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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 451-479

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Pursuits and Revolutions: History's Figures in Steve Erickson's Arc D'x

Jim Murphy

"Had they [philosophers] ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives [. . .]. "

--Thomas Jefferson 1

"Where's the frontier of the first irrevocable corruption? Where's the first moment in the negotiation of the heart and conscience when one so betrays the other that the soul's rotting begins?"

--Steve Erickson's Thomas, Arc d'X

During what would become known as Shay's Rebellion, when the United States Army skirmished with Revolutionary War veterans who resented the growing power of the federal government, Thomas Jefferson provocatively quipped, "What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood [End Page 451] of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure" (qtd. in Ellis 100). This statement would be unthinkable from a contemporary politician contemplating either side of such a familiar scenario. But such utterances were typical in Jefferson's career as an advocate for extreme causes. Some of these causes were perhaps heroic; others were patently eccentric. Jefferson seriously argued for the bizarre notion of "generational sovereignty," under which "all personal and national debts, all laws, even all constitutions" should expire with the passing of each living generation, following the principle that "the earth belongs always to the living generations" (qtd. in Ellis 110-11). To his fellow Virginia planters and lawmakers, he expressed what must have seemed to be the equally extravagant opinion that slavery was a morally bankrupt institution which would in time necessarily become extinct (Ellis 145). And though largely overlooked due to its ubiquity, Jefferson's extremism is present also in the presumably self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. For example, Jefferson altered George Mason's preamble from a similar document particular to the state of Virginia, dropping Mason's natural rights of "life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property" for his own version, the virtual American creed of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (Ellis 55-56). Since then, the wide-open implications of this axiom have been used to justify almost any American pursuit of happiness, Jefferson's included. In 1794, Jefferson returned from the political forge of revolutionary Paris and from years fashioning national and state governments in Philadelphia and Williamsburg to a debt-stricken Monticello, where he was confronted face-to-face with the physical reality of, as he put it, "those who labor for my happiness," his scores of slaves (qtd. in Ellis 145).

In his novel Arc d'X, Steve Erickson dives under the historical documentation of Jefferson's struggle with his theoretical beliefs and private practices and obtains a gauge by which he measures a largely undocumented America as it spins its chaotic course toward the millennium. Erickson's America is a psychological country stocked with extremes of beauty and terror, both of which arise from Jefferson's incipient declaration, subsequently grown wild beyond the control of reason. "Happiness is a dark thing to pursue," Erickson's Jefferson observes in retrospect, "and the pursuit itself is a dark thing as well" (261). Erickson uses the figures of Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the permutations of their master/slave/lover relationship to write an "unexpurgated unconscious history" of America in jarring terms. [End Page 452] The novel contains probing explorations of character and darkly picaresque action in alternative visions of the American landscape, past and future.

Erickson's central achievement in Arc d'X is the novel's formal acuity: a nonlinear system that underscores the historiographic interweaving of fact and conjecture in the novel in order to question "the pursuit of happiness." The epigraphs to this study may be thought of as framing tensions between the public and the private, as well as between the historical and the fictional. These excerpts evoke the tangle of...


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