q. i. f.?

Newcomer

As an oblique indicator of the character of shift under way in my life in the past year or so, let me describe a weird coincidence in my life with books. My life with books is nothing remarkable overall, it needs to be said. But lately there are a few particulars worth remarking on. A good part of this has to do with moving to New York and the connections that brought me to it — as this post not quite a year old will suffice to suggest — and a good part has to do with the direction my work has gone since the move. Those are related things, or things that make sense taken together anyway, and deserve (and may yet get, who can tell?) more treatment in this space.

The other part, the more surprising recent part, has less in a way to do with my life with books than with my younger brother’s: my brother who’s never been much of a reader (‘the reader in the family’ — during childhood, certainly — was me) but who is an author. His book is one element — a key piece, in his view — of a larger personal project to elevate the 21st-century profile of an ancestor of ours who achieved some considerable fame as a soldier on the American side in the nation’s founding war. (The crowning piece is to be a movie that would (as currently conceived) look a lot like Mr. Gibson’s The Patriot.) It’s a project I’ve had next to nothing to do with, not because I’m uninterested but because it’s my brother’s, pursued with a passion mine could never rise to, and because our approaches to such a thing aren’t really compatible. I’m happy for the success he’s enjoyed in the effort so far, and have been equally happy to stay out of it.

As it happens, this year the success he’s enjoyed in the effort meant that the book needed a new edition. The first edition Travis typed up himself in Word, default settings, and had LightningSource print in that form. That it’s looked like a high-school project hasn’t hurt it, for what it’s needed to do; sales have always been based on Travis’s costumed performances. But now, through his several-years’ engagement with the Portuguese-American community, there was occasion to present the book to one or two figures of high stature in Portugal while he’d be in Europe on business, and a better-looking book was called for. This was where I came in — as typesetter. (It turned out alright. The cover, I hasten to add, had already been done by someone else before I came to the project.)

Now, Peter Francisco, my illustrious early-American ancestor, is story-worthy among other things for his manner of coming to the British colonies — as you can learn from Wikipedia (and a lot of previously published sources). In 1765 he was found abandoned on a wharf on the James, a little south of Richmond (in Hopewell, where one of a number of monuments to him up and down the east coast stands in front of the old town hall) — a Portuguese-speaking five-year-old unable to tell where he’d come from or how.

He was introduced in short order to what made Virginia Virginia in the middle of the 18th century, the plantation economy — whose needs his physique would prove to suit well. He was a big guy. He would’ve been a local standout, one imagines, quite apart from feats at war. War came, of course, and revealed him to be not only big but uncommonly brave and durable. He got Washington’s attention and others’ (e.g., the celebrated Lafayette), made some history, received honors. After, he went on to have his own modest plantation and a ceremonial position at the Virginia state house, and he died at a comfortable old age. (One of his great-granddaughters became my mother’s beloved Grandmother Rosalie, née Francisco.) It’s a good story even without my brother, also quite a big guy, costumed and wielding a large sword something like the one Washington had made for Peter, there to tell it. Whether a new novelization of the exciting bits was wanted, I haven’t looked into, but Travis thought there was and decided to do it himself. There’s been no shortage of people wanting to read it.

There’s no shortage of people wanting to read David Black’s books either, though he doesn’t tour in period attire to promote them. (Knowing him a little now, I have to wonder if he wouldn’t love it as much as Travis does. Maybe he just hasn’t thought to try it yet.) Anyway, when I mentioned wanting to read one of them in particular on a visit last year, he immediately gave me the copy I was holding (hardly the first or last of his acts of generosity to me), so I was bound to read that at least. It hasn’t been a very good year for reading, however. I got into the book a very little way, and then it went on the pile with others to be returned to eventually.

Eventually, in this instance, was about a year later, following a long, very busy stretch of weeks, the end of which was given mainly to an intense push to get Travis’s new edition ready for printing ahead of the Europe trip. During that project I’d pulled a few books from what I have in the room around me — most of mine still haven’t made it to NY — for design reference, and David’s was among them. So it was right at hand when, coming off the heavy period, I felt like reading a whole book, something fiction, strictly for pleasure for the first time in a good while — well, over a year.

As reading for pleasure it was a good bet, I already knew. This time, though — starting over, basically, as I’d evidently been too distracted to retain much of anything on the first run — I was struck that it was a novelization of family history. I mean, I knew that as well, of course, but it hadn’t grabbed hold in my imagination. Now the correspondence with what I’d just been working on started working on me in the background, vaguely, but heightening my attention. As novels or as history, these two books couldn’t be more different, and it was difference (if anything) that certainly had most to do with my picking this to read from the convenient options. But there along with all the difference it was, this funny correspondence.

Try to imagine, now, the progressive furrowing of my brow when I came to chapter seven (of eight, with the two-page ‘epilogue,’ and the longest, most partitioned & twist-taking of of all of them), opening,

I.

According to The Zohar, the Kabbalistic “Book of Splendor,” in 1740 — 5500 — “the gates of wisdom would open.” And, throughout the gentile world, the gates of wisdom were opening — although not as The Zohar meant.

In Great Britain, David Hume published the third volume of his The Treatise of Human Nature, “Of Morals.” In France, the Comte de Buffon published his translation of Isaac Newton’s Fluxions. In America, in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was studying meteorology, the effect of the rotation of the earth on trans-Atlantic crossings, and a phenomenon introduced to him by the Scottish lecturer Dr. Archibald Spencer: electricity. And, in Prussia, Voltaire, fresh from experiments in physics, was extolling the benefits of the Enlightenment to his pupil, the recently crowned king, Frederick the Great, who had just introduced in his domain freedom of the press and religion. In Plissa, twins — a boy and a girl — were born to the glass-maker, Heschel, called Hodosh, the Newcomer, and his wife Miriam, daughter of Shmu’el, the butcher.

According to my grandfather’s brother — Heschel’s namesake — Heschel the Newcomer was a big man, “like the giant Og,” the Amorite, ruler of Bashan, who lost sixty towns to the tribe of Manasseh. And like Og — Heschel said — Heschel the Newcomer had a mysterious ancestry.

“My grandmother” — Heschel told me — “claimed he was the son of a fallen angel,” one of the guardians who lusted after the daughters of man and, coupling with them, engendered monsters. “She said his father was the Angel of Anger.”

When he was six years old, Heschel the Newcomer appeared in the center of town, alone, naked, on the night of a full moon.

Perhaps he’d strayed from some traveling couple. Or been abandoned. Or — as one story had it — walked over the mountains from the south, since, according to Heschel, he spoke Italian, although it’s possible no one in Plissa ever had heard Italian. Maybe the Italian was some other foreign language that, in later generations, was identified as Italian because Heschel the Newcomer, as a young man, went to Genoa ….

At six — when he was found, laughing in the moonlight — Heschel the Newcomer was the size of a ten-year-old. At ten, he was as tall as a man. When he was fully grown, he was — according to my great-great-grandmother, according to Heschel — over seven feet tall.

“But graceful,” Heschel said, “like an aristocrat.”

 
These last bits in particular — the size-equivalents at ages X & Y, the emphatic eyebrow-raising full-grown dimension, the qualification that he was no lug, the hint at inborn nobility revealing itself despite mean circumstances — have exact counterparts in Travis’s (and others’?) telling of Peter’s story. In David’s novel, of course, exaggeration has a special role to play, but the fundamental pattern relation is clear as day.

I’m certain that Travis hasn’t read David’s book. Travis’s account of Francisco, in turn, didn’t exist when David wrote An Impossible Life, and anyway, David would’ve had no occasion to read it if it had. Did David know the Francisco history from other sources when he wrote? I don’t know. I expect I’ll ask him when there’s opportunity. But it’s hard to imagine why he’d want, much less that he’d have needed, traces of an eighteenth-century American legend to leaven the eastern-European eighteenth-century end of this ramble back through generations of his own family. Especially as this is pointedly Jewish story-telling about Jews, and there’s nothing Jewish about Peter Francisco.

Or is there? Peter knew he came from somewhere where Portuguese was spoken, obviously, but it’s unlikely he ever knew his place of origin. Today, we know. His place of birth was established years ago, through the record of christenings of a church in a little town a few miles along the coast from Angra, principal medieval port of the Azores: a little town named, likewise from medieval times (though documented history of Jewish community apparently dates only to early 19th-century migration), Porto Judeu, the Jewish port.

My brother was there last year for the unveiling of a monument he helped to make happen, a statue of the boy Peter, larger than life, on the 250th anniversary of his discovery in Virginia — a new chapter in an old story.

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