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Winter 2017

Table Talk

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John Barth

A few decades ago, when I was in my fifties and visiting-professoring at Boston University, I happened to see a close-up photograph of myself in a Massachusetts newspaper over the caption Murder Suspect. Not me in fact, but the fellow looked so like me that I did a double-take—same basic features, bald pate, graying hair, short beard and mustache, horn-rimmed eyeglasses—sitting in Plymouth District Court during arraignment on charges that he murdered a thirteen-year-old girl whose body was found buried in the basement of his home. My wife and I were utterly struck by the resemblance: I scissored the photo, clipped it to a book-jacket photo of myself taken that same year, and filed it in a folder called Miscellaneous Material that I keep on my work-table for possible future reference. I have in fact never “referred” to it until now, but the fellow’s uncanny resemblance to my then self spooks me whenever I leaf through that folder for possible inspiration and come across that clipping. Since he’s such a dead ringer for me, is it imaginable that I too could perpetrate so heinous a crime?

Not bloody likely, pardon my adverb, and let’s change the subject. What, then, is a “dead ringer”? Opinion is divided: Google offers one complicated explanation having to do with race-horses, and another that I prefer, having to do with the un-dead (I’m writing this in late October, approaching Halloween). In times past, when medical care was even more fallible than today, it sometimes happened that when a coffin was opened for whatever reason, a person thought to have died had in fact been only comatose, and was found not “resting in peace” but contorted by suffocation, sometimes even with garments askew. So widespread was the fear of premature burial that in Victorian England there were several societies for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. Edgar Allan Poe, of course, took advantage of that particular terror (“the most terrific,” Poe declared) in one of his most famous horror stories, “The Premature Burial.” Indeed, it has been reported that a number of well-known people suffered from this intense fear (“taphophobia”), including, e.g., Frederic Chopin and George Washington. Several biographies mention that while our first president was calm, courageous, and dignified at the end, and while on his deathbed did not seek religious comfort or summon minister or priest, he did request that his body not be buried for at least three days. The fear of being buried alive was alive and well not only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of course, but to a greater or lesser extent in all the previous centuries as well as in the twentieth and twenty-first.

To try to prevent such horrors, all sorts of methods were put into play, one of the most oft-mentioned being a device invented by Mr. George Bateson. According to dozens of reports, lest the “deceased” wake to find himself coffined but undead, a string was sometimes attached to the finger and run through a hole in the casket-lid to a bell mounted somewhere or other aboveground, and a night-watchman might even be posted to listen for the bell—the “graveyard shift.” Dead ringer, then, could refer either to the gadget or to the desperate caller (in many accounts the gadget is called Bateson Revival Device or Bateson’s Belfry, after its purported inventor). How dead ringer could come to mean a look-alike, a double, is not explained, nor is it certain that any such device actually existed, since some maintain that much of the above is folklore.

Reviewing these jinglings rings yet another bell: the sad fate of Fortunato in Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.” Dressed as a jester (it’s carnival time), the poor chap is walled up alive in a wine-cellar by Montresor, and the last we hear from him is the jingling of his costume-bells through the wall. The not-yet-dead ringer? R.I.P., unfortunate Fortunato!

John Barth, whose published books span the period from 1956 to 2012, has received the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and other tributes to his celebrated storytelling.

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