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What I'm Giving | November 19, 2013 1 comment
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
Raising the Stoneby Matthew Goodman
At one time, Richard Adams Locke had been the talk of New York, but by now he was scarcely remembered at all. And to my despair, what little was known about him, when I began to investigate, seemed almost all to be wrong. It was said that he had graduated from the University of Cambridge; it turned out that he had never even registered there. It was said that he had been born in New York; in fact he had been born in East Brent, a farming village in the southwestern English county of Somerset. It was said that his father had served as a British officer during the Peninsular War; there was no record of any such service. It was said that he was a direct descendant of the great philosopher John Locke; he was not.
Nor had Richard Adams Locke left behind any of those primary sources, the basic materials of the historian's trade, that might help in reconstructing his life: no memoirs, no diaries, no personal letters. The ground seemed so barren that for a while I considered writing the story as a novel, so that I might at least be able to imagine what had motivated him to write such an elaborate hoax. Ultimately, though, I rejected that idea because I knew that the power of this story, its compelling strangeness, came from the fact that it had all actually happened.
So I pressed on, and little by little I began to piece the story together. On the Internet, I found a great-great grandson who, blessedly, had spent years doing genealogical research on the Locke family. I traveled to Somerset, drove its heart-stoppingly narrow roads to see for myself the country village where Locke's intellectual life had begun, amid dairy farms and apple orchards, in the long shadow of the church steeple. In libraries in New York and London, I found articles and essays that Locke had written as a young man on subjects ranging from science and religion to politics and history. Finally I found an obscure letter that he had written to a New York magazine, five years after the hoax, that led me to a startling realization: Richard Adams Locke, author of the greatest newspaper hoax of his time, had not intended his moon series to be a hoax at all.
He had, instead, meant it to be a satire, a send-up of the popular religious astronomers of his time who argued that the moon was surely inhabited as were the sun and the planets and the stars because God, in his infinite wisdom, would not create heavenly worlds without also creating intelligent beings there to appreciate them. Locke, who had been a freethinker ever since he was a young man, was deeply distressed by this faith masquerading as science. He hated how the ancient ties of religious belief were shackling the minds of young scientists, among them geologists of his acquaintance who had abandoned their work because it was leading them to the conclusion that the earth was in fact millions of years old, not merely a few thousand as Biblical scholars had calculated. Locke, it turned out, had written his moon series as a warning about the dangers that lay in sacrificing intellectual freedom to religious beliefs, however strongly they might be held or however loudly they might be proclaimed. It's an idea that is still deeply relevant today given recent debates over such hot-button topics as stem-cell research and so-called "intelligent design" and one that pulled me even closer to this fascinating man, who no longer seemed quite so enigmatic.
Things didn't go very well for Richard Adams Locke after his time at the Sun was over. He began to drink more heavily. He quarreled with employers over money and politics. After a few failed attempts at editing other newspapers, he ended up leaving journalism entirely and spent the rest of his working life in the New York Customs House, a place that was often a refuge for writers down on their luck (not long afterward, Herman Melville too would find employment there). He moved with his family across the Narrows to Staten Island, and it was there that he died his death occasioning not a single obituary in any of the daily papers at the age of 70.
During the nearly four years that I worked on The Sun and the Moon, there was one bit of research that I saved for last. So, one crisp, sunny spring morning, when the writing was nearly done, I drove from my home in Brooklyn across the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island. The Silver Mount Cemetery is small but dense, the gravestones rising in disorderly profusion up a steep hillside. Other than the steady stream of cars whizzing by, it was not difficult to imagine what the cemetery would have looked like in 1871 when Richard Adams Locke was buried there. The cemetery, I discovered, had only recently emerged from many years of neglect and mismanagement. Its current director, Dora Arslanian, told me about the terrible condition in which she had found the cemetery when she took over 10 years earlier, its grounds covered with moldering leaves and broken tree limbs, as well as more upsetting human detritus: bags of garbage thrown over the wall from the apartment house next door, broken furniture and rusted appliances, and even the remains of six cars surely participants in some form of criminal activity that had been buried in distant reaches of the cemetery.
Now, thankfully, the Silver Mount Cemetery was once again being cared for. Mrs. Arslanian led me up the asphalt path to where her map indicated the Locke family plot should be, about halfway up the hillside. For long minutes, we searched the area, trying to read the names etched onto the stones, most of the letters worn away by time. Eventually we found two small stones bearing the names of Locke's son Richard and his daughter Emma. Still, Locke's own gravestone was nowhere to be found. I was almost ready to give up when Mrs. Arslanian noticed, not far away, a gravestone lying face down, half buried in the earth. It had apparently been toppled by all indications, decades before by the roots of the tree that now stood majestically behind it. The gravestone, a massive granite tablet, was much too heavy for the two of us to lift. So Mrs. Arslanian took out her cellphone and called down to the cemetery office, asking a work crew to come up and help us. Before long three men had arrived, and, using the handles of their shovels as levers, they managed to pry the stone into a standing position. Its face was totally obscured by mud. One of the men picked up a nearby stone and began scraping away, and soon a name appeared: Richard Adams Locke. This was where his body had been laid to rest, and beside him, years later, the body of his wife Esther. The workmen leaned the stone against the tree; one of them then brought out a bottle of cleaning fluid and a roll of paper towels, and with great care he polished the stone until it shone.
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Matthew Goodman's nonfiction writing has appeared in The Forward, The American Scholar, Harvard Review, Brill's Content, and The Utne Reader. He is the author of Jewish Food: The World at Table. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.