Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Warfare

By M.T. Anderson

Warfare

So little did I imagine, as I stood on the warm shores of that lake beside an English lord and heard the crickets sing, that only nine months hence, the Empire should receive its first blows; that I should hear bells rung all night, and cries of "Fire!" and lie awake in my frigid bed unable to warm myself; while outside, in the square near the Customs House, a crowd of hundreds would gather, shouting abuse at the Redcoats who stood on guard there; that this mob, full of false assurances that the King's soldiers could not fire upon citizens, would yell their spiteful taunts—"Fire! Fire at us, you cowards!"—"We ain't afraid!"—"Molly-boy! Bugger! Shoot for the heart!—throwing fragments of ice and trying to knock the bearskin hats from the soldiers' heads. The crowd would surge forward; surround the Redcoats; one would raise a plank to beat in a soldier's head—whereupon a private stumbled, felled by thrown wood—and the soldiers, at long last, fired into the crowd. (2.11.8)

Just a few lines later, Octavian's going to quote Seneca and tell us that waiting for the war is worse than war itself. But this description of the first scene of war—the scene that starts it all—makes us go hmm… Note that Octavian's account of the scene gets totally broken up by the shouts and general chaos he remembers hearing outside his window. The whole thing is tough to follow because that's what war is like: chaos. In other words, definitely not fun.

The next day, two of them were on display, one in an apothecary shop, another lying on a table in a nearby tavern. Bono went to see the latter corpse, paying threepence.

"That ain't much," he said, "to pay to see history."

"Worse than war," saith Seneca, "is the dreadful waiting for war." (2.11.10-12)

There's some truth to Seneca's quote, even though we're guessing that people in the middle of a war may not feel quite the same way as Seneca. Dreadful things do happen in the waiting of war… like displaying corpses

I did not hear of this charade until the next day, and did not understand its purport; rather thinking it a pleasant interlude from the more brutal games of the Sons of Liberty. There was something almost gentlemanly about it, a hint of sport. Dr. Trefusis and I walked along the wharves and spake of disguise, color, substance, and the solidity of matter. (2.16.2)

The "charade" Octavian's referring to here is the—and we mean theBoston Tea Party. But from Octavian's perspective, this incident isn't anything more than a "pleasant interlude," something that actually seems "gentlemanly." It's funny how this is the event that makes it into our history books, isn't it? How we don't usually read about the violence of the colonials in the lead up to the Revolutionary War…

We heard reports from Boston. The body politic was so disordered that all government seemed suspended. Soldiers patrolled through the streets, apprehending N****es out at unseasonable hours on suspect errands. Groups of rebels, communicating by eerie whistles, carried out a nighttime justice, descending on informants silently. There was continual outcry against the troops by some—soldiers scuffling with boys, their heel-marks in the slush; girls surrounded by lanky privates.

We went about our business in the countryside, in a town of slow undulating fields and great clouds.

On the Canaan town green, the militia practiced loading and firing their muskets. We sate inside, and jumped with the reports of guns in the distance. Their officers claimed, with supercilious air, that they practiced speed and marksmanship in case the French should invade; but we all of us knew for what eventuality they prepared. (2.20.3-5)

Canaan is basically the boonies, which is why Octavian stresses the fact that they "heard" about the war rather than experiencing it more intimately. These passages show the difference between the way the war affected (at least at the beginning) the countryside and the city. In Canaan, the College people are so distant from anything real that they can sit inside the house and be unaffected by all the goings-on outside.

"Octavian, there is word up and down the coast that the British are attempting to convince slaves to take up arms against their American masters. The citizenry is terrified. You are lying here amongst us, your bodies too dark to see until it is too late." He smiled. "That is what they say. They fear you will all turn murderers." (2.27.18)

Dr. Trefusis is explaining to Octavian why the Young Men are so watchful during the pox party. It's war, and the colonials are preparing for violence on two fronts—out in the cities, from the Redcoats, and in their homes, from the slaves. Sounds like those American colonials know they've done wrong to the slaves…

O Fruition, dear Sis, the Spirit of Liberty stirs the Countryside like Sap, & everywhere I am sensible of the Blossoms. I am in such Spirits I cannot describe the like. As we march towards Boston, we meet every Mile upon the Way another Column of Patriots bound for the Encampment at Cambridge. (3.5.2)

"Spirit of Liberty stirs the Countryside like Sap"? "I am sensible of the Blossoms"? Seriously? Private Goring makes it sound like he's going off on a hunt or a camping trip—not war.

But his excitement makes sense if you consider his age. This guy is young, and he doesn't know anything outside of his little village, his sister, his mother, and the cooperage—so going to war lets him go out of his village and into the world, even if it's just a march to Boston. That's major if you've never been away from your home or family before.

He [Governor Dunmore] don't care a thing for our property any more and I fear the worst kind of tyranny to come.

'Tis time to shake off the yoke of oppression. 'Tis not enough that the royal tyrants reduce us to slavery—they raise up our slaves to lord it over us. (3.12.3-4)

Clepp Asquith, one of the Southern backers of the College and the guy who Bono is sent to serve, is complaining in a letter to Mr. Sharpe about Governor Dunmore. According to Asquith, Dunmore is trying to incite a slave rebellion against the Southern plantation owners so that the Brits can defeat the Patriot cause more easily.

We'll just point out the obvious—it's ridiculously hypocritical to call British rule over the colonies as a form of "slavery." It's not like the Brits are out their whipping, lynching, maiming, shackling, or outright killing Southern plantation owners as a routine way of managing the colonies.

There burnt the Sun of Massachusetts Bay above us, the Eye of God too, & the Kelp was around us, & the grassy heaped Hills was before us, where grazed dumb Beasts. 'Twas a rustic Scene, and yet, so must the River Rubicon have looked to the great Caesar when he forded it, and so declared himself the Enemy of Rome. (3.13.11)

Goring is describing to his sister how pastoral and peaceful the scene before them is, even though they're about to do battle on those hills and fields. Does the scene and the war really compare to Caesar's invasion of the Roman empire though?

Now there was a continual BLASTING—
the Shouting of Commands —
—and no moment to think—
too close —
which made the spongy Earth shudder—

And I saw a Motion: that John was risen, deranged with fear, & confronted the Battle Screaming.

[…]

John screamed & begun to run down the Length of the Beach towards the Enemy; & though we wished to call to him, we could not, though Shem started up before someone grabbed him & yanked him back to the Sand while he gasped— (3.15.28-31)

Goring definitely has a flair for dramatic writing, but, in this case, the drama isn't overblown—the men have been hiding in a ditch for most of the day while bullets whiz above their heads continuously.

So when John goes nuts and runs straight toward the enemy, it makes sense even if it's the stupidest move ever—John just wants things to be over; he goes kamikaze. When Octavian stands up and does something similar after this moment, you really get that this is no joke; war is really hard on the mind, and even the mentally toughest people can break.

The Africans amongst us risked our lives for liberty, and yet had no assurance liberty would be ours; our pay, in may cases, came not to us, but to our owners—for it was reckoned that we belonged to them, and so our labor was theirs, so they should receive compensation for our absence from their farms, their dining-rooms, and their cellars. (4.9.12)

Clearly this whole war is unfair to the African slaves. Let's just add that this passage points out how much the war is also a job—an unpaid job—for the slaves. The American Revolution isn't a "cause" for them; they won't have that "cause" until the Civil War comes around.

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