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the story behind the book

Jeffery Renard Allen detects alternate history of slave’s genius

david wilson for the boston globe

Jeffery Renard Allen met Blind Tom Wiggins in the pages of a book: The pianist, born into slavery and eventually one of the 19th century’s most famous musicians, appears in Oliver Sacks’s “An Anthropologist on Mars” as an autistic savant.

In Allen’s spellbinding new book, “Song of the Shank,” Blind Tom, as he was popularly known, is a more complicated, sympathetic character. For one thing, Allen says, it’s not clear he was merely a savant, a mechanical virtuoso with no real creativity. His manager (and former owner) pushed the idea of Blind Tom’s untrained, freakish ability “to sell concert tickets,” Allen said in an interview, partly because “for people to acknowledge that a slave could have genuine talent” would subvert the ideology upon which slavery rested.

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No recordings of Blind Tom’s music survive. But he did pen about 500 compositions, Allen points out, “which isn’t something we usually attribute to savants.” Blind Tom’s career raises rich questions about race and slavery, talent and difference, fame and obscurity. “Tom had a fascinating life,” Allen said, “as well as a tragic life of exploitation.”

Still, his first attempt at writing about Blind Tom — kind of “a novelized biography of his life” — left Allen dissatisfied. He decided instead to build up an entire fictional world around the musician. “One of the things that’s most interesting about Tom to me is the idea of multiplicity,” Allen says, noting that one of his famous acts included playing three different songs at the same time. “I began to think about how I could have multiple narratives.”

The result is an aesthetically inventive novel that remains rooted in some of America’s deepest historical pain (“I would be the first to admit that I come from the family of Faulkner,” Allen says).

“I wouldn’t describe it as a historical novel, but it’s kind of a historical alternative,” Allen says. “I took certain facts, and I exaggerated them in certain directions.”

Allen reads at 7 p.m. Monday at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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