At the Crowded Intersection of Art and Life

The man likeliest to have served as the real, historical inspiration for the mythological Faust—if one existed at all—was a German alchemist and general-purpose charlatan by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faust, who is thought to have lived between 1480—1540.

After I had first conceived the story that would eventually become my recently completed novel “Faust: The Movie” (and which also informed the album “Faust” Lori and I released under the name Tangemeenie several years ago), I began devoting attention to another of my occasional free time interests: Researching my family’s genealogical history, an interest I inherited from my grandmother.

The death of another beloved family member late in 2009 rekindled my interest in investigating my family history. Only this time, I began exploring a different branch of the family tree than I had in the past, which led me one evening a year or so later to make the startling discovery that my great-great-great-great-great grandmother had been a woman named "Mary Ann Faust." (Source). My great-great aunt's obituary had identified her parents (and my great-grandmother's parents) as Albert Lorenzo Mizener and Lenora Van Horn, and this was the crucial piece of information that led to the unlikely result. I had previously traced the Mizener branch of the Family, but without the second name to work from, I hadn't learned much at all about the Van Horn branch.

I was still in the preliminary draft stages of writing "Faust: The Movie" at the time of this discovery, and even though finding such an unlikely personal connection to the name "Faust" struck me as an uncanny coincidence, I didn't give it much further thought at the time. I concluded "Faust" must have been a common surname at that particular point in American history (the early to mid 1800s) and left it at that.

It was only after I had completed work on my initial draft of "Faust: The Movie" that it occurred to me to return to this thread of evidence and investigate my personal connection to the name "Faust" in more detail. In fact, I only began looking more closely into these family connections over the last week or so, over the Thanksgiving Holidays.

I was completely unprepared for where my research would lead me, on a number of different levels, both personal and literary. One of the more immediately visceral shocks that lay in store concerned my great-great-great grandmother herself.

Mary Ann Faust married a man named Thaddeus Damascus Van Horn, a confederate soldier and 32nd degree Free Mason, who in the years preceding the Civil War rose to the rank of business manager of the New Orleans Crescent newspaper. (Source) In 1848, prior to my ancestor's association with that once distinguished publication, poet Walt Whitman had served briefly as its co-editor before being fired for his antislavery views. (Source) During my ancestor's tenure, The Crescent became a powerful pro-secessionist voice in the South in the years immediately leading up to the war, until its operations were shut down by military order during the war.

Mary Ann Faust was the child of Mary Ann and Daniel D. Faust of South Carolina. And after Daniel's death, the Van Horn and Faust families became embroiled in a bitter dispute over the division of the estate, which included several slaves. According to filed court reports, the dispute centered around Mary Ann Faust senior's new husband, a man who had "proven himself a cruel and unnecessarily severe master" and whom it was argued should therefore be viewed as unfit to manage the "property" of the estate. (Source)

I was tempted to stop digging right here. Having had no inkling that any of my ancestors owned slaves or played a significant role in the Civil War, these revelations came as shock enough. Growing up, the man I had known as my grandfather had been raised as a sharecropper and his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, though I had learned even before his death that he was not a blood relation.

But my curiosity about the "Faust" lineage persisted, and so I kept doggedly trying to trace the family name back through history as far as I could, expecting to quickly find evidence that would rule out the remote possibility of a family link to the historical Johann Georg Faust.

Although lines of evidence going back much further in US history than the Civil War are hard to find without a significant commitment of time and other personal resources, I was aided in part by the notoriety of my ancestors and a fortunate accident of history in narrowing down my research: As it turns out, all the Fausts in South Carolina at this particular time in history are believed to have been descended from a common ancestor, a German immigrant named Henry Faust (given name, Johann Heinrich Faust). (Source)

Henry's roots trace back to Hans Faust, born around 1610 in Wolferborn, Hesse, Germany. It’s been difficult to establish anything definitive about the lineage beyond this point. But one of Hans' children was named "Johann Georg," which tantalizingly suggests this may have been a family name. (Source)

In any case, the occurrence of the name Faust in my family tree would be shocking enough even if the connection ended there. Because I had absolutely no idea any such connection existed when I first began work on “Faust: The Movie.” In fact, I didn't even realize the Faust mythology had a possible real-world historical precedent. I had become acquainted with the myth through reading Goethe's Faust and Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, and only began exploring the cultural history of the subject in any real depth after completing my manuscript.

Looking back, it seems more than a little unlikely that I would just happen to write a novel thematically concerned with the idea that the creation of works of art sometimes reveals unexpected truths to us about ourselves, only to find that same novel leading me on an improbable journey of personal discovery of my own. But that's exactly how it happened.

I'm tempted to say, "this must mean something!" (and perhaps enter a trance state in which I fashion a bust of TD Van Horn out of mashed potatoes). But if it means anything at all, perhaps it's only that history remains a better artist than any of us could ever hope to be. But that risks stating the obvious.

Teasing out the histories of the ancestors of TD Van Horn and Mary Ann Faust further, a few facts seem especially striking.

On the Faust side of the family, there are historically murky, possible connections to a man alleged to have been in league with the devil; on the Van Horn side there are boastful claims about family links to the so-called  Merovingian Line of Frankish kings, which (thanks almost entirely to the imaginative research of Da Vinci Code author, Dan Brown, as far as I can tell)  is claimed to provide a direct line of descent to Jesus Christ.

Of course, both of these dubious narratives should only ever be consumed with a healthy dollop of skepticism to top them off. But aesthetically, their convergence in the real historical figures of TD Van Horn and his first wife, Mary Ann Faust, make for a compellingly romantic picture: One can almost imagine the fantastical antebellum period-drama playing out on the silver screen in which Mary Faust confesses the satanic curse on her bloodline to TD Van Horn, begging him for a marriage commitment, on the argument that only the holy blood running through his veins could possibly counteract the demonic blood in her own.

But before I let my imagination run away with the show, let’s put this picturesque and entirely fictional historical moment into some perspective.

I previously touched on the elder Mary Faust’s less than honorable performance as administrator or her husband’s estate (along with the related allegations that she may have been an unnecessarily cruel mistress to the slaves in her charge). But the historical evidence suggests the Van Horns were often less than saintly in their personal conduct as well.

During the American revolutionary war period , the stately Van Horns were known for raucous bacchanalia, frequently receiving notable visitors from both sides of the revolutionary conflict, often at the same time.

In particular, according to one account told by the wife of John Burgoyne the British general who surrendered in the Battle of Saratoga (after his surrender), one evening when she was in attendance as a "guest of the American Congress" at the Van Horn mansion in Middlebrook, NJ: "There was a wild party, in the course of which everyone sang 'God Bless Great Washington, God damn the King', all night long." (Source)

The family’s unseemly cosmopolitanism in a time of war led to speculation about the depth of their loyalty to the revolutionary cause, but never seemed to diminish their elevated social standing.

Predictably, the Van Horn family also didn't escape untouched by the original sin of early America’s “peculiar institution.” There are reports of Van Horns offering rewards for the return of escaped slaves as far back as 1736. (Source) (And if there’s one thing that seems clear to me at least, regardless of which of the innumerable contradictory interpretation of the Gospels you subscribe to, if any, it’s that no mystically-empowered direct ancestor of Jesus Christ would have owned slaves.)

So much for the pleasingly symmetrical fantasy of TD Van Horn’s descent from a sacred blood line and Mary Faust’s descent from a profane one. Judging by the stories that swirled around the family before and during the revolutionary war, theirs was a match for the more common forms of profanity, at least.

It might also be tempting to speculate about the peculiar fact that it was not long after the convergence of these two myth-enshrouded bloodlines that the Van Horn family’s fortunes underwent a dramatic reversal.

By the 1920s, the Van Horns in America were generating newsprint unfit for the society pages. The contemporary descendants of the line became more closely identified with embarrassingly desperate grabs for legacy wealth the rest of the world no longer felt they held claim to than with either European or antebellum aristocracy. (Source)

But a closer, less fanciful reading of the history suggests no supernatural explanations are required to account for the decline. A stubborn unwillingness to let go of ancestral glory (as embodied on one hand by TD Van Horn’s self-destructive passion for the Southern Confederacy’s doomed, pseudo-royalist cause, and by the latter-day Van Horns’ ridiculous attempts to reclaim much of Manhattan on the other) seems a more likely culprit. That is, assuming any explanations more satisfying to one's sense of poetic justice than historical accident are required.  

And yet, I’m still left here to ponder the strange confluence of personal and historical accident that has led me to this point. How did I get here? What compelled me to make the myth of Faust the focus of my creative energies for nearly a decade, only to discover now at this late date that this bizarre personal connection to the story lay hidden there in plain sight for so long? I honestly don’t know. A recent family visit with a cousin in a position to know confirmed that these family roots were not previously understood within our more immediate family. 

I probably never will know the answers to these questions, but I'm also not really all that interested in asking them. I'm not superstitious, so I'm not inclined to think there are forces any more sinister than base human instinct at work in mine or anyone else's lives. But I do love a good story, and somehow this time, I landed in the middle of one that left me with more perspective on who I am and where I came from. 

I guess it's just another one of the world's little reminders that, while fiction can take many strange shapes, human history at the level of the personal can take stranger shapes still.

MetaClip Open Source Project

Here's a new open source project I recently launched on Codeplex:

It's called MetaClip and it's a tool that lets you store clipboard contents permanently in a portable file format. Development is still just getting underway, but the current version does all the basic stuff it's supposed to do fairly well (stores and restores clipboard contents, lets you organize and filter clips by category, etc.). I've only tested on Windows XP SP2 and Windows 7.

Just be forewarned: it doesn't warn you before deleting stored clips if you select delete from the context menu or if you delete a category.

The Two Wolf Mothers

(The following is a first draft of a children's story/allegory that recently occurred to me.)

Once, in a clearing next to a muddy little river deep in the woods, there lived a pack of wild wolves.

Though their numbers had once been much greater, vicious territory fights with rival wolf-packs in the region had, in recent years, worn the pack down to a small but resourceful group of a half dozen adults.

Among the wolf pack also lived the two wolf mothers. The first wolf mother was known for her wicked temper, spitefulness, and cruelty; the second was known for her generosity, fair-mindedness, and wisdom.

As it happened, that spring, both wolf mothers gave birth to new litters at the same time.

Now, it is a well-known but ugly fact of nature that even the best wolf mothers, because they are only animals, are sometimes known to gobble up the smallest and weakest of the cubs in the litter, especially during lean times like the pack now faced.

And so, since she always was a stickler for observing the traditional ways of the wolf-pack, especially the uglier ones, the cruel wolf mother immediately hardened her heart against the runt of her little litter in due fashion.

The plucky, but tragically slight and feeble cub had seldom managed to fight off his brothers well enough to earn a mouthful at feeding time even before his own mother began pushing him away. Now, he didn’t stand a chance. So each day, the hungry little cub grew weaker and weaker, until one day the cruel wolf mother, in a final fit of wickedness just gobbled him up whole.

The second wolf mother, meanwhile, took a very different approach to raising the runt of her litter.

Instead of harassing and abusing the frail little cub as his littermates did, she protected the runt from his more aggressive littermates and ensured that he always got the first and largest share of milk at feeding time.

And because he always ate more than his share of food and was kept so well sheltered from harm, the runt soon caught up and eventually exceeded the other cubs in size and physical development.

In fact, the runt over time grew to be the largest male wolf in this region of the deep woods. And because his mother had always cared so tenderly and lovingly for him, he was fiercely devoted to her and served vigilantly as her guardian and protector.

One summer afternoon, toward early evening, a larger, rival wolf pack stealthily encircled the pack as the two wolf mothers and their brood slept in preparation for the night’s hunt. A vicious and terrible fight ensued as the rivals swept in, claws and teeth flashing.

In the confusion of the attack, at the first opportunity, the cruel wolf mother‘s cubs abandoned her to the invading marauders and ran off into the woods. The rival wolves surrounded the wicked wolf mother, who was snarling in a nasty way, and finally they just gobbled her up.

Meanwhile, the runt of the kindly wolf mother’s litter remained his mother’s devoted protector. As the invaders came near, he flashed his enormous fangs and growled his deep, rumbling growl at them, and it was soon evident that not one of the rival wolves was a match for him.

All that night, the great gray wolf who had started life as the runt of his litter, kept his mother safe from harm as she had once done for him, fighting ferociously to defend her.

And in the morning as the little family rejoined the remainder of the pack to lick their wounds and regroup, they were surprised and relieved to find that, in the end, their little pack had won the battle and held its territory after all. Almost all by himself, the wolf mother's guardian had battled the pack’s enemies to a standstill, fighting like a lion to protect the mother he so loved.

That’s how the runt of the litter came to be named the new leader of the pack. And from that day forward, the newly crowned wolf king, his kindly mother, the resourceful wolf-pack, and even the cruel wolf mother’s surviving children, lived happily ever after.