PEOPLE wouldn’t take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly. Women were attracted to him for this—they imagined him as something of a poet, though he was if anything a critic, a critic of his life and times. So when he went around muttering that his father was still alive, those of us who heard him, and remembered his father, felt he was speaking of the persistence of evil in general.
In those days the Telegram relied heavily on freelances. I always had my eye out for a good freelance and I kept a clutch of them on call. Martin Pemberton was the best of the lot, though I would never tell him that. I treated him as I treated them all. I was derisive because it was expected of me, I was funny so that I could be quoted in the saloons, and I was reasonably fair because that is the way I am … but I was also interested in the language and wanted all of them to write it for my approval … which, if it came at all, came barbed.
Of course, none of this was particularly effective with Martin Pemberton. He was a moody, distracted young fellow, and it was clear his own mind was more company to him than people were. He had light gray eyes which spasmodically widened from the slightest stimulus. His eyebrows would arch and then contract to a frown, and he would seem for a moment to be looking not at the world but into it. He suffered an intensity of awareness—seeming to live at some level so beyond you that you felt your own self fading in his presence, you felt your hollowness or fraudulence as a person. Most freelances are nervous craven creatures, it is such a tenuous living after all, but this one was prideful, he knew how well he wrote, and never deferred to my opinion. That alone would have set him apart.
He was slight, with a well-boned, clean-shaven face and pale thinning hair. He strode about the city with a stiff-legged gait, like a man much taller. He would walk down Broadway with his Union greatcoat open, flowing behind him like a cape. Martin was of that postwar generation for whom the materials of the war were ironic objects of art or fashion. He and his friends made little social enclaves of irony. He once told me the war had not been between the Union and the Rebs but between two confederate states, and so a confederacy had to win. I am a man who will never be able to think of anyone but Abe Lincoln as president, so you can imagine how a remark like that stood with me. But I was intrigued by the worldview behind it. I was not myself exactly complacent about our modern industrial civilization.
Martin’s best friend was an artist, a big, fleshy fellow named Harry Wheelwright. When not importuning dowagers for portrait commissions, Wheelwright drew mutilated veterans he picked up off the street … with pointed attention to their disfigurement. I thought his drawings were the equivalent of Martin’s tactless but informed reviews and cultural critiques. As for me, my newsman’s cilia were up and waving. The soul of the city was always my subject, and it was a roiling soul, twisting and turning over on itself, forming and re-forming, gathering into itself and opening out again like blown cloud. These young men were a wary generation, without illusions … revolutionaries of a sort … though perhaps too vulnerable ever to accomplish anything. Martin’s defiant subjection to his own life and times was manifest … but you didn’t know how long he could go on with it.
I did not usually care to know anything about the background of a freelance. But in this case I couldn’t help knowing. Martin had come from wealth. His father was the late, notorious Augustus Pemberton, who had done enough to shame and mortify their line for generations to come, having made a fortune in the war supplying the Army of the North with boots that fell apart, blankets that dissolved in rain, tents that tore at the grommets, and uniform cloth that bled dye. Our name for this was “shoddy,” used as a noun. But shoddy wasn’t the worst of old Pemberton’s sins. He had made an even bigger fortune running slavers. You would think the slave trade was exclusive to the southern ports, but Augustus ran it from New York—even after the war had begun, as late as ’sixty-two. He had some Portuguese as partners, the Portuguese being specialists in the trade. They sailed ships to Africa right here from Fulton Street, and sailed them back across the ocean to Cuba, where the cargo was sold to the sugar plantations. The ships were scuttled because the stench could not be got rid of. But the profits were so enormous they could buy another ship. And another after that.
So that was Martin’s father. You can understand why a son would choose, like a penance, the deprived life of a freelance. Martin had known everything the old man had done and at a still young age had arranged to be disinherited—how I will explain presently. Here I will point out that to run slavers out of New York, Augustus Pemberton had to have the port wardens in his pocket. A slaver’s belowdecks were carpentered to pack in as many human beings as possible, there was no head-room—nobody could board a slaver and not know what she was. So it was hardly a surprise that when Augustus Pemberton died after a long illness, in 1870, and was buried from St. James Episcopal, on Laight Street, the city’s leading dignitaries showed up at the funeral, led by Boss Tweed himself, along with members of the Ring—the comptroller, the mayor—several judges, dozens of Wall Street thieves … and that he was honored with major obituaries in every daily paper, including the Telegram. O my Manhattan! The great stone steles of the bridge to Brooklyn were rising on both shores of the river. Lighters, packets, and freighters sailed into port every hour of the day. The wharves groaned under the crates and barrels and bales of the world’s goods. Standing on any corner I could swear I heard the telegraphy singing through the wires. Toward the end of the trading day on the Exchange the sound of the ticker tapes filled the air like crickets at twilight. We were in the post-war. Where you’ll find mankind not shackled in history is Heaven, eventless Heaven.
I don’t make any claims for myself as a seer of the future, but I remember what I sensed years before, when President Lincoln died. You will just have to trust that this, like everything I tell you, has a bearing on the story. They marched his catafalque up Broadway to the railroad depot and for weeks afterward remnants and tatters of the funeral muslin flapped from the windows along the parade route. Black dye stained the building fronts and blotted the awnings of the shops and restaurants. The city was unnaturally still. We weren’t ourselves. The veterans who stood in front of A. T. Stewart’s department store saw coins rain into their tin cups.
But I knew my city, and I waited for what had to come. After all, there were no soft voices. All speech was shouted, words flew like shot from our double-cylinder printing presses. I’d covered the riots when the price of flour went from seven to twenty dollars a barrel. I followed the armed bands of killers who fought with the army in the streets and torched the Colored Orphan Asylum after conscription was ordered. I’d seen gang riots and police riots and was there on Eighth Avenue when the Hibernians attacked the Orangemen on parade. I’m all for democracy but I’ll tell you that I’ve lived through times in this town that have made me long for the stultifying peace of kings … the equanimity that comes of bowing and scraping in the dazzling light of regal authority.
So I knew some regnant purpose was enshrouded in Mr. Lincoln’s death, but what was it? Some soulless social resolve had to work itself out of his grave and rise again. But I didn’t anticipate … it would come through my young freelance, with his Union greatcoat lying on his shoulders heavy as sod, who stood in my office one rainy, wet afternoon and waited while I read his copy. I don’t know why it always seemed to be raining when Martin came around. But this day … this day he was a mess. Trouser legs muddied and torn, the gaunt face all scraped and bruised. The ink on his copy had run, and the pages were blotted with mud and a palm print of something that looked like blood lay across the top page. But it was another contemptuous review, brilliantly written, and too good for readers of the Telegram.
“Some poor devil took a year of his life to write this book,” I said.
“And I gave up a day of my life to read it.”
“We should say that in a sidebar. The intelligentsia of this great city will be grateful to you for saving it from another Pierce Graham novel.”
“There is no intelligentsia in this city,” said Martin Pemberton. “There are only ministers and newspaper publishers.”
He came behind my desk to stare out the window. My office looked over Printing House Square. The rain streamed down the pane so that everything out there, the schools of black umbrellas, the horsecars, the plodding stages, seemed to be moving underwater. “If you want a favorable notice, why don’t you give me something decent to read,” Martin said. “Give me something for the lead essay. I’ll show my appreciation.”
“I can’t believe that. The grandeur of your opinions stands in inverse ratio to the state of your wardrobe. Tell me what happened, Pemberton. Did you run into a train? Or shouldn’t I ask?”
This was met with silence. Then Martin Pemberton in his reedy voice said: “He’s alive.”
“Who is alive?”
“My father, Augustus Pemberton. He is alive. He lives.”
I pluck this scene from the stream of critical moments that made up the newspaper day. A second later, a cashier’s voucher in his hand, Martin Pemberton was gone, his copy was on the dumbwaiter to the compositors’ room, and I was looking to lock up the issue. I don’t fault myself. It was an oblique answer to my question … as if whatever had happened was meaningful only as it evoked a moral judgment from him. I interpreted what he had said as metaphor, a poetic way of characterizing the wretched city that neither of us loved, but neither of us could leave.
Copyright © 2010 by E. L. Doctorow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.