When renowned poet and author Fanny Howe’s historical novel The White Slave was published in 1980, its story was fairly controversial and rather hard to believe. It would have been impossible to believe, actually, except that its plot — of a boy given by his white birth family to a black woman to raise as her own child, in slavery, on a Missouri plantation in 1832 — was entirely true.
In 2018, the book was reissued by Pressed Wafer with a new title, The Wages; a compendium of further research and materials discovered since 1980; and, most singularly, a new afterword by L.A.-based author and activist Eden McCutcheon Tirl, great-great-granddaughter of Peter McCutcheon, the story’s hero.
The biography of Peter McCutcheon first called The White Slave was based on a manuscript written by Charles McCutcheon, Peter's grandson, who had carried around the original 40-page document for about 50 years, hoping to find a way to get the story told. In the late 1970s, assisted by a professor friend, he sold the story to Avon Books. From there, Fanny Howe was hired by Avon to create a novel from Charles' manuscript.
The result was Howe’s empathetic but plain-spoken chronicle. The book’s language and tone, though not in the first person, evoke the literary quality of a diary, but with an omniscient narrator. Howe’s job was to imbue the patchwork of facts, historical documents, snippets of civic records, painstakingly notated oral histories and historical context with a humanist perspective and a sense of the inner lives and motives of all the characters, even the least sympathetic. There is violence, love, rage, resignation, betrayal, yearning, political discourse, courage, fear, poetry and sometimes something like resolution in this story. It is full of raw emotion, and a lot of hard truths. It’s hard to forget, and ought to be widely read and always remembered.
Decades after its original publication, through a series of miracles, serendipity and the internet, Howe and Eden McCutcheon Tirl would come to meet, exchange research, form a lasting friendship and create the new edition of the book, right here in Los Angeles. L.A. Weekly spoke to Tirl about how this all came to be and what has come of it since.
“This story is not unique,” McCutcheon tells the Weekly, “other than that Peter was white; so very many Americans have family members that were slaves. This is an American story. It is a beautiful story to be sure, with a devastating backdrop that continues to reverberate and reflect some awful truths about our country.”
It all started when Eden was just out of high school in the mid-'80s and traveling to Los Angeles to go to school. She and her mother stopped off in Wabaunsee, Kansas, where Peter McCutcheon and his family — what would become her family — had settled after the Civil War, and discovered Peter's gravestone. Several years later, Tirl was exploring her grandmother’s life story, and Peter’s strange and fascinating story kept coming up but remained a mystery. This was before the internet, and though she was very aware of the 1980 book, in terms of finding Howe, as she says, she “only got so far.”
Then about six years ago, she began looking for Howe again. A few bounced emails, a trail of university appearances, but nothing worked out. In early December 2016, Tirl decided to try one more time — and that time, it worked. She wrote to Howe one day and by early the following morning, she recalls, “I was elated to find a response in my email. [Howe] was excited and spun around by the possibility — and she happened to be in the Los Angeles area visiting her daughter. She also explained how the timing of it all was serendipitous: She and her publisher were getting ready to reissue the book.”
They met up in a small cafe in Pasadena within just a few days. “It was surreal and very sweet. I am quite tall at 5 feet 11 inches and dear Fanny is shorter and very slight. The cafe was bustling, but we spoke over the din with so much enthusiasm and wonder,” Tirl says. “We shared back and forth in equal measure. I had brought some pictures of our family to the cafe to share with her. I just wanted her to have some sense of what happened after the book ended. Within the span of that first couple of hours together, she asked if I might write the afterword for the reissue. I was of course delighted and said yes.
“This has changed my life in ways that are really sort of supernatural,” Tirl says. “I had to get so very close to my historic family in order to be able to write the afterword. During my research, I often felt transported back to them, [like I] was being with them. I felt as though I was coming to know them very intimately.”
Tirl recorded the audiobook for The Wages over the summer and it just came out on Audible in December. “The audiobook recording was even more heady,” she says. “Hearing my own voice in headphones, reading Fanny's prose, the words of each of the characters, who are indeed my family members, was a lot. I had to walk the length of Manhattan after each recording session. Then a tall glass of wine would follow.”
Howe and McCutcheon did a reading at Harvard’s Houghton Library last April when The Wages was released, and they have given some smaller readings in the last couple of months, at book clubs and more intimate venues. “People are very interested in the early part of the story, how Peter's family could have done what they did,” Tirl says. “And right on the heels of that, they are also very interested in how I identify. That is what usually becomes the most conspicuous and salient part of a reading. Because I very much identify as 'mixed' or biracial but I don't necessarily look like I am biracial to others. It opens up the conversation of colorism, which always proves meaningful.” In fact, Tirl is currently working on her next project, which she’s calling Ephemera, a collection of short stories based on family, colorism and identity.
“Our history classes are still unwilling to teach the full details of what happened during the early 17th century through the mid 19th century here in the U.S.,” Tirl says. “If these were explored in more length in schools, then there would be less shock when someone such as myself identifies as mixed.
“And there is no question this opens wide the subject of colorism in our country; what it means to be human, to be black, to be biracial, or any variation in between,” she adds. “I am so ready for that conversation. It feels long overdue.”