CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Well at Founders Grove
Many critics, seeking a precedent for the work of novelist Clarence Winthrop, cite the fictional topographies of Anderson’s Winesburg or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. The more discerning suggest a kinship with Joyce’s Dublin, which in the event of apocalypse, can purportedly be reconstructed, block by block, from the Irish master’s penultimate masterwork. Winthrop was arguably even more slavish in rendering the history of Avernus, the American province traced by the author from settlement to suburb in his best-known work. While Joyce restricted himself to a single day, Winthrop plotted over centuries. The cumulative effect of all fifteen Avernus novels is odd, disquieting, and often moving. In the 1910 of Avernus Road—just before he encounters the motorcar carrying the disoriented retinue of film actress Lilly Dawes, whose arrival precipitates the subsequent story—a farmer digs a hole for a fence post. The narrator is describing the slice of pickax into rich loam, when, shunted somehow through an intervening clause, the reader emerges on the same square of earth, now trod by bison, then the bare feet of the continent’s first human inhabitants, then the hooves of Spanish horses. The rhythm of their footfalls is resumed by the sift and pull of the pick, attendant now on the farmer’s grave, one of the dozens needed in the wake of the influenza outbreak subsequently depicted in Abide, Yon Horsemen! It is impossible to convey in linear description the simultaneity evoked in Winthrop’s prose, though many have tried.1
The sole exception within the Winthrop cycle is the five-by-five–foot square containing the town’s central well, dug during the sweltering summer of 1630, when the fledgling outpost was making its last stand against drought and mutiny. An improvised parliament of fathers and clergy, on the night of July 4th, 1630—a date which would not escape evocation in later Avernus volumes—voted with near unanimity to disband the encampment and return to England, with what little provision could be gathered from the surrounding wilderness. The sole holdout was pastor Nicholas Roark, whose humility would not allow outright opposition, but whose idealism prompted abstention in the climactic vote. Roark retreated to his quarters, which did nothing to shelter him from the sodden air breaching his walls. He rose from the flameless pyre of his bed and went outside. Apart from the mist shrouding the tree line, there was nothing to draw the eye. Nevertheless, Roark is depicted searching the distance until he hits on something that alters his expression with “the semblance of illumination.”2 The narrator watches Roark retreat farther and farther into the wilderness until his pearly nightclothes fade between shadowed trunks.
What happens next can be easily inferred, unless, of course, one makes one’s living as a critic. At least forty articles and two monographs have been devoted to the ellipsis that occurs between Roark’s disappearance into the woods and the subsequent morning, when Roark emerges carrying a stone basin “laden with fresh water of the most crystalline sweetness.”3 Their salvation astonishes the colonists only slightly more than its disheveled bearer, who is naked, soiled, and streaked with blood. He approaches each witness in turn and compels them to drink in pledge to the land where fate has rooted them, which from this day forward will be known as Avernus. The people form a sacramental line before the pastor, surmounted by the asterisk of a passing bird.
Sifting through the arcana of Winthrop scholarship, one is confronted by a legitimate question: Why, in an otherwise studiously constructed fictional community, would the author avoid direct depiction of such a thematically central location with what appears to be an equal compulsion? If one were to map Avernus over the centuries—and, again, there is no lack of aspirants4—the well would persist as a tile of blank parchment at the center of the burgeoning hamlet. Founders Grove is dedicated in Rage and Resilience during a ceremony of commemoration and solace for those awaiting the return of kin from the European theater in 1944. The grove’s location is glossed by the narrator as “skirting the path traced by Pastor Roark’s nocturnal pilgrimage into the dawn of Avernus”; the word well never appears—even in its common adverbial sense—in any of the novels.5 The omission is all the more bizarre if one considers that Founders Grove is the setting of numerous events central to the town’s history: seven weddings; four adulterous assignations; eleven nocturnal escapes for parts unknown; twenty-seven soliloquies waxing on the contingencies that have brought the respective speaker to his or her good, bad, or indifferent fortune; dozens of family picnics; and six recoveries of lost children, including the orphan Christopher Tanti, who as an adult departs for a prestigious clerkship in Washington, DC, at the conclusion of The Turning Tide, the final Avernus novel, published in 1978.
Winthrop, by now a taciturn octogenarian, claimed he was ready for retirement. In his last published interview, he was asked if this meant the Avernus cycle was complete. For the don of American epic realism, his reply was oddly terse and cryptic: “The design of Avernus has always been clear in my mind, from the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book. That design is nearly complete.”6
Depending on who you ask, the Avernus cycle was not completed until the evening of December 14, 1994. Several hours into celebrating his 96th birthday, Winthrop retreated to his study with a plate of apple crisp a la mode; on his way, he asked his housekeeper Angela Turley to fetch a fresh bottle of brandy from the wine cellar. Turley, on returning with a bottle of hors d’age and a tumbler, heard murmuring from behind the closed door. She shifted her tray with bristling forbearance, discerning impatience in the muffled summons. She found Winthrop with his back to the door, probing restlessly at a shelf overhead. Turley asked if she should get the stepladder; Winthrop’s face, turned in reply, was smeared with baked apple and vanilla ice cream, his lips angled spastically over the ragged monosyllable that would be his final utterance. At some point between collapse and extreme unction, Turley wrested a sheaf of creased papers from the author’s fisted left hand. She smoothed the sheets against the blotter of Winthrop’s desk, more out of habit than any expectation of his eventual return. At the top of the first page, in a neat hand Winthrop only used for final versions sent to his typist, the manuscript was marked as “The Well at Founders Grove.”
There followed, in the subsequent six months, the most contentious period of American criticism in recent memory. Winthrop, a widower, left everything to his son Daniel; Josephine, his estranged elder daughter, had never forgiven her father for the love he immolated on the altar of art. Daniel came to a verbal agreement with the English Department at Hereford, his father’s alma mater, for possession of the Winthrop papers. Within a week, the president of Brook Falls University called a press conference to announce the delivery of all forty-seven file boxes by Daniel Winthrop himself. In the sparsely filled auditorium, it was hard to miss Josephine Winthrop’s attendance. An investment consultant based in Boston and an alumnus of Brook Falls, Josephine began her stint on the University Board of Trustees the following summer.
Colleagues nationwide were too curious to be indignant for very long. The first annual Clarence Winthrop Society Conference was hastily scheduled and organized for the one-year anniversary of the author’s death. Within a month of the announcement and call for papers, registration was sold out and bed and breakfasts were filling up as far away as North Adams and Pittsfield. A captive audience for the entire weekend was guaranteed with the scheduling of a plenary on Winthrop’s last work—including personal reminiscences by Angela Turley—for the concluding Sunday morning. Brook Falls faculty with access to the archive insisted that the papers were still being reviewed, and that there was no confirmed existence of new fiction by Winthrop, Avernus-related or otherwise. But it took little time for rumor and anecdote to promise the revelation of Winthrop’s last, long belabored masterpiece.
Moderator Theodore Meade looked nervous as he assumed the middle chair on the dais. The assembled crowd, which occupied well over half of Chapman Auditorium, burst into spirited applause as Meade, an associate professor of American literature and film studies, cleared his throat and announced the start of the plenary. He apologized for the absence of Professor Hubert Crosby, Brook Falls’ resident Winthropist and chair of the ad hoc committee organizing the contents of Winthrop’s papers. He introduced Angela Turley—who was greeted with a standing ovation—and invited her to share some memories of her late employer. Turley, unaccustomed to audiences larger than Winthrop and the occasional neighbors or visiting luminaries, stumbled through several familiar episodes and eccentricities: the author’s sweet tooth, his fondness for bird-watching, his almost equal fondness for the tree squirrels that regularly invaded the stores of seed used to lure wild birds to his windows, his insistence on beginning and completing his works in longhand, in order to feel the integrity building, word by word, of a nascent narrative.
A professor in one of the front rows—whose rudeness is alternately attributed to coming from either New York City or Berkeley—took advantage of this opening to ask about the discovery of “The Well at Founders Grove.” Turley retold the events of the previous December, augmented by a new detail that prompted a volley of impatient queries from the audience: As she straightened the crinkled manuscript salvaged from his clawed fingers, Turley happened to browse not just the title but the concluding page as well, which was scored by a downward slash of black ink doubtless corresponding to the moment Winthrop was stricken.
What did she mean by conclusion? asked an eager Americanist at the back of the auditorium.
Just what she had said. The manuscript ended and was subsequently scored by the writer’s fountain pen, the only instrument he ever used to copy out his final versions.
Several in the audience stood in response. With all due respect, began a jet-lagged assistant professor from the Pacific Northwest, she had just contradicted herself. She initially described the manuscript concluding with the aforementioned slash. Now she was saying that the manuscript was finished and that, just before popping a celebratory toffee—not to be glib—the onset of the fatal attack caused him to lose control of his writing hand and slash incoherently at the last page. Which was it?
Turley could not be sure.
Did she, perhaps, notice the presence of punctuation at the end of the last line? A period, say, or an exclamation mark?
Ending with a bang not a whimper, mused aloud a semiotician from downstate.
Turley drank impassively from her water glass as she waited for the chuckling in the room to ebb. She had graduated from college, she observed once the crowd was silent. Nothing as prestigious as the institution that likely sired her esteemed interlocutor. But she knew her letters.
Sensing the edge in Turley’s voice, a member of the Brook Falls senior faculty reminded those assembled of the good fortune they had in access not only to the poignant reminiscences of Ms. Turley but the authors’ originals as well. Heads turned expectantly to the dais where Theodore Meade leaned reluctantly towards his microphone. He assured his audience that all their questions would be answered eventually, but the truth was that no manuscript for “The Well at Founders Grove” had been recovered from the cache delivered by Daniel Winthrop. Furthermore, Professor Crosby’s absence prevented the insights likely to be gleaned from his expertise.
The subsequent outcry and accusations of bad faith obscured the distant sound of sirens. The prospect of an early lunch—the hosting institution’s treat—did little to quell disappointment. As he tried to dissuade a mass departure for Albany International, a conference volunteer handed him a folded note. He saw his home number scrawled over the top of the pink carbon paper, along with instructions to return immediately to his house on Avenue of the Elms.
When he would tell the story later, he would always linger on the anxiety of the drive back. He would depict himself agonizing at every crosswalk and jaywalking pedestrian, wondering what prompted such a stark message from his wife. Was Sarah having another panic attack? (Her doctor had yet to find an anxiety medication without vexing side effects.) Had his daughter Alice toddled into an unsecured cabinet of lethal cleaning agents? In fact, all he could think of on his short drive to the outskirts of Brook Falls was the hollowness of his profession, reputations rising and falling on the location and contents of a faded writer’s dusty manuscripts, parsed ad nauseam by cliquish specialists who, having lost their imaginations early in graduate school, were determined to divest what little was left in the literary landscape. He stopped to let a senior student in his American Naturalism seminar cross toward the bookstore on Water Street. She didn’t seem to recognize him from beneath the low angle of her baseball cap. He watched the acronym of his home institution sway in taut arcs along the back of her sweatpants. He was roused to self-awareness by two simultaneous perceptions: the blare of car horns behind him, and the widening funnel of smoke rising from the direction of his house.
Meade followed the smoke to his driveway, where his wife and daughter stood watching the scramble of emergency vehicles across the street. Flames were visible through the second-floor windows of his colleague, Hubert Crosby. He ignored his wife’s warnings and crossed to a waiting ambulance. Crosby was prone on a stretcher, but on seeing Meade, he began to howl from behind his oxygen mask. He caught hold of Meade’s sleeve and fogged the clear plastic with the effort to speak. The EMTs, now attending to a firefighter knocked unconscious, failed to intervene when Meade, discerning the word mask, slid the restraint aside.
Crosby smiled with what at first appeared to be relief. But it only took a moment for Meade to place the expression more accurately, from administrative meetings where the two happened to sit side by side, or the occasional drink they shared at The Woodchuck and Starling on Main Street: this was the exhausted leer of a man betrayed by absurdities too hilarious to leave unremarked, and too pervasive to redress or escape. He seemed to mumble to himself as smoke thickened around them; only when it completely obscured the surrounding block, leaving the voice alone as landmark and beacon, did Meade discern the rhythm of his colleague’s recitation, snatches of familiar text punctuating an emergent and terrible silence, like moonlight stippling the contours of a dark expanse. He ignored the effort of breathing to listen.
Clarence Winthrop was notoriously reticent about his writing process. Speculation usually attributed this to superstition about works in progress, or a vain desire to mask the banality of routine with the mystery more appropriate to his stature. The sole published exception is an essay that appeared posthumously in a volume celebrating the centennial of Jorge Luis Borges.7 Winthrop’s meandering foray into short nonfictional prose—which, if anything, demonstrates his aptness for longer forms—begins as a meditation on Borges’ blindness and concludes by asserting that all writers suffer similar, albeit metaphorical impairment. While resisting any special claims the writer may have over the doctor, the banker, or the engineer, Winthrop argues that no other profession is more singularly dedicated to making something out of nothing. Even the painter has his paints, the sculptor his clay or stone, but the writer has no such tangible medium in which to moor his incipient creation. A story is told word by word, letter by letter, the friction of pen on paper seeding the infinite night with feeble sparks. How many would be subsumed before the flicker of a single flame? And what mute shapes would be revealed in its wavering light?
As Crosby completed Winthrop’s vision, from a memory now absorbed within its object of remembrance, Meade could not be sure if the smoke was rising or if he himself was falling. For if Winthrop had spent a lifetime stoking fires in the night, the surrounding darkness had not been dispelled so much as concentrated into smaller and smaller spaces that seethed now in the words from Crosby’s tongue. The author had, in fact, not spent his last two decades composing an epilogue but rather the substance of his story, which had as its prologue the fifteen preceding volumes. Avernus past, present, and future emerged with portentous coherence appending the nullity of its origins, delineating a cancellation only deferred by the miracle of Pastor Roark. The generations that thrived on water from a hollow in the earth had made a covenant with both the land and its vacancy, fulfilled at last by its creator, who had waited with geologic patience to pull taut the strings that threaded fiction with actuality.
Meade struggled to breathe. The smoke formed a solid coil against his chest. He heard voices nearby. He surrendered to the restraining arm of the technician whose partner wrested the silent stretcher from his grasp.
Professor Hubert Crosby succumbed to smoke inhalation within minutes of his hospitalization. The fire at his home on Avenue of the Elms has been declared an accident.
All forty-seven boxes of the Winthrop papers were recovered from the former home of Hubert Crosby in pristine condition. The manuscript alleged to exist by Angela Turley has yet to be found.
Citing inadequate facilities for proper storage, the Louis Herbert Rare Book Collection at Brook Falls University has offered the Winthrop papers to numerous scholarly archives in the United States and abroad, with shipping and insurance provided at the University’s expense. Interest thus far has been negligible.
1 E.g., Collin Winchell, “Tropes of Time in the Avernus Cycle,” Modernist Narrative Review 10 (1978): 243–277.
2 Clarence Winthrop, The Clearing (New York: Bassett Books, 1949) 379.
3 Ibid., 381
4 See Cameron Buford, “The Geography of Avernus” (Aporia 12 (1983): 45–90) and Glenda Dreyfus, “A Response to Buford’s Geography of Avernus” (Aporia 29 (2000): 180–225). The origins of the name Avernus itself—which references a volcanic lake in Italy—have also been disputed, most comprehensively in Judith Yount’s “Signposts of the Old Country: Clarence Winthrop’s New World Eden,” Classical Studies 90 (1992): 464–503.
5 Meredith C. Gaines, “Notes Toward A Concordance of Avernus,” Semantics 14 (1994): 15–37. Quotation from Winthrop is taken from Rage and Resilience (New York: Bassett Books, 1961): 101.
6 Interview, Creative Writers Monthly 18.9 (September 1988): 47.
7 “On Blindness and Composition,” A Is for Aleph: An Abecedarian in Honor of Borges, ed. Inez Menard (Santa Fe: Petroglyph Press, 1999): 57–72.
Pedro Ponce is the author of two fiction chapbooks, Superstitions of Apartment Life, published in 2008 by Burnside Review Press, and Alien Autopsy, forthcoming from Willows Wept Press. He teaches at St. Lawrence University.