You’ve got to see it to believe it:
In May of 1606, the first 104 settlers arrived in Jamestown.
The “Virginia Tidewater Region” (so named in honor of the Virgin Queen, Queen Elizabeth) was a land of spectacular beauty and inexhaustible abundance: oceans teeming with seafood, woodlands swarming with birds and wild game, soil so rich and so fertile that it could grow practically anything. Yet within a mere six months only 38 of those original 104 settlers remained alive, the rest having succumbed to famine and grisly death.
Not two years later, 500 more people were sent to refresh the devastated settlers.
Within another half a year, the vast majority of these new arrivals — 440, to be precise — had died of starvation or disease.
Cannibalism was not unheard of.
The resources were still as plentiful and rich as ever before — hardly tapped, in fact — and so what went wrong?
It’s a sordid tale of expropriation and sloth, a tale parasitism and “forced charity” — a contradiction in terms if ever there was one — and you may read all about it in Tom Bethell’s book: The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages.
The original Jamestown settlers had intentionally adopted a policy of what they called “communal ownership,” and as a direct result, most of these people starved to death, or were killed off by disease — the very same problem, it turns out, that has been occurring steadily three centuries later in every country that’s collectivized its agriculture.
As one early Jamestown eyewitness, a man by the name of George Percy, described it (in his antiquated and pulpy English):
“[The cause of] famine was want of providence, industrie … and not the barennesse and defect of the Countri, as is generally supposed” (Warren M. Billings, George Percy’s Account of the Voyage to Virginia and the Colony’s First Days).
But how could this be so? How could such people have “lacked industrie” when many of them were chosen for having the exact opposite character?
The answer is deceptively simple: the people of Jamestown had no personal stake in their endeavors.
Indeed, they were little more than indentured servants. Thus everything they produced went into a public pool. Working harder and longer, therefore, did not benefit any one person any more than another. And so these people responded exactly as humans will in such a situation: they simply didn’t work harder — any of them.
Quoting one Philip Alexander Bruce, in his article about these very Jamestown settlers:
“[They] did not have even a modified interest in the soil … Everything produced by them went into the [public] store, in which they had no ownership.”
Thus, all grew idle and most, in the end, refused to work at all.
“The absence of property rights — and of the work-reward nexus that such rights create — completely destroyed the work ethic of the settlers” (Thomas Dilorenzo, How Capitalism Saved America).
Thus, the British government, which had financed that colonization, sent in 1611 a rather remarkable man — and not incidentally the real hero in this lurid tale — named Sir Thomas Dale, whose mission was “to serve as High Marshal of the Virginian Colony.” Please listen closely to what Mr. Dale observed; for it is astounding and yet predictable:
“Dale noted that although most of the settlers had starved to death, the remaining ones were spending much of their time playing games in the streets, and he immediately identified the problem: the system of communal ownership” (Ibid).
It was then that the High Marshal Sir Thomas Dale gave every man three acres of land for each to own unto himself. He simultaneously did away with pooling into a communal treasury, and private property was in effect enacted as the official policy, public ownership abolished.
And can you guess what happened?
The colony immediately began to prosper.
The notorious “free-rider problem,” endemic to collectivism of every strain, vanished as each person became her own master — as each person bore the full brunt of inaction and non-productivity. At the same time, every person had incentive to work harder since harder work meant greater prosperity and a direct benefit to each from that labor.
As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources,” says historian Mathew Anderson, “and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans — and aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention (The Old Dominion, Vol. 1, University of Virginia).
Other glorious things began to happen as well.
The Jamestown colonists had originally implored the Indians to sell them corn, but the Indians looked down on the settlers because [the settlers] were barely capable of growing corn, thanks to their communistic economics. After the introduction of private property and the resulting transformation, however, the Indians began coming to the colonists to acquire corn in return for furs and other items (Ibid).
Thus began a friendly system of free-trade.
The division of labor — a sine-qua-non of private property, which promotes specialization of labor, insofar as each is no longer forced to produce all his own food since he can now trade specialty items for specialty products others produce — was instantly born. Thus, in addition to this explosion of prosperity, there was also greater peace:
It made no sense now for either side — Indians or settlers — to war with the other, because free-trade was advantageous to each. Whereas, prior to Sir Thomas Dale’s instituting of private property, the settlers used “to steal from the Indians,” and even “beg from them,” a fact which the Indians quite naturally resented.
In Jamestown, the institution of private property changed all this.
But there’s more to this sensational story, much more.
Not many years later, in November of 1620, another group of American settlers — 101 of them, a group not financed by the British government — arrived on the good ship Mayflower, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
These Pilgrims, as they were called, quickly moved a short distance away to a place named Plymouth, and they were not at all unaware of the early Jamestown disaster, the starvation, the disease, the famine. What they were unaware of, however, is what had caused it.
Accordingly, the Pilgrims proceeded to make the exact same mistake that the settlers of Jamestown had made: namely, collective ownership of land.
And the Pilgrims too paid dearly for it.
Within a few short months, half were dead.
Over the course of the next three years, 100 more settlers arrived from England to Plymouth, all of whom were barely able to feed themselves. As Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford wrote in his famous Of Plymouth Plantation:
Many [settlers] sold away their clothes and bed coverings [to the Indians]; others (so base were they) became servants of the Indians … and fetch them water for a capful of corn; others fell to plain stealing, both day and night, from the Indians…. In the end, they came to that misery that some starved to and died with cold and hunger. One in gathering shellfish was so weak as he stuck fast in the mud and was found dead in the place.
But this same William Bradford would soon solve “the ruin and dissolution of his colony,” and he would do it in the exact same way Sir Thomas Dale had saved Jamestown.
Here’s another famous passage from William Bradford’s book:
After much debate of things … [it was decided that the Pilgrims] should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, for present use. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
Bradford came to fully grasp how lack of property rights negates and indeed destroys the work incentive:
“For [men] and men’s wives,” he said, “to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothe, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husband brook it” (Ibid).
“Common course” was abandoned in favor of setting “every man for his own particular,” meaning private property. Instantaneously, those who had been indolent became “very industrious,” so much so that woman and men who had “previously pleaded frailty worked long and hard — once they saw how they and their families could benefit from such hard work.”
William Bradford went on to correctly identify the source of the “disastrous problem” as “that conceit of Plato’s,” who, in direct contrast to Aristotle, advocated collectivism and collective ownership of land, which, as history has repeatedly proven, is pure poison to any society that implements it. Bradford even wrote later that those who mistakenly believed that communal property could make people “happy and flourishing” imagined themselves “wiser than God.”
That, in short, is the real and lurid history of Thanksgiving in America.
As Mr. Bethell summed it up so well in his book:
“The Pilgrims had encountered what is called the free-rider problem, which is difficult to solve without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. And this is the course of action that William Bradford wisely took” (Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph).
Do you forget to establish your setting early on?
Do you forget to give us The When, The Where, The Weather — the overall tone? Is your story happy, soft, somber?
John Steinbeck does not forget to do this in the beautiful opening of Of Mice and Men:
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees — willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spreadpads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
Do you, in the beginning of your story, forget to show us your main characters — or, at the very least, let us glimpse them, or hear about them in an intriguing way? For example:
“But at the last moment, she left him for a man no one knew, a dark-horse from nobody knew where, a man of great strength and strange habits…”
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
In the beginning, do you neglect to show us your characters in the face of some adversity? (“Plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Kilian.) Do you neglect to show us your characters struggling? (The greater the struggle, the better the plot.)
Do you early on forget to differentiate for us the protagonist from the antagonist, letting us know in whom we’re to be emotionally invested? Which character is good? Which bad?
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Your hero — even if she’s an antihero — must be someone with whom we can identify, at least on some level. There must be good qualities in your protagonist, or qualities with which we can relate.
Conversely, your antagonist, who can indeed be remarkable and even admirable, must in some way be pitted against your protagonist. (A la Javert.)
So. In the beginning, do you neglect to provide us with at least a hint of your story’s Situation? Show us something of the nature of the struggle that is to come? Do you forget to let us glimpse what’s at stake — as Nabokov does in the following excerpt, which is from the beginning of his book Laughter in the Dark:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling.
Finally, do you remember to foreshadow? If, for example, your protagonist bleeds badly in the last chapter, do you remember to have him cut himself in the beginning of your story?
And lastly, do you feel as though you need to cram all components into your beginning? Or do you think of it, rather, as a way to structure your beginning, so that it flows and gives you a method by which you tell your story?
As such, the creative spirit I strive to pour into my literature occasionally spills over into my work as a cocktologist, so that every once in a while, when I’m lucky, one of those cocktails will, if I may say so, transcend the quotidian and fall squarely within the precincts of the eternal. The Bleach-Haired Honkey Bitch (2 parts Tito’s vodka, 3 parts Tang) is, I believe, just such a cocktail — and evidently I’m not the only one who feels this way.
The following photo was recently emailed to me:
ACE GILLETT’S: CHANGING LIVES, ONE BLEACH-HAIRED HONKEY BITCH AT A TIME
To whoever you are out there, staring philosophically across the eternal surf and the beautiful San Francisco Bay, thank you. You’ve touched my heart.
Thank you for wearing my Bleach-Haired Honkey Bitch shirt, and thank you even more for enjoying the Bleach-Haired Honkey Bitch cocktail. You are very clearly a woman of a rare and sophisticated palate.
The crystal blades of winter frost
Have snipped the leaves that dot the field.
The trees leak iron-black across
The sky where evening swallows wheeled.
A knifey light cuts deep and shows
Leaves with their intricate designs
Half sodden in the drifted snows,
Beneath the moaning, deathless pines.
And wind like water softly pours
Over the gnashing river reeds.
The river that no longer roars
Died quiet in its bed of weeds.
Now morning vapors ghost and drift.
The clouds beyond look thickly whisked.
There comes a bitter snow to sift
The frozen earth, where seeds lie disked.
The Goths, as recounted by a Gothic historian named Jordanes (mid 6th Century AD), were a Teutonic-Germanic people whose original homeland was, according to this same Jordanes, in southern Sweden. At that time, this half-barbaric band was ruled by a king called Berig. It was King Berig who led his people south to the shores of the Baltic Sea, where they split up into two groups: the Ostrogoths (or Eastern Goths), and the Visigoths (Western Goths).
Also according to Jordanes, the Goths reached the pinnacle of their power around the 5th Century AD, when they conquered Rome and most of Spain.
The original Goths — and this is important — have no real connection with what that word eventually came to mean.
It was many centuries later, you see, that a certain non-classical style of architecture emerged. Because this style of architecture wasn’t classical, it was pejoratively termed Gothic, which meant “barbaric.”
Gothic literature came about centuries after this and is so called because a great number of these novels are set in Gothic monasteries and Gothic abbeys.
That is how the genre of Gothic literature came to be.
Setting is the crucial component to Gothic fiction. As Ann Blaisde Tracy wrote in her 1981 book The Gothic Novel, this literature depicts “a fallen world,” a world of ruin and desuetude, dilapidation and disrepair, death, decay — a vital and thriving world no more.
The English author Horace Walpole is generally credited with writing the first Gothic novel, and that novel, written in 1764, is called The Castle of Otranto.
Though she didn’t originate Gothic literate, the enigmatic Anne Radcliffe (1764 – 1823) is undoubtedly that genre’s greatest early popularizer, and her Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolopho was immediately parodied by the likes of Jane Austin and Thomas Love Peacock, among others.
The early Gothic novels are, however, diffuse and stylistically difficult to our modern-day eyes and ears, the pace often bogging down in its baroque prose.
Among the best of the early Gothic novels is Melmoth The Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin (whom Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Lord Byron all admired for his rather Byronic book).
Yet for all its difficulty now, Gothic literature employed wildly intriguing plot devices which at the time were quite new — secret closets, mysterious manuscripts, ghostly abbeys, unspeakable deeds — so that at its best, there is an undeniable sense of strangeness and fascination that pervades Gothic literature. That is the reason some of the world’s greatest writers have used Gothic literature as a model for their own non-Gothic novels.
Here’s how you create a character:
Here’s how you develop your character:
liked strong men with brooding features and complicated brains.
Here’s how you create a new character:
She made Michael’s acquaintance
Here’s how you create a setting:
in a quiet diner, one warm and windswept autumn evening, along the outskirts of Tucson.
Here’s how you develop your new character:
He was sitting alone at the counter, two stools down from Julia, and he didn’t seem to notice her but stared into his coffee cup. He appeared distracted, his brows knitted, his forehead thoughtful and grave —
Here’s how you further develop your initial character:
a fact Julia specifically noticed, much in the way that (tilting her head in the mahogany light) she noticed the open book beneath his forearm.
Here’s how you introduce foreshadowing, a new paragraph, and also your theme (which in this abbreviated example is, let us say, beauty and permanence and the artistic temperament):
On this forearm, stamped over a web of wormy veins, was a tattoo the likes of which she’d never seen: it was of a marble sculpture — a sculpture depicting a nude woman — perfectly rendered and perfectly unambiguous. Yet next to it, hovering to the left of the sculpture’s head and entirely ambiguous, was a small white birthmark, or perhaps a scar, in the shape of jigsaw-puzzle piece.
Here’s how you add tension and build your plot:
The man’s fingers were long, beautiful, compelling fingers, and they moved in a strange and almost disembodied way across the countertop. Julia found herself transfixed by them, and was appalled to discover herself thinking next about those fingers upon her body.
Here’s how you introduce a certain amount of suspense:
That thought, however, was interrupted when the man lifted his arm and the book slapped shut — and she saw the drawing on the back cover. She nearly gasped.
Here’s how you introduce dialogue:
“Where did that come from?” she said. Her voice was barely a whisper.
Here’s how you intensify the sense of mystery and reinforce your theme:
He looked at her, but he didn’t speak. At that moment, the waitress came to fill his water glass, but spilled a little on his forearm — and on the perfectly rendered sculpture there. To her surprise, the ink began to run, the sculpture’s face melting away. The puzzle-piece birthmark remained.
Here’s how you exploit your theme through dialogue:
“It isn’t permanent,” the waitress said.
Here’s how you develop your character through dialogue:
“No,” he said.
Here’s how you charge your situation:
“The book cover,” Julia said. “The drawing … it is the same drawing my brother made for me, when I was a child. I mean, it is identical.”
Here’s how you further charge your situation:
“I know,” he said.
Here’s how you develop your plot through dialogue:
“Where is my brother?” she said.
Here’s how you gradually add information to keep readers interested:
“Your brother is dead.”
Here’s how you develop your initial character through dialogue:
“No,” she said.
Here’s how you introduce conflict:
“Yes,” he said. “He killed himself. But he left you something — something that certain people would kill to have.”
Here’s how you close your chapter:
He spoke these word and turned his head away and looked toward the window, beyond which, under an indigo sky, a pair of dust devils sprung up among the sandhills. He watched the dust devils spin themselves out, then he turned back to Julia. “It is time,” he said.
[Note: this was originally posted here over a year ago. A kind reader asked if I'd repost it.]