(Roughly) Daily

“A Monograph I promised, and a Monograph this shall be”*…

Virginius Dabney wrote the American South’s great postmodern novel. Too bad he did it in 1866…

I found Virginius Dabney in the usual way: which is to say, by accident. I was pawing through a box of antiquarian books when one old volume fell open and a centerfold fell out. Not that: it was a centerfold of sheet music. I cradled the book in my hand and examined the title page

The Story of Don Miff,

As Told by His Friend John Bouche Whacker:

A Symphony of Life.

Edited by Virginius Dabney.

It appeared to be a novel, but as I idly flipped through it, more centerfolds flopped out: sheet music again. I thought for a moment that someone had jammed them in there, but no, they were bound in. Then I began to notice the title of each section of the book. Symphony of Life Movement One. Symphony of Life Movement Two. Symphony of…

The book had a publication date of 1886, just the period I tend to favor, and it bore the imprint of J. B. Lippincott Company, a major publisher. Yet I’d never heard of it or its author. And what was more, most—but not all—of the parts in the orchestral score inserted into the book were blank. The whole thing seemed rather curious. Then I started reading, and it got curioser and curioser.

Don Miff is… well, first let me state that I am reasonably sure that I am correct when I say that Don Miff is the only nineteenth-century novel that is addressed to a tenth-generation descendant living in the twenty-third century. Or that this descendant is Asian-American—because, as the narrator muses, even as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was coming into force, perhaps “under the contempt expressed for them as inferiors there lurks a secret, unrealized sense of their real superiority?” And even this grandson faces a superior force to himself: women. With mechanization removing the advantages of physical force, Dabney predicts, men and their wearisome violence will become obsolete. Only a few men will be “preserved here and there in zoological gardens of the wealthy and the curious, along with rare specimens of the bison of the prairie, skeletons of the American Indian and the dodo…”—and there his tenth-removed grandson will be exhibited to the inquisitive stares of numberless crowds of women. “You will rue the day when your ancestors, mistaking might for right, excluded woman from that haven of rest, the ballot-box.”

It is to this twenty-third-century Asian-American grandson, a living exhibit in a peaceful matriarchy, that the great Southern novel of 1886 is addressed.

Dabney, making his morning commute as a deputy collector at the Customs House downtown, had collapsed unconscious on a bench after climbing the stairs to the El line at Eighteenth and Third. His grown son Noland was by his side, and called for help, but it was too late. Virginius Dabney was due to turn fifty-nine soon, and already lucky to be alive after a previous stroke. But this time, his luck ran out…

Colleagues stood up and recalled how, even though he had only been working there for nine months before dying, old Virginius was one of the most genial men to ever hold the job: a true Southern gentleman. Some of the may have known that, before then, he’d been an editor at the Commercial Advertiser, and that before that he’d run the New-York Latin School for many years. A few might have even have heard that once, eight or nine years ago, their deputy collector had written… something or other.

And that is where history closes its book upon our author. There is no biography of Virginius Dabney: no critical studies of his work, no scholarly papers on the man. Search any database and you will find innumerable hits on “Virginius Dabney,” but these are of his namesake grandson—a Richmond Times-Dispatch editor who won a Pulitzer in 1948 for writing against segregation on city transit lines. Of his dear old granddad, there is nothing.

Why? How could such a forward-looking book have been ignored?

Think back upon one of Dabney’s immediate predecessors at the Customs House. He, too, had written a curious book years before—and, like Dabney, had soon been largely forgotten, and left to toil in obscurity in the downtown warehouses by the late 1880s. His great book was out of print and would stay that way for decades. When he died, he got an even shorter obituary than Dabney did. Apparently nobody cared as much around the Customs House for Mr. Herman Melville.

If we wonder why Don Miff is forgotten, we might also ask—why did it take seventy years for Moby-Dick to be recognized as a masterpiece? Until the 1920s, it was out of print in the United States, and appreciated in the United Kingdom primarily as a maritime tale. It was not until the excavation of Melville by Lewis Mumford and his fellow critics, and the rise of Modernism, that—oh, look! A masterpiece!

Which, of course, it is… now…

Read Emily Dickinson next to other then-famous poets of her time—Tupper, say, or even Longfellow—and her contemporaries look staggeringly old-fashioned. Dickinson is new, spare, prophetic. It is tempting, reading her mysterious and yet intensely personal lines, to think to yourself: My god, it’s as if she knew the future of poetry. But the truth is precisely the opposite; it is because we know the future that the way we read her work is irrevocably altered. The point is not that Emily Dickinson saw the future, but rather, that the future saw her. She appeals to our own aesthetic, and fits in with our notion of a suitable lineage. Had our economic, aesthetic, and political world turned out differently—if, say, heroic socialist odes were the fashion—then Emily Dickinson would have been just another crazy lady in Amherst.

The present catches up to the past: “The Lost Symphony,” from the wonderful Paul Collins (@PaulCollinsPDX) and the good old days of The Believer– eminently worth reading in full.

* Virginius Dabney


As we look back, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was (unlike Don Miff) an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.


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