The History of Humboldt (Part I): Foregrounding

In November, my debut novel, Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking, is scheduled for publication. It’s a satire that revolves around an under-educated protagonist who is perpetually misunderstanding, misreading, and misinterpreting the world. The speed and structure of the plot is heavily indebted to Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.

It’s OK if you want to laugh at that last sentence. In fact, you’re supposed to want to laugh at that sentence.

Picture this: it’s morning somewhere deep in the banal heart of the Midwest. A man wakes up wearing only socks (he can’t sleep if his feet are cold or if his socks are too tight). He’s probably hungover. Like most Midwestern males, he drinks too much. This is apparent from all the Lone Star bottle caps strewn across the top of his bedside dresser that he keeps as mementoes because of the tiny word puzzles that are printed on the underside of each cap, but he only keeps the puzzles that he’s able to solve (he doesn’t like feeling intellectually inferior to a bottle of Lone Star). Before he dons the mandatory uniform of the Midwest (colorful cotton, loose-fitting denim, and comfortable shoes); before he begins making breakfast (his breakfasts are renown and he fears that people only befriend him to learn his technique for deseeding a pomegranate); before he listens to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop for the first of many times that day (he has a history of wearing Thrift Store clothing and knows he would look “in-cred-da-BULL” in all pink with green gator shoes); before he steps into the shower and begins singing (he can perform a stirring rendition of the New Zealand National Anthem); before he sallies forth into the workday to live the Immigrant’s Creed (“Life is Work”), he pauses to think to himself: ‘Today, I’ll write a book heavily indebted to Voltaire.’

Sometimes truth is stranger than satire.

Misreading: (n) the act of creatively misunderstanding a work of literature

If literary influence is the struggle to unname a precursor while earning one’s own name, as Harold Bloom theorizes in The Anatomy of Influence, how did a Midwestern stumble into a literary agon with Voltaire? Answering this question requires foregrounding.

Foregrounding: (v) to make prominent, or draw attention to, particular features within a literary work.

The idea of foregrounding springs from a letter written in 1855 by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a young, unknown poet named Walt Whitman.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

Whitman loved this quote; if he were alive today, and playing in the NBA, he would probably have the word “foregrounding” tattooed on the same spot where Derrick Rose has inked “Poohdini.”

Poohdini: (n) ?????????

Analytically speaking, foregrounding is the exact opposite of backgrounding. Anyone who’s ever taken an entry level college English class knows how to background. Backgrounding is easy; all it requires is locating the details of an author’s life within the work. Foregrounding requires finding the work within the life.

So, where did Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking come from?

Before Voltaire, there was James Thurber. The quintessential Midwestern humorist, Thurber’s seemingly effortless humor, perfectly crafted sentences, and endearing charm were daunting attributes for any writer seeking to unname his ghost. My literary agon with James Thurber resulted in The Kid from Cambridge, which consists of eight personal essays written from the perspective of a perpetually astonished adult surveying the humorous landscape of his youth. The tone of these essays was intended to be casual and carefree.

The stories included within The Kid from Cambridge focused on things like my early diagnosis of “delayed mental development” (read: mental retardation), my questionable history of drinking Zima, detainment by undercover state liquor agents for being sober, and a mistaken college visit to a black college.

But before I discussed any of those things, I felt it was necessary to tell people exactly where I was from.

Here is an excerpt from the manuscript’s first essay:

“Welcome to Cambridge”

What piece of work is a hometown? How noble in reason, how infinite in facilities, like on-street parking and animal shelters. In form and moving, how express and admirable. The beauty of the world. And yet, to us, what is this quintessence of dust?

Tom Wolfe once said that you can’t go home again, but what he failed to mention was that, at the time that he said this, he was wearing a white suit with a matching white fedora. You can’t go home again looking like that. Hometowns hate people who show up wearing fancy clothes and preposterous hats. Robert Frost was closer to the truth when he said that home is the place, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. But what he failed to mention was that sometimes after you’ve been taken in, home is also the place where your stepfatheruncle plots to kill you using a poison-tipped rapier and a chalice full of poisoned brew.

I suspect hometowns are like children. You have them. You spend an exorbitant amount of time with them. You watch them grow; you watch them shrink. You watch them prosper; you watch them decline. And then they are gone. But when they’re gone, they’re not really gone because you have to take them in when they come home again.

In My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber describes his hometown of Columbus, Ohio as follows: “Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen and in which almost everything has.” Eighty miles due east of Columbus, the same can almost be said of my hometown of Cambridge, Ohio.

The very first thing that was likely to happen and did happen to Cambridge was that the town was settled in 1801. The first settlers of Cambridge labored west along a miserable muddy path called Zane’s Trace. These early settlers brought with them wagons full of male ingenuity, not to mention antiquated farming equipment and potatoes. They also brought with them the kind of silly names that were common in 1801, like Ebenezer and Zaccheus.

According to legend, the actual city of Cambridge was settled less by male ingenuity and more by good old-fashioned female stubbornness. Having already crossed miles of rugged wilderness without insect repellant, a group of weary female travelers from the Isle of Guernsey dropped their luggage on the eastern bank of Wills Creek and refused to budge. It is a well-known fact that once a woman drops her luggage in stubborn disdain, the vacation’s over. Women in Cambridge are still stubborn and men begrudgingly submissive, but I suspect that such behavior is not limited to the banks of Wills Creek.

Other than the fact that the city was settled in 1801, it is difficult to say about Cambridge what James Thurber once said about Columbus. This is a distressing thought, especially for anyone who is now attempting to write the first chapter of a memoir about growing up in Cambridge. But all is not lost. I can say with confidence that Cambridge is a town in which almost anything is likely to almost happen and in which almost everything almost has.

For example, back in July of 1863, Cambridge was almost the site of a Civil War skirmish. Such skirmishes are prized events in Ohio and I’m quite certain that Cambridge would love to claim one. Claiming a Civil War skirmish grants a town carte blanche to stage yearly reenactments. Such reenactments allow middle aged history teachers the opportunity to run around screaming obsolete profanity, while wielding dangerous weapons, both of which are strictly prohibited within most Junior High Schools across the state.

The Civil War skirmish in question involved a diversionary raiding force of 600 Confederate soldiers, under the loose command of John Hunt Morgan. Morgan’s Raiders, as they were known, were being hounded across the Midwest by the Union cavalry under Brigadier General James M. Shackelford. On the morning of July 24th, having been on the run for over forty days and forty nights, the weary bunch of raiders decided to hide six miles east of Cambridge in the tiny hamlet of Washington, Ohio. Over the years, as the story has aged, so too has the tiny hamlet; it is now known as Old Washington. Had the Raiders arrived earlier, they would’ve discovered the tiny hamlet referred to as Beymerstown due to the predominance of people living there who shared the last name Beymer.

Only a group of out-of-towners would make the mistake of trying to hide in a hamlet as tiny as Old Washington. Plus, like residents of most tiny hamlets, Old Washingtonions, like the old Beymers before them, love to gossip. A diversionary raiding force of Confederate soldiers is great gossip fodder, as is obvious from the fact that people still talk about them and the hail of bullets that the Union Army rained down upon them from the aptly titled Cemetery Hill. Three Confederate soldiers were killed, eight were captured, and one badly turned his ankle as the remaining Raiders scrambled towards the surrounding hills. Morgan’s Raid has become the most famous example of out-of-towners being run out of Old Washington, although nowadays such an occurrence usually involves a surprise pregnancy.

In addition to almost being the site of a Civil War skirmish, Cambridge can also claim to almost be the birthplace of two of Hollywood’s most beloved sex symbols: Dean Martin and Clark Gable. Dean Martin was born seventy miles east of Cambridge, while Clark Gable was born twenty miles north of Cambridge in the town of Cadiz, Ohio. In addition to being the birthplace of the real Rhett Butler, Cadiz is locally renowned for the fact that nobody, myself included, knows exactly how to pronounce the town’s name. It’s either pronounced ‘CAD-iz’ or ‘ca-DIZ.’ Like most people, I resolve this confusion by choosing to think so infrequently about the town that correct pronunciation is unnecessary.

There is one movie star who was born in Cambridge, although he is woefully deficient in sex appeal. Even on the loneliest night on the banks of the Rio Grande, it would be difficult to find William Boyd, the actor best known as Hopalong Cassidy, as anything more than a kindly father figure.

Sexy or not, Cambridge ferociously claims Hopalong Cassidy as its premier native son. To worship this local deity, the city throws an annual Hoppy Days festival, which is like a cross between an ancient Mayan ritual and what a Civil War enactment might look like had the Lone Ranger been deputized Brigadier General…

I fear that Jonah Lehrer’s recent fall from grace has caused millions of readers to question the validity of anything written on blogs. As proof of my hometown’s love of Hopalong Cassidy, I offer the following photographic evidence:

Hopalong Sign

If the High Museum of Art in Atlanta can enter into a creative partnership with the Louvre, why can’t some savvy museum director take over the helm of the Hopalong Cassidy Museum and forge an audacious partnership with the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas?

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