Alfred Lawson, 1904.
|Some books by Alfred Lawson|
Alfred Lawson (1869-1954) was an unusual man: a baseball player, a pioneer of aeronautics, a self-made businessman, an advocate of economic reform, the inventor of his own religion, proponent of strange pseudo-scientific ideas, and author of many books.
Born Again, his only novel, was first published in 1904 - while Lawson was still making his living playing baseball. It is the story of a man, John Convert (can those initials be a coincidence?), bearing some resemblance to Lawson himself, who is thrown off a ship after an argument with his fellow crewmen, an incident with some basis in real life. Convert is lucky enough to be washed ashore on a strange little island; in the act of exploring it, he falls through an opening into a complex of subterranean buildings.
There he meets the lovely Arletta, whom he awakens from sleep with a kiss as though she were the Sleeping Beauty. Arletta is the last of a race of giant superpersons, the Sagemen, who perished four thousand years before, in a catastrophe which brought about the Great Flood. She is telepathic, which is handy as it enables her to communicate with Convert, whom she rather ungraciously calls an “Apeman”. Apparently we humans are unevolved, bestial creatures compared to the Sagemen, who lived in a vegetarian, egalitarian, state of perfection all those thousands of years ago.
Arletta uses her psychic powers to review the current state of the world, projecting what she sees into Convert's mind at the same time. Everywhere she finds inequity and violence, savagery and exploitation, man ranged against man and nature. “Selfishness”, she tells Convert: “is the root of all evil; eradicate selfishness from all human beings and the earth will be heaven”
Anyone seeking narrative incident in this book will be getting rather impatient as Arletta spends the next ten or so chapters lecturing Convert on how the world may be set to rights. The gist of the message is a communist one, Utopia being realised when everyone works for the state and receives an equal share of national wealth. (Lawson would later take a less anti-capitalist stance with his Direct Credits scheme). By following this course, and also giving up meat, we Apemen will eventually evolve as did the Sagemen, and become eight feet tall, psychic, and - in words which must surely have been read by the creators of Superman:
... jump over the highest building there is in the world today, or run faster than any of your steam locomotives ...
The Sagemen were also so refined they were able to live by inhaling smells, with a logical consequence, revealed by Lawson in an unintentionally comic passage:
As Arletta smiled, her beautiful lips parted and for the first time I noticed, much to my surprise, that she had no teeth. A woman of our own kind without teeth generally presents a rather dilapidated appearance, but here was a woman that I thought actually looked more lovely without them.
Arletta also explains that the souls of all creatures are eternal, and pass from body to body through reincarnation. Convert, it turns out, was once Arletta's husband, the leader of the Sixth National Band of Sageland, composer of that beautiful piece “The Soul's Retrospection”. Convert is very moved by this revelation, and - though Arletta is not attracted to his current incarnation's over-six-foot-tall body, finding it a bit weedy - wants to stay with her. But she won't have it: Convert must go back into the world of the Apemen and preach the philosphy of Sageland while she stays behind, for soon she must die, being past her due date by four thousand years. Reluctantly he agrees and makes his way back to the surface, where not long afterwards he is rescued by a passing ship, at which point he faints.
Convert wakes up in a hospital in New York. His situation is strange: when he left the island he was a young man but now he is in his forties. He is being treated for a fever, but as he has no money he is not being treated very well. Apparently in his delerium he has been crying out for “Arletta” and making a nuisance of himself with every woman that comes near. Hoping to find the Arletta he is shouting after, the doctors bring a woman of that name to see him. Somehow he recognises in her the soul of the other Arletta reincarnated (even though she has her teeth).
The new Arletta is also rather confused by Convert. Apparently she had met him not long before, during the lost time that he does not remember. They were both on a voyage by ship; Convert took a shine to her and pestered her constantly in an unpleasant manner. Despite her previous antipathy, when she heard he was sick she took pity on him and decided to visit him in the hospital. Now she finds he is like a different man, one towards whom she is drawn.
She likes this new John Convert so much she pays for him to have a private room at the hospital, and when he is better she also funds a suite at the “Waldoria Hotel”, an extremely opulent establishment. But, while living in extreme comfort at the hotel, Convert's conscience is stirred when he reads in the newspaper reports like this:
“Buffalo, N.Y.: A case brought up in court here today shows to what extent the extortionate loan sharks will go in their greed for money. It was proved that two years ago O. U. Curr loaned Mrs. Kate Poor, a washer-woman with three small children, the sum of fifty dollars on household furniture. A contract was entered into, whereby the widow was to pay interest at the rate of twenty per cent. per month until the principal had been paid. Mrs. Poor stated under oath that she has already paid Curr, in monthly installments, over three hundred dollars and that she is still indebted to him for the original loan of fifty dollars.”
(Notice how, by a clever choice of names, Lawson subtly leads us to the right conclusions about the case.) This and many similar stories persuade Convert that he should seek employment rather than be a mere parasite. He finds work as a street sweeper, which causes him to be shunned by the other residents of the hotel. Meanwhile he meets Arletta from time to time, but she will only agree to see him in Central Park; he is not allowed to know where or how she lives.
Something of Arletta's secret is seemingly revealed when by chance he comes upon her, wretchedly drunk in the street, about to be arrested by a policeman. Convert resucues her, promising to take her safely home. When he reaches “Seraglio Apartments”, where she lives, she offers herself to him, puzzlingly calling him “Jack”. Convert is understandably tempted, but remembering the words of the first Arletta, does not yield.
Now Convert finally sets about his real work: preaching the philosophy of Sageland, or “Natural Law”, as he calls it, to the masses. He has some success in attracting crowds to hear him, but sadly Arletta vehemently disagrees with the idea of Natural Law. She insists that some are born to superiority over others and will hear no talk of equality for all, going so far as to vow to leave New York if he continues to preach Natural Law. Convert stands firm, and Arletta boards a ship for Europe.
After seeing Arletta's ship sail away, Convert again falls into a faint. On awakening he hears a newspaper boy calling out the latest story: a terrible murder. He buys a paper and reads with horror how the murdered corpse of Arletta Fogg has been found at Seraglio Apartments. He races to the apartment and finds it full of detectives. Despite their presence he makes his way to the body: it is Arletta, whom he thought away at sea. How can this be?
Matters take an even worse turn, as Convert is arrested for the murder, and sentenced to death by electrocution. At this point the narrative switches from a first person acount by Convert, to the third person form of newspaper reporting.
Just at the moment of Convert's execution, there is an unexpected interruption. Arletta! She has evidence that they have got the wrong man! But it is too late: Convert has been killed.
The truth is revealed: it was all a terrible mistake. She, Arletta Wright, is the daughter of a multi-millionaire. The other Arletta was just some drunken adventuress who happened to be her double. The murderer was John Convert's cousin, Edward Convert, who was also his double, and had been masquerading as John (and letting himself be called “Jack”) in the pursuit of an inheritance. It was Edward who'd been the shipboard pest, and he who had knifed Arletta Fogg - mistakenly believing she was Arletta Wright - in a fit of jealousy.
What bad luck! But Convert did not die in vain, as the final paragraph of the novel makes clear:
After a fit of sobbing, Arletta Wright quieted herself long enough to say: “Telegraph the news to all parts of the civilized world that the State of New York has just murdered the noblest mortal of which history has ever made mention. Tell the inhabitants that through his teachings a new dispensation has sprung into existence and that Sagemanism is born again. Publicly announce my firm belief in the beautiful principles of Natural Law, and say that henceforth I renounce all further allegiance to a financial civilization which permits the strong to victimize the weak, and upholds a corrupt and unnatural system, which allows schemers, thieves, gamblers, sneaks, loafers, spongers, and all other kinds of human parasites to grow fat off the labors of those whp toil. Say that I shall take up the work where John Convert left off and devote the remainder of my life and all of my wealth towards the cause he advocated.”
Lawson was proud of Born Again, and kept it in print throughout his life. I doubt that anyone who reads it will ever forget it: it is quite singularly bad, with long undigestible rants against the evils of the world, an impossibly idealistic Utopian prescription for the said evils, and - as you will have gathered - a very silly plot.
More about Alfred Lawson
I hope to add reviews of some of Lawson's other books to the site at some future date. While you wait anxiously for that moment, there are a number of websites which have material about him, including these:
- Lawson's Progress is a well-researched and sceptical look at Lawson's life and works.
- Lawsonomy.org, on the other hand, seems to have been assembled by a devotee of Lawson's nonsense. It does carry the text of several of his books, including the first twenty chapters of Born Again (that part summarised under “Arletta One” above on this page).
- A page about Lawson the aircraft man.