Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lives Imagined and Re-Imagined

The larger portion of poems in the collection that I've called "The Skimino Cycle" focus on the lives of John G. and Mary Townsend Ratcliffe.  These poems take the core of what I know about them from a variety of historical documents and combine those facts with what I can assume about them based on the milieu in which they lived.  There's also quite a bit of imagining based in these facts and assumptions, as well as bits and pieces of information passed along through the family.  In essence, I've created characters and lives, based on real people who lived at some time in the past-- I suppose what I've created should be called "pseudo-biographies."  I began writing imagining and writing the series of poems based on their pseudo-biographies nearly ten years ago.   And, athough I knew that new facts and details would always come to light, I thought I knew the core details of their lives.  In recent weeks, however, I have come across new information that has changed what I and others thought we knew about their relationship.  These new facts create a dilemma regarding the poems that have been written (and some published) already, raising critical questions.  When imagining lives, and building a story based around historical characters, how closely must the author stick to the facts?  And, when new information is found, is there a need to revise previous work?

I knew all the basic facts about their lives-- dates of birth, death, marriage, births of their children; what towns and counties they lived in over the course of their lives together; John's occupation, when they moved to Kansas and under what circumstances; John's Civil War record; and the general timing of their separation and presumed divorce.  What I didn't know was why they married in West Alexander, PA rather than in Wheeeling or eastern Ohio, where their families lived; specifically why they were living with Mary's uncle, Dr. Thomas Townsend, in Wheeling in 1850; and whether they actually divorced, and the specific reason for their separation and divorce.  I knew that they were both buried in the Ratcliffe family plot in the Gaylord, KS cemetary; that Mary had originally been buried on the farm, but was moved to the cemetary; and that she was buried at the opposite end of the plot from John.  I built a series of poems and imagined their lives and personalities based on these events and what I fact-based assumptions I could form. 

A few months ago, I decided to read every item in John's Civil War pension file (which a neighbor who researches and writes books on the Civil War graciously photographed for me).  Most of the file contains his petitions for increases in his monthly pension, as well as affidavits from doctors, neighbors, and friends supporting his claims.  Those items and their contents were familiar to me.  Several of the affidavits from long-time friends and former neighbors, however, contained shocking revelations about his personal life and events that led directly to his and Mary's separation and divorce.  All noted that he had been intimate with the young woman that he and Mary had hired to help out on the farm, and several noted that John had gotten her "in the family way."  In addition, one person noted that John had had a tendency to "chase after women."  After reading these, I decided I had to obtain documents relating to their divorce, if indeed they were officially divorced.  I wrote to the clerk of the District Court for Marshall County, KS, and received copies of Mary's petition for divorce.  It was true-- in October 1873, John committed adultery with the hired girl.  Mary was divorcing him for that reason, as well as the fact that he had not been present in the home for a year. 

The family story had always been that John had been depressed and moody after the Civil War, and had basically become difficult to live with.  Given the nature and extent of his wounds, and the amount of time between his return from the war in 1863 to their separation and divorce in the early 1870s, that made sense.  In my poems, I had him sinking into depression and essentially driving people away from him.  There was something in one family history record of him having a wife in Jewell County, but this would have been after the divorce, and there was no other corroborating evidence of that-- just a seemingly random note jotted down by a grandson long after the fact.  But, adultery-- that seemed change everything.  Were the family stories of depression correct?  Or, were they just the stories told to the younger sons to protect them from the truth?  My great-grandfather and his brothers got enough basic facts about their father wrong in his obituary and other documents to make it plausible that they had not been told all the truth.  They were all young (15 years and under) at the time of the divorce, and they reached manhood largely without him.  If the stories of depression and anger are false, then the emotional underpinnings of the poems, particularly those exploring Mary's feelings, are false.  And, in that case, must I revise?

On the other hand, perhaps the stories of depression and anger are true, and help to explain the adultery.  In the decade between John's return from war and the separation, three sons were born.  The marriage could not have been terribly bad.  Perhaps there was a slow decline in their relationship, brought on by depression, moodiness, and a change in roles and relationships.  John could not perform manual labor, which meant he could not do the hard work on the farm.  The same individuals who mention his "chasing after women" also not that he spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and trapping after the war.  This would have kept him away from the farm-- perhaps for days at a time?

So, a deeper, richer imagining of their lives is beginning to form.  Mary, taking on the role of managing and running the farm, and perhaps even doing some of the work that John once did.  Perhaps this helped her realize she could successfully take out her own homestead and farm on her own after the divorce.  John, increasingly despondent about his inability to do the work he once did, immerses himself in hunting, fishing, and trapping-- the things he can still do to bring in money and to support his large family.  They begin drifting apart; Mary tries to keep them together, and to spend more time together on the farm; John reacts to what he sees as nagging by finding solace with the hired girl (or girls), eventually getting caught in the act of adultery-- or admitting to it.  Does this require revision to existing poems?  Perhaps not.  But, it helps chart the direction in which new poems must go, and helps fill in some gaps in knowledge, providing new emotional depths to plumb.

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