just as full of themselves as they are now, only without TV and the internet.
But even better, I found out all sorts of new facts from Gustav Kobbé's book Famous American Songs, 1906. Like where the phrase 'I wish I was in Dixie' came from. Emmett was a performer. During the winter, performers preferred to tour in the South, because it was warmer there. So it they were in New York City in the snow, they'd say, 'I wish I was in Dixie.' I still haven't found out why they called it Dixie, but I live in hope. The writer of this book talked to all sorts of people and collected cool anecdotes about Emmett and the writers of 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' and 'Yankee Doodle'. He even talked to Stephen Foster's relatives and got some personal stories. He chased down the straight dope on the original 'hero' of 'John Brown's Body'. (Not the man who raided Harper's Ferry.) There's a world of fascinating stuff in those internet archives. It's like being let loose in a candy store. I laughed all afternoon – especially while I was writing this week's Literary Corner. (If I don't amuse myself, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to amuse anybody else.)
Why am I bringing this up? Do you know what lazy writers do? They write the same boring story again and again. When confronted with a figure from history, they blink twice and recall the ten dull 'facts' they and everybody else think they know about them. Then they slap them onto the page with some stilted dialogue, a few potted clichés, and a couple of stock situations. They invent imaginary supporting characters, and call them 'composites'. Then they sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in.
Pah. You have this wonderful access to books of the past. People of the past. People who were there. Why not use that? The real world is so much more varied and interesting than the boring world of most people's fiction. Go out and find out how counter-intuitive the true story is.
You don't have to believe everything those old writers say. For instance, Kobbé is an ardent admirer of certain poetic styles I'm pretty sure we'd all hate. Such as the verses of 'Maryland, My Maryland,' or Stephen Foster's minstrel songs. Speaking of minstrel songs, the author is not the least bit embarrassed by them. We are, big-time. That's why we need to retell the stories for a new audience. But while we're retelling, we ought to nail down the details that make the whole thing come alive. Like the idea of Dan Emmett, who sold the rights to 'Dixie' for $500 back in the day, reflecting in his calm old age on the weird fate of his catchy show tune. Life is strange like that.
Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.
Yeah, go do as Jesus said. Find the gems and share them.