FALL 2011




Solidus Online

Michael Jauchen


The journey [to Washington] was uneventful, but after leaving Baltimore, the travelers, who
had not been provided with a proper escort, lost their way in the wilderness…
—Gilbert Chinard, Honest John Adams

A preliminary note to teachers: The catechism should be memorized by all public school children before graduation to the sixth grade. Weekly recitation exercises, beginning in the fourth grade, are strongly encouraged. While most students will no doubt find the process natural and easy, you should expect to encounter students whose primary learning skill sets are not geared toward memorization. These students, more than likely, will try to “act out” against the assignment by using various resistance strategies: verbal refusals, classroom distractions, faked illnesses, etc. In these cases, it is never a good idea to resort to forced, rote memorization. Instead, the teacher should try his/her best to foster a classroom atmosphere which emphasizes the value (and fun!) of a shared, national memory. If the teacher can accomplish this, students will not look at the Inaugural Catechism as simply another example of “busy work” that normally fills up their September to May days. Instead, it will become a thrilling opportunity to interact with one of the many episodes from American history that are brimming with adventure and national significance.

Where did our heroic Presidential family go wrong?
There was a right turn and they went left. There was a left turn and they went right. They confused the directions of north and south and they continued going forward when they should have turned back. Imagine the labyrinth that housed the great Minotaur; so many chances to go astray and so few to find one’s way back.

But wasn’t the Presidential family previously given detailed directions to the inaugural proceedings in writing?
Certainly. Mr. John Adams was soon to be in charge of a hungry, infant country, a serious prospect, full of hope and gravity. In their hearts, all Americans wished for him a safe and smooth passage.

But then how could those written directions fail? How could they lead our Presidential family astray? President-elects are usually sharp-witted! They’re usually so well-grounded when given a task! They usually understand the importance of following orders!
True, but lines of communication can be tenuous and fickle. If not properly cared for they can tremble and snap. For instance, those written instructions, before John Adams received them, regrettably chanced upon a distraught, drunken courier, a man racked with sadness by his son’s recent death from the whooping cough. As he stumbled along his mail route from Boston to Braintree, he felt his chest aching with a new kind of emptiness. When a rainstorm blew up, he passed out in its midst, clutching his satchel like a blind child. That night the postman soaked all the way through, with dreams filled with his little boy’s staccato laugh pierced through by his last bestial clutches of breath.

Well, so what happened with the written directions?!?
When, finally, the next morning, John Adams received them, they were all wet, a muddle of ink, impossible to decode.

In the face of such thickheaded customer service, what was our President’s family to do?
As head of the household, John Adams decided to go to Washington anyway. In his hand he held worthless, illegible directions, but in his mind he could already see the budding capital—brave, brick Washington glowing in the dusk light—and he thought the city could not, in the end, be that difficult to find. Together the family would simply drive south, hugging the coast, until they hit the first big buildings sprouting up south of Baltimore.

And what Shakespearean quote, which John Adams had read three days previous, slipped his mind entirely as he announced this new plan to his family?
“In cases of defence ‘tis best to weigh / The enemy more mighty than he seems,” Henry V.

Who then piled in to the family carriage?
Mr. John Adams, age 61, father, husband, cherished president-elect, a man blunt and sure-spoken in spite of his lisp. A wife, Mrs. Abigail, age 52, née Smith, a woman who kept her bright genius hidden away. A son, John Quincy, age 29, soon to depart as American envoy to the dark Prussian realms, dizzyingly gifted, but all too aware of it. A son, Charles Francis, age 25, worthless; he would die in three years as an undone alcoholic. And a son, Thomas Boylston, age 23, always his mother’s child, blonde, anemic, hindered throughout his life by irritable bowels.

And packed in their hearts?
Packed in their hearts were the thoughts of two daughters: Abigail Smith, wife to a colonel and living in London, and little Susanna, fourth-born and delicate, recently deceased in her infancy.

How was the trip down?
It had the normal bumps of any family vacation, but for the most part, it went off like a song. Thomas played alphabet games with his mother. John Quincy tried to read, but the roads were too rough, and he passed the time staring out at the land in silence, imagining a regiment of Bavarians standing tight in the mud. John Adams had to marvel twice at the good time he was making. He heaved a great sigh of relief passing Chesapeake Bay for he knew the capital would not be far now!

And then?
Well, then things got tricky fast. With the capital, their new home, so close within reach, the woods suddenly swallowed the Adamses up. They took numerous side roads that took them in circles. The trees became foreign, gnarled, almost outside of time. Supposed road marks were no longer distinguishable. The horses spooked. Opacity ruled. The Presidential family was incontestably lost.

To an outside observer, how would the physical scenery be described?
A quiet Southern road lined by quiet trees: Shagbark Hickory, Eastern Redbud, and White. There was the faint smell of water and lengthening shadows. In a soft gentle wave, the blue sky turned black as the moon rose. It was the slow decrescendo that marks every evening. The bedding down of the world, tucked in by the air.

And the concurrent psychical state of those stranded within it?
Naturally, it was one of great clutching and fear. Little Thomas clung shivering to Abigail’s breast while Charles snuck quick sips of gin. Abigail read aloud from the twenty-fifth Psalm by the pale, wispy light of the moon. A foolish John Quincy thought he might strike out alone, knight-like and cocksure, to find help for the family and perhaps, along the way, the hand of some Maryland farmer’s fair-haired daughter.

And President-elect John Adams? How was he feeling?
Beaten and responsible, late for his presidency, and lost with his kin. He suffered under the double burden of leading a nation and one’s own family and miserably failing at both.

Did our tardy president-elect have a strategy for success?
Admittedly, not a specific one. Not at the moment, no.

How was his dilemma made even worse?
At that very moment, John Adams remembered the Shakespeare he’d forgotten before.

Oh, Memory can be such a screwy mistress! Well, did our tardy president-elect at least have a strategy to come up with a strategy for success?
Yes. First, to curse, which he did. Second, to think. As the night got even darker, as his family’s resilience thinned even more, John Adams slowed both the horses and his own nervous breathing.

When John Adams closed his eyes and saw the columned options in his mind of possible actions for his family, what did he see?

The Easy, but Undoable The Truly Heroic and Most
Founding Father-like
Probably the Most Rational Compromise


Spending the night in prayer.

Resigning the Presidency.

Rending and Weeping.

Waiting for day, returning to his Braintree law office.

Growing old inaudibly.

Sprouting white wings to find help through the air.

Calling forest beasts to his side with a blustering conch honk.

Felling trees with his bare hands to clear a new path to Washington.

Conceiving right there with Abigail a new son born into adversity who could someday lead this great country through a future dark time.
A plan similar in scope to that of John Quincy, but without the fawning farm daughters with fair hair.

And John Adams’s final decision?
As the irascible, lovable French have it, “Comme fils sot, comme père!” He disembarked from the carriage and designated the family oversight to a blue-balled John Quincy. He hugged his wife and kissed his sons. He said to them calmly, “I have conthidered my optionth with utmoth vigilanth. I athk for your pathienthe and prayerth as I go therch for help. Do not, my thweet family, thorrow or fret, for I thall return thortly.”

And how did our knight then arm himself?
With a rickety ashplant, a fistful of chestnuts, a tiny lantern, and a silent prayer.

Oh no! But families splitting up can end so badly! To think of John Adams walking away from his wife and children. To think of him looking over his shoulder, back at his carriage, his family jailed on it, now quickly vanishing into the dark!
Will you relax? It was not very long before John Adams heard human voices and smelled the faint smell of smoke.

Voices! Smoke! But from where?
From deep in the forest, on the opposite side of a thick wall of trees.

And what did John Adams do?
He charged through the brush with fury and abandon. He dropped his chestnuts and almost lost his lantern. Twice a small branch gave him a lash across the eye. The speaking voices grew louder and John Adams pushed on. He thought again of Abigail and his three dear sons behind him. He thought of his country and the many complex tasks ahead. When he stumbled through to a clearing he saw a haystack-sized fire, circled by a town’s worth of people. At the sound of his approach, their voices ceased. All the faces turned to look at the intruder.

How did John Adams react to such a sight?
He was shocked at the size and quality of the people gathered there. By the fire’s light, he could see at least one hundred pairs of menacing eyes staring right back at him. He wanted to ask for directions, but he stumbled in his speech. He thought of retreating, but his legs were frozen to the ground.

And who made up the ranks of the thrumming collective circled there?
There were unbowing lepers and derelicts, a married pair of shuddering epileptics, numerous seducing mustachioed rakes, Thomas Morton, Boss Tweed, some sobbing woman on crutches, Fatty Arbuckle, Shoeless Joe Jackson, General William Tecumseh Sherman, lupus ridden cockfighters, a smiling black mammy, hinky ticket takers and shifty carnies, the blasted Irish, a lone drunk sucking on a long wooden spoon, my father, Jack Ruby, two men lost to the world in an intimate kiss, Geronimo, Ezra Pound, sea serpents and other natural abortions, Calamity Jane, Joseph Smith, a west side gang of bandannaed Dominicans armed with knives, Henry Darger and the Vivian girls, Simon Legree, John Smith, Billy the Kid, Ty Cobb, all the obese and blasphemous, my mongoloid brother flipping through the pages of a large family Bible, masturbating old men and boys with club feet, those wounded from polio, and little Susanna Adams, dressed in her death shroud, leading an army miscarrieds and the stillborn.

And how can you speak of such visions? From whence is your authority derived?
I was there too, a slight, little boy perched on the branch of a tree.

What then did you see?
I saw my brother soothing John Adams by holding his hand. I saw my father kissing John Adams’s bald, sweaty head.

And the end result of such smooching?
As with most kisses, the outcome was markedly double-edged. On the one hand, the kiss soothed our frightened President-elect. It gave him confidence he could lead his family out of the forest. On the other hand, it worried him. He looked at the people and considered their suffering. He thought he would be feeling that kiss on his head for the rest of his life. Naturally this was something that was not so appealing.

And did John Adams remember that kiss?
Surprisingly, no. He often honestly tried, but the kiss more often honestly eluded him, slipping the corners at the periphery of his mind.

How would you describe the family’s escape from the forest’s thorny bowels?
Uneventful. Anti-climactic. John Adams returned to the carriage and found a new road which led the Adams’s straight into Washington D. C. On the steps of the capital, he put his hand on a Bible and repeated an oath. As the paint dried on the walls of the White House, Abigail set about doing the laundry, singing to Thomas while she worked. Across town, John Quincy purchased a new trunk and admired its monogram. Charles wept while he peed on the side of a whorehouse.

And meanwhile?
Meanwhile, in houses throughout our American cities, families sighed with relief and sat down to their dinners. Gatherings persisted in various woods. From the top of a tree, I called out to my father. He smiled up to me as I blew him a kiss. And somewhere in the territory of thawing Ohio, a man dropped a seed in a hole in the ground and told all the people who had gathered there, “If’n this little appleseed won’t fall into the ground, it abides alone: but if this appleseed is willin’ to die, the fruit it’ll bring forth will feed to fullness even your children’s children!” When the people looked at the man blankly, he ambled away, humming a tune, with that black hokey saucepan dancing round on his head.


I’ve also always been fascinated by the physicality of texts.
A conversation with Michael Jauchen
Ewa Chrusciel

What inspired you to write: OUR HISTORY’S A HISTORY OF PRESIDENTS: #2, INAUGURAL CATECHISM? Why the second president of the US, John Adams, and not the third or 5th?

A while ago, I wanted to write a short, apocryphal history for every U. S. President. By chance, at the same time, a photographer friend of mine was working on a series of presidential portraits and we thought it would be cool to put together a book that would be a new type of presidential history, one that exaggerated real stories from presidential biographies or, better yet, made those stories up altogether. We figured that when it comes to national memory, it’s the narratives that are told about historical figures that truly matter, not necessarily the historical accuracy of those narratives.
I wrote this one about John Adams because I remembered hearing once that he got lost in the woods on the way to his inauguration. The vulnerability in that story really appealed to me so I ran with it.
So far, I’ve written histories like this for four presidents (Adams, George W. Bush, Lincoln, and Truman). If I get my act together, I’ll get to all of them eventually. We’ll see.

Your writing is a hybrid form. Is your writing a palimpsest? A conversation?

I think all writing converses with other writing, so in that sense, I definitely think the stories I write are talking to other stories I’ve read. With my stories, I try to talk to Beckett, Kafka, Barthelme, and countless others. The form of the catechism in this particular story shows me trying to talk to James Joyce in a small way. I’m not sure how intelligent my conversations are with these great authors. Perhaps my catechism sounds more like the coos and blurps of a newborn when it’s placed next to the awesomeness of “Ithaca” in Ulysses, but to me it’s the trying to talk to Joycethat matters.
I’ve also always been fascinated by the physicality of texts. I love looking at books lined up on shelves, for example, and I love stories that point out their fundamental artifice or that play with form. In “Inaugural Catechism,” I try to play a little bit with the form of the catechism and the public school lesson. My hope is that my reader will pick up on these things and experience a type of delight from recognizing the formal elements at work.

What voices are implicated in your poetics?

Dunno. I try my best to steer clear of implicating anyone.

Does teaching inform your writing and vice versa?

One of the best things about teaching literature is it forces me to be a close reader of texts. If I hope to speak to a class about Nabokov or Brautigan or Angela Carter, I have to know their work extremely well. By reading authors closely, and by working to find ways to articulate how their narratives work, I really delve into the nitty gritty details of their narratives, and I think that helps me come to a better understanding of the mechanics of my own process.

What was the first spur for your writing?

I’ve always loved to play with language—puns, jokes, nice turns of phrase. My love of stories grew out of that. I think it’s also my love of language that explains why I’m not so good at the macro-level stuff of fiction—plot, for example. I think I can write a pretty good sentence, but often it’s hard for me to turn those sentences into something larger. Maybe I should have been a poet.

When you have a writing block, how do you unblock yourself?

I sit down and write, knowing that most of it probably won’t be any good but that maybe, maybe, after a few hours, I’ll come up with a good sentence or phrase. Writing for me has very little to do with inspiration. Anything I’ve written that’s any good has come from simple hard work.


Mike Jauchen teaches in the Humanities Department at Colby-Sawyer College. His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in various journals including Santa Monica Review, DIAGRAM, Night Train, and KNOCK.