Friday, January 17, 2014

What's in a name? An essay by Alex Myers, author of Revolutionary

I'm very pleased to welcome Alex Myers to the blog.  Today he's contributed an original essay about the background research for his debut novel, Revolutionary, specifically his quest to find primary source accounts of his protagonist's early years.  Revolutionary follows the remarkable story of Deborah Samson, a young woman from southeastern Massachusetts who fought in the American Revolution disguised as a man.  Hope you'll enjoy reading about his research journey.

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What's In a Name?
Alex Myers

At times during the composition of Revolutionary, it seemed like the research would never end. What road leads from Middleborough to Taunton? Where did the ferry cross the Hudson in the spring of 1782? What currency was most commonly used in southeastern Massachusetts, and how much would a room at an inn cost? There were facts momentous and mundane to establish. There was verisimilitude to render. There was a historical record to which I felt accountable. But amid all this, one tiny question, a miniscule point to resolve, led me to a profound insight into the period.

Artist's rendition of Deborah Samson
(or Sampson)
The heroine of Revolutionary is based on a real person, Deborah Samson, whose surname is also spelled Sampson. From my research, I knew that Sampson is the more common spelling, but there is debate as to its accuracy. This bothered me. And for reasons that I can’t quite explain, I really wanted her name to be Samson in my book (perhaps it’s just because I have a contrarian streak… and I think I wanted some connection between her and the biblical character, though that part got edited out).

As a descendant of Deborah, I knew my own copy of the family tree recorded “Sampson,” and certainly Google searches of her name yielded far more texts that had the “p” than didn’t. But these contemporary sources weren’t satisfying to me, so I delved into the historical records. I don’t know what I expected to find, but the results surprised me. There is no remaining record of Deborah writing or signing her maiden name. There are others who recorded it – she is noted in the record of the Middleborough Baptist Congregation at the time when she joined and also at the time when they excommunicated her (for purportedly dressing in men’s clothes and other “unchristian” behavior). There is a document of intention to marry, written by some clerk. After this, she becomes Deborah Gannett and, as she lobbied for her right to a pension, I found more of her writing and letters, though not her maiden name.

But at this point in my research, the spelling of the name ceased to interest me so much. I went back again and again, looking for more evidence of her early years. But that was it. Two Baptist records are the sole surviving mentions of this young woman. More than anything, this made me think about how profoundly different the world in which she lived was from our world today. How many official records of our existence are tucked in file folders somewhere? How many of our signatures – digital and inked – are floating about at large? We are everywhere. We blare our existences: we proclaim and proclaim who we are. (It is for someone else to answer whether anyone hears us. Or whether any of this flotsam will survive for two hundred years.)

Deborah’s name as a young woman is nearly effaced from history. Just two surviving mentions. How easily, given a less remarkable later life, she might have disappeared altogether. And these two mentions are written in someone else’s hand (in one she is Samson, in the other Sampson). I felt that somehow this explained Deborah’s early life to me. She didn’t get to establish herself much. She had to yield to the rules of society and society was determined to keep women in confined roles with very limited identities. Though I had read a good deal about women’s lives in late-eighteenth century New England, the scanty physical evidence of Deborah’s name impressed the reality on me much more than the narrative accounts I had studied. She barely existed in any public way – women were private entities, owned property.

Imagine my delight, then, to discover the one record that remains of her hand signing her name before she was married. This signature survives in the records of the Massachusetts Archives, in faded ink on a discolored page. The text begins: “Received of Mr. Noah Taft, Chairman of Class No. 2 for The Town of Uxbridge, The Sum of Sixty Pounds Legal Money as a bounty to serve in the Continental Army For the term of Three years.” And it ends with the firm and legible signature of one Robert Shurtliff.

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Alex Myers' Revolutionary was published in January in hardcover by Simon & Schuster (320pp, $26) and as an ebook (currently $11.89 on Kindle).  My Booklist review can be found here.

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