Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Undead Past

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
--from Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1951)

My grandfather, a son of illiterate Irish immigrants, was born in 1891. His older brother Willie drowned in the canal just west of downtown Indianapolis when he was four, leaving my grandfather as the oldest of the brood. He grew up to marry a dark Irish beauty and went to work as a government meat inspector. The two sent their four oldest sons to war. Four more served in the 1950s. Their only daughter, my aunt, died less than a month ago. She was buried in a cemetery plot purchased by her father in 1945. Even now, fifty-six years after his death, he has continued to provide for his family.

I don't know how it happened exactly, but my Irish grandfather--tall, able, hardworking, a natural aristocrat--and his wife--dark, devout, and I imagine long-suffering--carried through them something of the undead past. Forces from long ago lived in their generation and in their children's generation and still yet in their children's children's generation. Now we are like Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate in another Faulkner novel attempting to solve the mystery of what went on all those years ago that things should be as they are today. The Irish have a sense of fatedness that very often elides into a sense of doom. It would be easy to fall into that and believe that forces from the past are irresistible. To believe in an irresistible fate or doom might be a mistake. But it might also be a mistake to believe that we can escape from or are unaffected by a past that is never dead.

Lamont Buchanan's father, Charles Lamont Buchanan, Sr., was born in 1884 in New York City. His parents were divorced and his mother died when he was a child. There was tussling over guardianship and inheritance which was finally settled by the end of the century. Buchanan eventually became a successful writer and critic. In 1948, he secured an apartment in his native city, an apartment that is--or was until recently--a home for his son, Lamont Buchanan, and his son's wife, Jean Milligan. In 1949, perhaps in some security, Lamont Buchanan left the employ of Weird Tales magazine. For the next seven years, he made a go at being an author of books. Then, with his last book in 1956, he seems to have fallen silent. Like his onetime or then-current friend J.D. Salinger, he retreated into seclusion. Unlike with Salinger, no one seems to have sought him out. No one now wonders about unpublished manuscripts among his papers.

Charles Lamont Buchanan, Sr., died in 1962. That was more than half a century ago. The scandal in his family, if you can call it that, occurred in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The weird story of his ancestor's suicide is from near the beginning of that century, now two hundred years past. All of those events--and countless more--are past and yet seemingly not past. They have shaped the people who came after them, and by that, shaped the history of weird fiction in America. Likewise, whatever trauma or pathology or quirk of personality that made J.D. Salinger the writer and subsequently the recluse that he was also resides in the province of the past. Yet people still read his books, which came out of his personal or familial past. Moreover, Salinger's two children survive. Lamont Buchanan and Jean Milligan may or may not have had a daughter. If there is such a person, then the undead past must live on in her as well, just as it does in all of us.

I don't want to invade the privacy of Lamont Buchanan and his family. That's the reason why I hesitate to tell the whole story as I know it. You might think it silly to consider events from half a century or a century ago to be private, but those things are not dead, and just as I wouldn't want someone unknown to me probing into my family, I won't probe into someone else's. And yet I have. What I have already written may have gone too far. I guess one difference might be that Lamont Buchanan made of himself a person of public interest. Our probing might be excusable. But that's a pretty weak excuse.

I'll close by saying that no, I don't believe J.D. Salinger was Allison V. Harding. That's a ridiculous idea, despite the uncanny similarities between their respective scenes at the carousel. I believe Lamont Buchanan was Allison V. Harding. But I also believe that any connections between the two men ought to be explored to the fullest extent. Scholars of literature are always looking for some new line of research in a world in which all possibilities have been exhausted. Here is something new and unexhausted. Someone should go to it.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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