Proximity and Pressure by guest blogger Elizabeth Mosier


There are stories beneath the ground at 6th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, the location of George Washington’s residence and slaves’ quarters from 1790 – 97.  This complicated narrative—democracy framed upon the faulty foundation of slavery—first drew me to the site (and, eventually, to my volunteer work at the Living History Archeology Lab) three years ago.  That week, in May 2007, a team of archaeologists revealed the mortared stone walls of the “Philadelphia White House” and, in the process, disturbed the surface of a story last interpreted for the United States Bicentennial.   

        When I first visited the dig with my daughters, I couldn’t help but read the emerging revision as a writer would. 

         There, in the ground, was the visible footprint of the bow-windowed room that architectural historians say is the precedent to the modern-day Oval Office.  Washington added it to the house for the purpose of meeting visitors (at his level, not elevated and enthroned like a king).  And there, five feet away, was the open-hearth kitchen where the enslaved man called Hercules cooked the president’s meals. 

         One version of the story is shaped by this proximity:  the symbol of democracy next to the brick and mortar evidence of slavery.  Here, in this ironic setting, Hercules rises from plantation slave to celebrated chef, his talents and loyalty to Washington rewarded with unusual privileges.  He makes an income selling kitchen scraps, buys fine clothing, strolls Philadelphia’s abolitionist streets.  Narrative tension is sustained by the dissonance between text (the appearance of liberty) and subtext (the reality of bondage)—and resolved brilliantly in March, 1797, when Hercules escapes. 

         Or so the story goes.  Structurally, this version is as elegant as the picture presumed to be of Hercules, painted by Washington’s portraitist, Gilbert Stuart.  But portraiture is not a story.  And that is the problem at the root of this narrative:  a complete dramatic action is elusive when the protagonist isn’t free to act.  Or when the protagonist vanishes. 

         If this were fiction, the writer might attempt to open and deepen the draft by shifting narrative point of view.  As my friend Robin Black (author of the forthcoming story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This) says, “Changing point of view puts pressure on a story, forcing issues that change the way a story is crafted.”  In the case of Hercules, seeing events through his eyes would compel the writer to develop him as a character—not simply present him as an ironic figure in Washington’s conflicted tale.   

         But this is history, and only facts can free the narrative from the limits imposed by its frame.  In fact, the age and provenance of the portrait isn’t fixed.  The tall toque Hercules wears is a style that wasn’t popular until later, in the early nineteenth century; Stuart scholars don’t acknowledge the painting as part of the artist’s body of work.  And now, a discovery by Mt. Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson not only recasts the story’s climax, but also offers an ending that opens into his probable future. 

         In the Mt. Vernon farm report dated February 25, 1797, Hercules is listed as “absconded for four days”, meaning Washington’s birthday (February 22) was the occasion for his flight—not Washington’s March departure date.  Meaning that, as Washington hosted farewell parties in Philadelphia, the culinary artist valued for his skill and loyalty was at Mt. Vernon, assigned to the hard labor of digging clay for bricks.  Meaning Hercules fled from Mt. Vernon to Philadelphia (as Washington later wrote in a letter to his secretary, Tobias Lear).

         And the portrait—which journeyed to aristocratic residences in Paris and Gloucestershire, England, before reaching its current home in Spain’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza—could have been painted by someone other than Stuart, after Hercules fled to Europe from Philadelphia and joined the household of a British diplomat.         

         Though the ground at the President’s House site is now covered, the dig for hidden stories continues.  And I’m reminded of what National Park Service Archaeologist Jed Levin explained when I first signed on for this long project:  archaeological research is intended to illuminate what is uncovered at the dig, not merely to preserve artifacts.  I’ve found that this process applies to the work of storytelling, too, whether it’s being done in the pit or on the page.

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