Striking a Chord
Jeffery Renard Allen explores the legend of blind piano virtuoso Tom Wiggins
Think of history as a piano: an austere, glossy model that invites and intimidates whoever’s looking for revelations from its keyboard. A sensibility oriented toward fact is sufficient background to tease out a few notes into a simple, logical pattern. And if you have a surfeit of facts and can season them with nuance, the audience should end up nestled in your hip pocket. But facts can only do so much, especially if they’re slippery or cloaked in shadows. When that happens, the music can become static, even inert. So you shift tactics, go for broke, make a few educated guesses—for a start. You’re then compelled to reshape time, space, even the landscape in pursuit of something closer to the truth than meager facts can replicate. The music that comes out may be so unfamiliar that those who hear it will need to come up with new names to describe it.
Consider this metaphor a gateway to both the style and subject matter of Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank, an eerie fever dream of a historical novel spun off a real-life cultural phenomenon from the waning days of antebellum America.
The phenomenon’s name was Tom Wiggins, a slave boy born sightless and likely autistic in 1849 on a Georgia plantation and sold, along with his parents, several months later to General James Bethune, a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and early proponent of Southern secession. Because his disabilities prevented him from doing slave’s work, the artist-savant eventually known as Blind Tom had the run of the general’s house and eventually bonded with the Bethune daughters and their piano,