John Bennett and The Doctor to the Dead
Biography of John Bennett (1865-1956) who collected African-American folktales for his book “The Doctor to the Dead.”
Perhaps one of the best known versions of our story “I Don’t Feel Dead Yet!” can be found in the book The Doctor to the Dead by John Bennett (1865-1956). Like Georgia’s Joel Chandler Harris, Bennett had a keen interest in African-American folklore, and set out to collect the stories he heard from black storytellers while living in Charleston, South Carolina.
Bennett was born in Chillicothe, Ohio one month after the end of the Civil War. He had ambitions to be an artist, and took several jobs over the years to help finance his dream, including taxidermy, traveling with a band, and writing. Journalism was his most successful endeavor, as he found consistent work writing stories for newspapers and magazines.
While writing for St. Nicholas Magazine in 1891, Bennett contributed a series of children’s stories known as Master Skylark.. These stories were later published in book form, which became a huge success. This enabled Bennett to move to New York City to study drawing, although he kept writing to pay the bills. Before he could finish his second novel, however, he suffered gas poisoning in the New York rooming house he lived in. His doctor advised him to leave the city and recuperate down South in Charleston, South Carolina.
Although he was a stately Northerner with Union sentiments, Bennett found acceptance within the literary circles in Charleston. He would eventually become one of the true forces behind the Charleston Literary Renaissance, helping form the Poetry Society of South Carolina and serving as curator of the South Carolina Historical Society. He also became a mentor to future successful Southern writers like DuBose Heyward.
While living in Charleston, Bennett became fascinated with the alternately grotesque and poignant ghost stories that he heard from Charleston’s black population. Many black people in Charleston at the turn of the century were servants and unskilled laborers who retained the superstitions and folk thought of slavery times. At dusk, sitting on the front porch of a black storyteller’s home, Bennett would watch with fascination as, under the glow of a lit pipe, the teller would, without any flowery preamble, ease into his spooky tale: “Now le’s we talk about one time…”
It wasn’t just the dark and fantastical elements of these ghost stories that attracted Bennett – it was the honesty with which they dealt with death. In these stories, death, loss and loneliness were realities of life, and were dealt with by the characters with grace, understanding and, occasionally, good humor. Bennett soon considered the oral storytelling tradition of the coastal black population to be the true heart and soul of South Carolina’s literary tradition.
To the rest of Charleston, however, these stories passed by unnoticed. Bennett was concerned that the few remaining pieces of these Gullah tales would quickly die away, and he set out to do something about it.
For over three decades, Bennett collected the bits and pieces of these stories, even going as far as trying to write them in the original Gullah dialect to help preserve the language. But he soon realized that a larger audience would have a hard time digesting this “alien” dialect – so, in the completed work, he translated all but three of the stories. In doing so, he readily admitted that the quality of the original tale was lost in the translation to “academic English.”
The completed work, The Doctor to the Dead, was finally published in 1946. In stories like “The Thirsty Dead,” “The Measure of Grief” and “When the Dead Sang in Their Graves,” Bennett, with the help of his storytellers, captures the elements of pathos and beauty which not only characterize the figures in the stories, but the essence of the American South itself.
The story that comes closest to resembling “I Don’t Feel Dead Yet!” is entitled “Daid Aaron II,” and was told to Bennett by two storytellers named Epsie Meggett and Sarah Rutledge. In this story and an alternate version, “Daid Aaron 1,” Bennett attempts to write in modified Gullah dialect.
Listen to a narration of “The Doctor to the Dead” by Ian Gordon of HorrorBabble:
Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina. From the book “Two Scholarly Friends,” (c)1993 University of South Carolina, published by University of South Carolina Press.
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