Abraham Lincoln, Clara Harris, Eileen Gunn, Garry Kilworth, George Atzerodt, Henry Rathbone, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, John Parker, John Wilkes Booth, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Surratt, Ulysses S. Grant
This column on “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler was first published in Vector 276, Summer 2014:
Good Friday, 14th April 1865, must be one of the most well-documented days in history. We know where people were and at what time. We know when John Wilkes Booth, a handsome actor though never as successful as his brothers, went to Ford’s Theatre to collect his mail, and there found that the President would be attending that evening’s performance. We know which bar George Atzerodt drank in to build his courage, though he could never screw himself to the point of assassinating the Vice President, which was his assigned part in the conspiracy. We know when Mary Surratt left her guest house to collect money she was owed, and we know that the debtor did not turn up for their meeting. We know that General Grant, fresh from Lee’s surrender that had happened on Palm Sunday only five days before, decided at the last minute that he and his wife would visit family in Philadelphia, so Lincoln and his wife were accompanied by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. We know that the door to the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre had been damaged some time before and was not yet fixed, so it could not be locked. We know which local bar the President’s bodyguard, John Parker, went to at the intermission. We know which play was being performed (a rather tired comedy called Our American Cousin), and we even know which lines were being spoken by which actors at the moment that Booth crept into the box and fired a derringer at point blank range at the back of Lincoln’s head. We know that Henry Rathbone attacked the assassin, but was stabbed for his pains (the subsequent marriage of Henry and Clara would be plagued by ill fortune and madness that can probably be traced to this incident). We know that Booth broke his leg when he leapt to the stage, but he still managed to evade capture for a further ten days.
It is not just that all of these details are known, they are well known. They have been recorded in any number of history books and biographies, encyclopedias and documentaries. This particular Easter was America’s own Golgotha (the religious significance of the date has been pointed out on many occasions), so the details are seared into America’s popular consciousness. To introduce a whole new cast of characters into these events, even if they are mostly anonymous, members of an audience for a unique performance, takes a special sensibility and subtlety. But that is precisely what Karen Joy Fowler does in ‘Standing Room Only’. In fact, she does this so subtly that it is easy not to notice they are there, so that only the fact that the story was first published in Asimov’s in 1997, and was included in The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel tells us unequivocally that it is science fiction.
Of course, in many ways it is a very conventional science fiction story. The idea of time travellers going to witness a significant historical (or religious) event has been common at least since Garry Kilworth’s first published story, ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ (1974); and there are any number of time travel stories in which someone warns, or attempts to warn, Lincoln, one of the most recent being ‘Thought Experiment’ (2011) by Eileen Gunn. So Fowler is working in very familiar territory here. But she shifts the focus, telling the story from the point of view of a contemporary character, in this case Mary Surratt’s 17-year-old daughter, Anna. And since Anna does not know that there are time travellers present, or indeed have the concept of time travel, there can be no specific reference to time travel in the story itself. In fact, ‘Standing Room Only’ is a superb example of how much can be told through implication rather than direct statement.
If you want to read the story as a straightforward historical fiction recounting familiar events from the unfamiliar perspective of one of the minor players caught up in the drama, then it is perfectly possible to do so. Fowler makes Anna into a very interesting figure, a fairly typical teenage girl with a crush on John Wilkes Booth (he was arrogant but charismatic, and by all accounts was popular with everyone at Surratt’s guest house). So we see Booth tangentially, as the object of a girl’s uncritical adoration, which means he comes across afresh. And Anna’s crush makes her not so much blind to other things that are going on, as blasé about them: ‘Everyone around her had secrets. She had grown quite used to this’ (269). It is unclear whether Mary Surratt was herself a Confederate spy, but she was certainly a Confederate sympathiser and her home was used as a channel by spies. To Anna, however, her mother was ‘neither a pretty woman, nor a clever one, nor was she young’ (268); in other words, she is ordinary, and Anna therefore cannot conceive of anything that might disturb the ordinary tenor of their lives. As for Booth, he is simply the epitome of glamour, and that is all she sees. She can, therefore, dismiss the ‘rumours that Booth kept a woman in a house of prostitution near the White House’ (268). She does not notice the conspiracies that Booth gathered about himself like a stage costume; he liked to think of himself as a Southern patriot, but he spent the war years touring and performing in the North and it was only after Lee’s surrender that he chose to act on that supposed patriotism, gathering together a ragtag assembly of incompetents for a plot whose point seems to have been its theatrical grandeur rather than any thought-through political or strategic purpose. As Anna’s brother puts it: ‘JW isn’t satisfied with acting … He yearns for greatness on the stage of history’ (271). When Booth inveigles Mary Surratt to carry a package for him, an errand that will later prove crucial in convicting and hanging Mary Surratt, Anna interprets it as a gift and feels envy. What we read, therefore, is the story of a starstruck girl on what is, for her, an ordinary day. Only in retrospect can we see the day as extraordinary.
This is how history is lived, but it is not how history is perceived, and it is that tension that lies at the heart of Fowler’s story. We get the first hint of this when Anna is serving their lodgers with a breakfast of ‘steak, eggs and ham, oysters, grits and whiskey’ (267). There are two new boarders, one of whom keeps staring at her mother. If you found yourself in the company of someone you knew was about to play a prominent role in one of the most dramatic tragedies in history, you’d be likely to stare also. But for Anna it simply makes her uncomfortable, and worse is to come:
The new men had hardly touched their food, cutting away the fatty parts of the meat and leaving them in a glistening greasy wasteful pile. They’d finished the whiskey, but made faces while they drank. Anna had resented the compliment of their eyes and, paradoxically, now resented the insult of their plates. Her mother set a good table. (268)
While Anna can see only rudeness, we might recognise a modern fastidiousness about food. In the grimace over whiskey served at breakfast, we see the duality of the perspective this story offers. On the one hand there is Anna, in the moment, unaware of the turn that events will take, conscious only of contemporary mores, fashions and concerns. On the other hand we look back upon a known moment in history, as a historian or a time traveller might do, but with all our modern tastes and perspectives still in place.
Fowler plays with this duality constantly throughout her story, breaking off from the action to tell us what would come later. As Anna envies the present that Booth has given to her mother, for instance, we are told that ‘Later at her mother’s trial, Anna would hear that the package had contained a set of field glasses’ though the damning witness would later
recant everything but the field glasses. He was, he now said, too drunk at the time to remember what Mrs. Surratt had told him. He had never remembered. The prosecution had compelled his earlier testimony through threats. This revision would come two years after Mary Surratt had been hanged. (274)
Again, as Booth rides away from an encounter with George Atzerodt, we are told that he ‘was carrying in his pocket a letter to the editor of The National Intelligencer. In it, he recounted the reasons for Lincoln’s death. He had signed his own name, but also that of George Atzerodt.’ (275) In this way, we are regularly reminded not just of the way that events will play out beyond the scope of this story, but more importantly of the retrospective view of the historian or time traveller, and that is very much within the scope of the story.
But always the attention returns swiftly and smoothly to Anna. We have been made aware that we are in a moment of history, but we are also reminded that it is not history to the young girl just living an ordinary life as usual. History intrudes on the story not through events so much as through the gathering crowd of observers. ‘She had often seen men outside the Surratt boarding house lately, men who busied themselves in unpersuasive activities when she passed them’ (268). Fowler offers a half-hearted explanation for these watchers: one of the boarders, Louis Wiechman, had told the authorities that a Secesh plot was being hatched in the Surratt house, and so the boarding house was put under surveillance. But the notion that the watching figures might be as much of the time as Anna is quietly dropped after a couple of paragraphs. Two sets of watchers is too much for the story to carry.
The accumulation of visitors from the future continues apace, though without ever making it obvious that they are not a natural part of the scene. At one point, for instance, Wiechman tells Anna that he had seen Booth in a barbershop, ‘With a crowd watching his every move’, to which Anna replies ‘Mr. Booth is a famous thespian. Naturally people admire him’ (270). The fact that this crowd is unusual is disguised by the way that Fowler draws attention to Anna’s own admiration for Booth, and by all that is implied by her rather prissy choice of the word ‘thespian’. Sometimes the fish-out-of-water nature of the time travellers is played for comic relief, as when we watch a woman, ‘unfashionably thin and laughing giddily as with every unsteady step her hoop swung and unbalanced her’ (269), attempt to leave a carriage that is stuck in the mud, unfamiliarity with 1860s costume making her clumsy. Sometimes, they seem to be actively interfering with events, as when a group of men get Atzerodt drunk; though the record shows that Atzerodt did indeed get drunk that afternoon, so it is unclear whether this might have changed the course of events. In none of these cases can we say for sure that these are not ordinary people of the time, even when the woman from the carriage reappears at the climax, or when one of the men with Atzerodt is identified as ‘of a race Anna had never seen before’ (276). But the implication, surely, is that they are time travellers.
At only one point within the body of the story does Fowler come close to revealing the frame within which it is set. Anna goes to Ford’s Theatre in the hope of bumping into Booth. A crowd of people has gathered there already, and the owner, James R. Ford, announces that, though it is the last night of a lacklustre run, every seat for tonight’s performance is sold out. Again, there is a natural explanation: ‘It’s because the President and General Grant will be attending’ (271). However, later Mrs. Streichman, who had tickets but is unable to get into the theatre, offers another explanation: ‘you wouldn’t believe the waiting list. Years. Centuries! I’ll never have tickets again’ (277). For now, however, Ford allows Anna to go in and watch a rehearsal, and several members of the crowd bustle in after her. When it comes to the play’s most famous, fatal line – ‘Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sockdologizing old man-trap’ (272) – Anna is surprised that the woman sitting next to her whispers it aloud at the same time, and in an English accent. There were, of course, many English visitors to Washington throughout the war, but why would one of them know that particular line and repeat it aloud like that? Anna, of course, doesn’t ask the question or examine its implications, but we, the readers, are meant to. And then the small audience is distracted by the appearance of John Wilkes Booth in the Presidential Box. For Anna, this is, of course, a moment of glamorous excitement, but also of jealousy. She immediately wonders whether the older woman sitting beside her – ‘It was a courtesy to think of her as a married woman’ (273), though no courtesy is intended by this assessment – might be a potential rival for Booth’s affections. We are left to imagine that the frisson of excitement felt by the other members of this little group has an entirely different origin.
At this point the woman, Mrs. Streichman, introduces herself, and when Anna Surratt gives her name ‘There was a quick, sideways movement in the woman’s eyes’ (273). The name clearly means something to her, yet for anyone of the time who was not already acquainted with the Surratts it is unlikely to have aroused any resonance. For a time traveller, however, we can understand how exciting it would be to meet the daughter of someone caught up in the conspiracy. For Anna, the encounter makes her uneasy and she walks quickly away. But one of the apparent time travellers has spoken, has been named, has betrayed an interest that marks her as other. We must remember that the identification of Mrs. Streichman and her fellows as time travellers is entirely based on assumption and inference, at no point in the story is this identification made explicit. But in this brief encounter we have a fairly strong suggestion that this is the inference we are intended to make.
And at the end, when Anna sees ‘Many people, far too many people were on the street’ (276) and follows them to gather outside Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Streichman reappears.
‘At least you’re here, dear. That’s something I couldn’t have expected. That makes it very real. And,’ she pressed Anna’s arm, ‘if it helps in any way, you must tell yourself later there’s nothing you could have done to make it come out differently. Everything that will happen has already happened. It won’t be changed.’ (277)
Now, and only now, does this become a time travel story, because in this one speech Mrs. Streichman expresses the two great philosophical dilemmas of the form. She is in the midst of real events, yet she is simultaneously a member of an audience, or a tour group – ‘“Can my group please stay together?” a woman toward the front asked’ (277) – with all the artificiality that implies. It takes Anna’s presence to make it feel real. And there is also the fact that time travel implies that the past is set in stone, it won’t be changed, it is deterministic; though the presence of visitors from the future is itself a change in history. Mrs. Streichman’s presence in this story is a contradiction, it makes the real and unchanging events she has come to witness into something unreal, a form of entertainment. But for Anna, of course, trapped in the moment as we all are, this is all too real and decidedly unentertaining.
For Anna, reality provides an explanation for the anomalous presence. She thinks of Mrs. Streichman as some sort of prophet. The scene has been set for this earlier, in a brief exchange with Booth about palm reading. So she asks if she will get what she wants. We know, tragically, that what she wants is Booth, but Mrs. Streichman doesn’t know that. She answers, in a simple and powerful statement: ‘People getting what they want. That’s not the history of the world, is it?’ (277).
And so the story ends, on the cusp of events. The shot has not yet been fired. The insensible body has not yet been carried from the theatre, through this unruly crowd, into the house across the street, where it will lie uneasily in a bed too short for it until it breathes its last the next day. ‘Now he belongs to the ages,’ one of the cabinet ministers present is reputed to have said. But that’s not the history of the world, is it?
Quotations taken from ‘Standing Room Only’ by Karen Joy Fowler, in The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, San Francisco, Tachyon Publications, 2009, pp267-277.