I am sure we all enjoyed our charming Arctic Char last night at dinner, and now we are enjoying an equally charming Arctic Chair. I use the word “enjoy” in two distinct senses, precluding, of course, the obsolete third. (Laughter.)
But let me be serious. I wish, as the title of my little chat implies, to consider some of the problems associated with the soi-disant manuscript which is well known to all of you by now, and which goes by the title of The Handmaid’s Tale. I say soi-disant because what we have before us is not the item in its original form. Strictly speaking, it was not a manuscript at all when first discovered, and bore no title. The superscription “The Handmaid’s Tale” was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer; but those of you who know Professor Wade informally, as I do, will understand when I say that I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. (Laughter, applause.)
This item – I hesitate to use the word document – was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what, at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the State of Maine. We know that this city was a prominent way-station on what our author refers to as “The Underground Femaleroad,” since dubbed by some of our historical wags “The Underground Frailroad.” (Laughter, groans.) For this reason, our Association has taken a particular interest in it.
The item in its pristine state consisted of a metal foot-locker, U.S. Army issue, circa perhaps 1955. This fact of itself need have no significance, as it is known that such foot-lockers were frequently sold as “army surplus” and must therefore have been widespread. Within this foot-locker, which was sealed with tape of the kind once used on packages to be sent by post, were approximately thirty tape cassettes, of the type that became obsolete sometime in the eighties or nineties with the advent of the compact disc.
I remind you that this was not the first such discovery. You are doubtless familiar, for instance, with the item known as “The A.B. Memoirs,” located in a garage in a suburb of Seattle, and with “The Diary of P.,” excavated by accident during the erection of a new meeting house in the vicinity of what was once Syracuse, New York.
Professor Wade and I were very excited by this new discovery. Luckily we had, several years before, with the aid of our excellent resident antiquarian technician, reconstructed a machine capable of playing such tapes, and we immediately set about the painstaking work of transcription.
There were some thirty tapes in the collection altogether, with varying proportions of music to spoken word. In general, each tape begins with two or three songs, as camouflage no doubt: then the music is broken off and the speaking voice takes over. The voice is a woman’s and, according to our voice-print experts, the same one throughout. The labels on the cassettes were authentic period labels, dating, of course, from some time before the inception of the Early Gilead era, as all such secular music was banned under the regime. There were, for instance, four tapes entitled “Elvis Presley’s Golden
Years,” three of “Folk Songs of Lithuania,” three of “Boy George Takes It Off,” and two of “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings,” as well as some titles that sported a mere single tape each: “Twisted Sister at Carnegie Hall” is one of which I am particularly fond.
Although the labels were authentic, they were not always appended to the tape with the corresponding songs. In addition, the tapes were arranged in no particular order, being loose at the bottom of the box; nor were they numbered. Thus it was up to Professor Wade and myself to arrange the blocks of speech in the order in which they appeared to go; but, as I have said elsewhere, all such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate, pending further research.
Once we had the transcription in hand – and we had to go over it several times, owing to the difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, and archaisms – we had to make some decision as to the nature of the material we had thus so laboriously acquired. Several possibilities confronted us. First, the tapes might be a forgery. As you know, there have been several instances of such forgeries, for which publishers have paid large sums, wishing to trade no doubt on the sensationalism of such stories. It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.