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The Judges of the Secret Court

With the ten-year anniversary of September 11 coming up, literary critics have been debating why we are still waiting for the great 9/11 novel. (Here, for instance.) There have been plenty of attempts, from Don DeLillos uneven 2007 Falling Man to Jonathan Safran Foers divisive Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Amy Waldmans recently published The Submission, which imagines the fallout after a Muslim architect is chosen to design the World Trade Center Memorial. But most critics agree that no one has yet written a 9/11 masterpiece, nothing that satisfactorily, powerfully shows us what this national tragedy (and its aftermath) revealed about our culture, our politics, and our ideals.Contemporary writers might look to David Stactons 1961 The Judges of the Secret Court as one model for how a novel can do justice to a national trauma and its broader cultural and philosophical significance. Stactons long-neglected work, recently reissued by New York Review Books, ostensibly takes as its subject the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincolns death happens early on, on page 60 of a 255 page work, and the novels real subject isnt the assassination itself but what this event illuminates: the grandiose delusions of John Wilkes Booth; the cascading effects of the murder on Booths extended family (his brother, Edwin, the most famous actor in America at the time and the novels most fascinating character, retires for a period of time from the stage, and many members of Booths family are immediately arrested as potential conspirators); the political uses to which Secretary of War Edwin Stanton put Lincolns death; and, most of all, the tragic vision of life, at both the individual and national levels, that emerges from any honest study of human history.

The real villain of the novel, and the character that gives The Judges of the Secret Court its clearest relevance for our post-9/11 period, is Secretary of War Stanton. He is a brilliant exploiter of bureaucracy, one of those new men, those selfless figures who want nothing for themselves but the prerogatives of their office, in which, soft shelled themselves and weak, they lurk like cuttlefish, ready to grasp anything that comes by to nourish their enormous self-importance. His actions are reprehensible. He imagines a widespread conspiracy where there isnt one; locks up, without explanation or access to legal counsel, several of Booths acquaintances; and eventually railroads a panel of judges into hanging Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner who knew and admired Booth but was innocent of any crime. But arguably worse than any individual abuse of power is Stantons justification for his actions: his ruthless pursuit of all enemies, real and imagined, is an act in the public interest. It would promote security. I cant be the only one to hear Dick Cheneys voice pronouncing these chilling words.Stacton writes throughout in an epigrammatic style. Though much of the book is written in free indirect style, with Stacton closely following the thoughts and fears of his many different characters, we also frequently get authoritative, philosophical pronouncements that seem to descend upon us from on high. The effect is of an ancient Greek chorus occasionally butting its way into 19th-century America. In one typical example, Edwin Booth has received an unsolicited manuscript from one Miss Althea Lathrop Lee. Miss Lees play is called The Judges of the Secret Court, and this strange title strikes a chord with Edwin:

He had always been aware of [the judges], even before Johnny; even before he had had to give up everything to become keeper of that untrained bear, his father. It was something all the Booths were aware of, those judges.

They made everything so simple. For if we are too selfless to believe in God, and yet remain somehow devout, we are very much aware of the Judges of the Secret Court. We cannot see them, nor do we know who or what they are. But they are there: the whole world is a courtroom, every life is a trial; if we are guilty, we stand there condemned; if we are innocent, for the procs is French, we have to prove it. But who can prove it? for in fact no man is innocent at that bar. He is always accessory, willy-nilly, before or after some fact.

We are never given a clearer sense of who exactly these secret judges are. Edwin is expressing less a specific vision of the world than a general, haunting sense that everything is always and everywhere doomed. The passage recalls the tragic world of King Lear, where As flies to wanton boys are we to th gods, / They kill us for their sport.(This Shakespearean echo is no accident. The Booths were Americas first family of the stage, and the line between acting and being is continually blurred throughout The Judges of the Secret Court. As Stacton writes, In the repertoire there is a part waiting for everyone, his own part, from which, once he has reached it, he can never escape. All of the Booths find themselves, in life as on the stage, growing into the Shakespearean role for which they are most suited: Edwin becomes Hamlet, the waiter and the watcher, who can say nothing, but dies because he has learned too much; his father descends into the madness of Lear. In the end, the stage is a naked parable. It does not make us, but it shows us, what we are.)One of the many wonderful things about The Judges of the Secret Court is its complex vision of motivation. John Wilkes certainly has visions of grandeurHe wanted his image carried down the ages, bigger than that of his brothers, like the ancestral portraits of a Roman funeral procession, bigger than the real image of the corpse. But his actions are also the result of his romantic image of the South, his own worries about his ungentlemanly stature, and his longing to become the characters he portrays on the stage. Finally, though, his actions are precipitated by mere chance. He finds out that Lincoln will be at Fords Theater on April 14, 1865, and thats that: He had known for some time now what he had to do, but he also knew he was incapable of decision. Events would have to make the decision for him. And now they had.This sense that agency means little when confronted with the flow and momentum of events is repeated later on, when Payne, Booths lumbering, loyal accomplice, shows up at William Sewards mansion. He pretends to be delivering a prescription for the Secretary of State, but his real task is murder: He explained his errand, but without bothering much to make it plausible, for he felt something well up in him which was the reason why he had fled the army. He did not really want to kill, but as in the sexual act, there was a moment when the impulse took over and could not be downed, even while you watched yourself giving way to it.Stacton doesnt give us comforting answers, either as to why his characters did the things they did or how the assassinations afterlife could have been different. Stactons novel possesses the virtue of the best historical fiction: a keen sense of the workings of power, and how its wielders perpetuate and advance its abuses; how motivation is always more complex than we might think; how the structure of human history eerily resembles the shape of a Shakespearean tragedy. The Judges of the Secret Court should be read by anyone who is interested in how the terrible stuff of history can be turned into art.

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I can see reading it for the history and for the historical analysis, but not for the prose and not for pleasure. The writing you've quoted seems to me clunky, something to be tolerated, perhaps, but not enjoyed.

In fairness, my quotations make the book sound more uniformly ponderous than it actually is, though it is pretty ponderous overall. And this style is, of course, an intentional decision--Stacton wants to give us the feeling that we are hearing deep, gnomic, ultimately inscrutable wisdom, and he does this by making the writing gnomic and inscrutable (and sometimes clunky). He reminds me of Faulkner in this way: I can absolutely get why someone would be turned off by the abstruse philosophizing, but I still love it.

The ability to read widely, even material one dislikes - or to see something to like in nearly everything one reads - is admirable. To be limited to what one finds pleasant is constricting. My only excuse is that I'm an abnormally slow reader. Audio books are one partial solution. I've just begun listening to Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, a tome I'd never make it through on screen or paper.David Stacton. Thanks for the new name!