Let’s see. We’ve got the elaborate Southern style, aptly dubbed “gothic” (although Eudora Welty said “They better not call me that!”). Then there’s the laconic Mid-Western style, which Hemingway honed to a Brancusi-like grace. And there’s the rugged, pedagogic, Puritan prose of New England, epitomized by Emerson’s seemingly endless proliferation self-evident truths, which the Founders had been so careful to limit in number, so as not to appear to be going overboard. There’s the snappy, cynical New York style, with its subdivisions of Wasp New York, in which it is the reader who is snapped at (Tom Wolfe), and Jewish New York, in which the writer, Ouroboros-like, snaps at themself (Malamud). And the phantasmagoric, but a little hazy, West Coast style (Nathaniel West, Philip K. Dick,) the most fruitful consequence of which was the hardboiled mystery writers’ reaction against it. Also, the romantic Western style, whose emotional impact derives from an ongoing tension about whether it is the cowboys or Indians that we should sympathize with.
Then, hidden within the masses of writing from the big regions, there is a literature unique to a geographical entity of about 90 square miles – most of which is under water: the Erie Canal.
From Troy to Rochester, the cities along the Erie Canal have developed a writing style all their own. Not surprisingly, it is a style distinguished by its rhythm, which intermittently flows then halts, flows then halts, just as the leisurely progress of a canal boat is intermittently interrupted by the necessity of heaving to, to be mechanically hiked up or down to a new level.
It is a lively and charming style, and interesting enough, just in itself, to support the blandest narrative.
My exploration of the literature of the Erie Canal school began last week when – on my continuing progress through 50 Best American Short Stories 1915-1939 – I read “Death of Red Peril” by Walter D. Edmonds, from a collection of Edmonds’ entitled Mostly Canallers. At first, “Death of Red Peril” seemed like just another American dialect story, except that I guffawed aloud three times while reading its twelve pages which, barring Wodehouse, is some sort of record.
A horse race is a handsome thing to watch if a man has his money on a sure proposition. My pa was always a great hand at a horse race. But when he took to a boat and my mother he didn't have no more time for it. So he got interested in another sport.
Did you ever hear of racing caterpillars? No? Well, it used to be a great thing on the canawl. My pa used to have a lot of them insects on hand every fall, and the way he could get them to run would make a man have his eyes examined.
The way we raced caterpillars was to set them in a napkin ring on a table, one facing one way and one the other. Outside the napkin ring was drawed a circle in chalk three feet acrost. Then a man lifted the ring and the handlers was allowed one jab with a darning needle to get their caterpillars started. The one that got outside the chalk circle the first was the one that won the race.
I remember my pa tried out a lot of breeds, and he got hold of some pretty fast steppers. But there wasn't one of them could equal Red Peril. To see him you wouldn't believe he could run.
He was all red and kind of stubby, and he had a sort of wart behind that you'd think would get in his way.
We hauled up the feeder to Forestport and got us a load of potatoes. We raced him there against Charley Mack, the bankwalker's, Leopard Pillar, one of them tufted breeds with a row of black buttons down the back. The Leopard was well liked and had won several races that season, and there was quite a few boaters around that fancied him. Pa argued for favorable odds, saying he was racing a maiden caterpillar; and there was a lot of money laid out, and Pa and Ned managed to cover the most of it. As for the race, there wasn't anything to it. While we was putting him in the ring- one of them birchbark and sweet grass ones Indians make — Red Peril didn't act very good. I guess the smell and the crowd kind of upset him. He was nervous and kept fidgeting with his front feet; but they hadn't more'n lifted the ring than he lit out under the edge as tight as he could make it, and Pa touched him with the needle just as he lepped the line. Me and my sister was supposed to be in bed, but Ma had gone visiting in Forestport and we'd snuck in and was under the table, which had a red cloth onto it, and I can tell you there was some shouting. There was some couldn't believe that insect had been inside the ring at all; and there was some said he must be a cross with a dragonfly or a side-hill gouger; but old Charley Mack, that'd worked in the camps, said he guessed Red Peril must be descended from the caterpillars Paul Bunyan used to race.
But next morning the sheriff comes aboard and arrests Pa with a warrant and takes him afore a justice of the peace. That was old Oscar Snipe. He'd heard all about the race, and I think he was feeling pleasant with Pa, because right off they commenced talking breeds. It would have gone off good only Pa'd been having a round with the sheriff. They come in arm in arm, singing a Hallelujah meeting song; but Pa was polite, and when Oscar says, “What's this?" he only says, "Well, well."
“I hear you've got a good caterpillar," says the judge.
"Well, well," says Pa. It was all he could think of to say.
"What breed is he?" says Oscar, taking a chew.
“Well," says Pa, “well, well."
Ned Kilbourne says he was a red one.
"That's a good breed," says Oscar, folding his hands on his stummick and spitting over his thumbs and between his knees and into the sandbox all in one spit. “I kind of fancy the yeller ones myself. You're a connesewer," he says to Pa, "and so’m I, and between connesewers I'd like to show you one. He's as neat a stepper as there is in this county."
"Well, well," says Pa, kind of cold around the eyes and looking at the lithograph of Mrs. Snipe done in a hair frame over the sink.
Oscar slews around and fetches a box out of his back pocket and shows us a sweet little yeller one.
“There she is," he says, and waits for praise.
"She was a good woman," Pa said after a while, looking at the picture, “if any woman that’s four times a widow can be called such.”
"Not her," says Oscar. "It's this yeller caterpillar."
Pa slung his eyes on the insect which Oscar was holding, and it seemed like he'd just got an idee.
“Fast?" he says, deep down. "That thing run! Why, a snail with the stringhalt could spit in his eye."
Old Oscar come to a boil quick.
"Evidence. Bring me the evidence."
He spit, and he was that mad he let his whole chew get away from him without noticing. Buscerck says, "Here," and takes his hand off ’n his right eye.
Pa never took no notice of nothing after that but the eye. It was the shiniest black onion I ever see on a man. Oscar says, "Forty dollars!" And Pa pays and says, "It's worth it."
Most of the unfamiliar words in “Death of Red Peril” I only grasped at for just long enough to get the feeling of them, not their meaning, but one or two intrigued me. Googling “nickering” and “rangdangle,” I discovered that linguists recognize a distinct and unique Erie Canal dialect. The Erie Canal linguists (who might have been called dialecticians, if it weren’t for Hegel) linked me to the works of Erie Canal writers.
The similarities among them were obvious. Not only did they have similar writing styles, but they shared the same weltanschauung. (The weltanschauung of a work of literature can be accurately determined by measuring the level of its irony and grading its intensity.)
Probably the greatest of 21st century Erie Canal school writers was Mechanicville’s Bezabor, who was last heard from in October, 2014, at a public campground in Mississippi.
Bezabor is classic Erie Canal school. He has the rhythms down pat and his interplay between an earnest narration and an insouciant one – another defining feature of the Erie Canal school – is delightful, is downright Mozartian.
This morning I picked up the supplies to run a separate 'home run' circuit for the new outlet above the kitchen counter. But a new circuit just seemed wasteful and I wasn't looking forward to opening up the power panel. So I went back to the kitchen and reviewed the circuit layout. I pulled the outlet covers to look for the end-of-string outlet and realized I had a better answer. I could tap in to the existing circuit by connecting into its wires running through the attic. And that even turned out to be easy. And on top of that, it meant the existing GFCI outlet was first-in-chain to the new outlet and I could return the GFCI outlet I had bought for the new home-run circuit. I spent the rest of the morning running the cables and connecting things up, then testing that all the kitchen outlets worked as they should with the GFCI function.
After creating the hole for the receptacle and finding a utility box which would work with the extra-thick (1-inch) plastered wall, I had problems running the cable. I had neglected to notice that the bottom of the cavity was filled by a furnace duct. That forced me to drill through the nearby stud and then drill up from the basement into the cavity. Unfortunately I kept hitting nails, though they seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
That afternoon we switched gears entirely. We changed into our Sunday-best and attended the funeral of a long, LONG time friend.
As if sprung straight from the forehead of the Erie Canal muse, Bezabor’s earliest pieces, from 2005, display the same mastery as his later work.
After hanging around the campsite awhile we went for a walk back a heavily overgrown road toward Squirrel Pond. We only made it about a mile before hitting a series of entirely-across-the-road mudpuddles. We worked our way around several but then decided we’d probably just continue to hit more of these so turned back. But is was pleasant to see the area and all the moose tracks and moose sign. By the way, moose-pies look a lot like cow-pies!
Back in camp we were reading the North Maine Woods pamphlet and learned that the area we are staying is a key area for the Canadian Lynx. We didn’t see any sign of one, though.
Innocents Abroad might have sounded something like this, if Twain had been born along the Erie Canal instead of the mighty Mississippi.
We were looking for a porta-potty. The outfitter supplied us with a 'bush toilet' but that's just a folding seat with a hole in it. I had expected we'd get a Thetford porta-pottie because I had seen them in the outfitter's catalog and just assumed that's what they'd supply. But the outfitter said they used to supply them but found them to be less-than-acceptable hygene-wise. That is indeed the case if you don't manage it properly or make mistakes in the dumping process.
Despite the sad loss of Bezabor, the Erie Canal school is still going strong. “It was the Best Hunt of My Life”, by Utica writer, John Pitarresi, published in December of last year, is classic Erie Canal school. With its lilting rhythms, its deadpan narration of comic contretemps, its compulsive attention to minute detail, “It was the Best Hunt of My Life” becomes a fitting homage to Edmonds’ “Death of Red Peril”.
Mike Neidhart wasn’t going to go hunting on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Things were going wrong at work. Nothing felt right. He wasn’t in the mood.
But his wife kept encouraging him to go, so he did, to a new area near Munnsville. He had obtained permission to hunt the place a couple of years ago, but never did. And he almost didn’t this year, either. On the way out he realized he had forgotten his wallet, so he had to double back and start over again.
But he finally did get there, and it’s a good thing he did.
Neidhart of Waterville has been hunting for about 35 years, and had never killed a really big buck. This time? He and a really, really big buck kind of just walked into each other. Neidhart used his 20-gauge shotgun to drop the deer, which turned out to have 13 measurable points on a high, thick rack that had multiple brown tines, and was very wide — 23 1/8 inches.