Synopses & Reviews
Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the son of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause. Thus follows a childhood limned with fugitive slaves moving through hidden passageways in the house, and the inevitable distress that befalls his mother whenever letters arrive from her parents. In hopes of reconciling the familial disunion, Liberty escapes--first into the cauldron of war and then into a bedlam more disturbing still. In a vibrant display of literary achievement, Stephen Wright brings us a Civil War novel unlike any other.
About the Author
Stephen Wright was educated at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He has taught at Princeton University, Brown University, and The New School. He lives in New York City. The Amalgamation Polka is his fourth novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is the significance of the novels opening vignette? When and where might it be taking place? Who are the “bearded ladies” and in what way is their true gender revealed? At what other points in this novel do characters dress in the garments of another sex, and for what reasons? How is cross-dressing related to other kinds of imposture and transformation that figure in Wrights book?
2. Liberty is born at a time when many people are expecting the end of the world and are alert to portents that foretell it. Discuss the role of portents and omens in this novel. Which characters are guided by them, and to what effect? How is this theme reflected in Libertys early conviction that “this world was not what it seemed, that closely hidden behind the mundane affairs of the day lurked layer upon unexamined layer of outright strangeness, of which what passed for ordinary was merely the protective outer covering, the skin, so to speak, of a beast so huge, so vital, it could never be discerned whole in all its proportions” [p. 207]? What might that beast be?
3. The Amalgamation Polka presents us with two families, the Fishes of Delphi, New York, and the Maurys of South Carolina. How would you compare these families, their views of race, their styles of child rearing, and their relative union or disunion? What do you make of the fact that both produce children who run away from home? Which family is better adapted to its time and place? Which one is happier?
4. Thatcher and Roxana are driven by a sense of duty so powerful that it sometimes causes them to neglect their child (indeed, Roxana worries that her devotion to Liberty may be mere pride [p. 11]). Do Asa and Ida Maury have anything comparable, or think they have? What relation does Wright draw between his characters sense of higher responsibility-to God or humanity, or one section of it-and their happiness as individuals? What might the parents among them think of their child-obsessed modern counterparts?
5. As a boy, Liberty has a number of teachers, beginning with Maam LOrange and proceeding through his parents, Uncle Potter, and the former slave Euclid. What lessons do these teachers impart to him? Which of them does the most to shape his adult character? Does Libertys grandfather Asa also function as a kind of teacher, and if so what does he teach him?
6. Euclids way of teaching Liberty about slavery is to make him feel the scars on his back [p. 23]. Where else in the book is slavery presented as a state of injury, inflicted by one race on another? Are those injuries always physical? And do they only affect slaves?
7. The Fishes have dedicated their lives to ending slavery and freeing its victims. But the novel envisions more than one kind of freedom. Discuss the ideas of freedom embodied in such characters as the 146-year-old pirate Fife, Uncle Potter, and Simms, the Georgia farmer who has seceded from the Secession. Which of them is the most free? In the scheme of this novel, is freedom the same thing as happiness?
8. Just as The Amalgamation Polka encompasses multiple definitions of freedom, it also recognizes the diversity of opinion among those ostensibly fighting for it. Not all the men Liberty serves with are opposed to slavery, and some, like the odious McGee, hate “Ethiopians” as bitterly as any secessionist [p. 176]. What, then, might such men be fighting for? Do we see similar schisms among the novels Confederates? Does The Amalgamation Polka portray the Civil War as a conflict between two sides or as a war of all against all?
9. During their trip up the Erie Canal, Liberty and his father are entertained by a grisly public exhibition of dentistry, in which an unfortunate sufferer has a tooth pulled with the help of volunteers from the audience [pp. 95—99]. Where else in the novel do we encounter exhibitions, some comic, some nightmarish? Who is it that is put on display on these occasions, and who is meant to see them? How do exhibitions fit into the novels theme of an invisible world hidden beneath reality?
10. The Amalgamation Polka contains some bravura scenes of violence in which human destructiveness is sometimes indistinguishable from natural cataclysm (“Then, with a sudden whoosh, the night simply broke apart upon a rock of delirious flame” [p. 66]; “He also noticed in every direction small geysers of dirt were spraying into the air as if the bubbling ground itself were being cooked over a slow, mammoth fire” [p. 179]). What might this say about how the author sees the relationship between the human and the natural? Which of the books characters justify their behavior-or condemn other peoples-by invoking nature?
11. Just as it is preoccupied with what constitutes nature, The Amalgamation Polka is also concerned with what it is to be human. After testing Potters rifle on an imaginary “puke,” or slave-holder, Liberty realizes that “Pukes were not pards or pigs or pumas. Pukes were people” [p. 69]. Later, he scolds his grandfather for speaking of dead slaves as “articles”: “May I remind you that those ‘articles were once human beings” [p. 241]. In what other ways does Wright develop the theme of the human? At what points in the novel are human beings treated like beasts or machines or inanimate objects? At what points do they become them? And where in the novel are dehumanized humans restored to their original condition?
12. The primary narrative of The Amalgamation Polka is frequently interrupted or embroidered by lesser narratives, many of them told by its characters. What role do such stories-for example, that of Potters bloody expedition to Kansas or Roxanas flight from the South-play within the larger narrative? How are they related to the many journeys the characters undertake, from Libertys voyage up the Erie Canal with his father to his later wanderings through the wreckage of the Confederacy? Discuss The Amalgamation Polkas relation to such similarly digressive works as Huckleberry Finn or Gravitys Rainbow.
13. Discuss the meaning of the terms “amalgamation” and “amalgamator” in this novel. Who uses it pejoratively? Who employs it as a term of pride? Given the grotesque experiments he turns out to be performing on his slaves-some of whom are also his children-might Asa Maury be the books truest amalgamator?
14. In the course of The Amalgamation Polka, families are shattered, innocent people die horrible deaths, and an entire nation is convulsed by war. For all that, would you describe it as a tragic novel, and if not, why?
“Endlessly beguiling [by] an extravagantly talented novelist. . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your groups discussion of Stephen Wrights ferocious and phantasmagoric novel The Amalgamation Polka.