June 26, 2013

Hale: My double has undone me

Edward Everett Hale had learned several things in more than thirty years since the initial publication of his novella My Double and How He Undid Me. In the preface to a new edition dated June 26, 1892, Hale wrote that some believed it was based on a true story, that others thought it improbable, and that he himself lived long enough to see portions of it come true — something he would not have predicated when he first wrote it: "I was too young to know how universal, in this America of ours, is the danger which it attempts to satirize." Moreover, many had asked him what moral the tale offered but he allowed the work to stand for itself ("And indeed, as we know only too well," Hale wrote in this preface, "there is now a large class of critics who think there should be no morals in stories, as indeed they seem to think there should be none anywhere else").

My Double and How He Undid Me certainly has a moral: the narrator presents the story as a personal account and admits on the first page his motivation: "I may teach a lesson to future publics, from which they may profit, though we die." The narrator is a minister (like Hale) who serves a young, active congregation in Maine. He learns right away that his role includes duties outside his job description, requiring him to function as a public servant. He cared little for such secondary duties and, on vacation one day, he sees a way to escape them: a poor man who looked and behaved nearly exactly the same (right down to a scar on his face). His name was Dennis Shea, but the narrator convinces him to change his name to Frederic Ingham (matching the narrator's name) and work for him for five years.

With a trim of the beard and some new clothes, all Frederic Ingham needs to do to match Frederic Ingham is learn four short phrases, including: "Very well, thank you. And you?" and "A am very glad you liked it." The new Frederic Ingham first is sent to vote at a boring meeting of religious leaders. He similarly is sent to long dinners, stockholders' meetings, and operas where the minister's presence is demanded. Ingham even sends Ingham to vote in town elections on his behalf — and is surprised to learn the Frederic Ingham has been elected to the legislature. Seeing how easily and quietly his double served in his stead in all these roles, Ingham begins to wonder why other public figures don't also hire a double (and, indeed, wonders if some already have). Able to spend more time on personal studies, on sermons, and on building relationships with his parishioners, he becomes a very successful and personally fulfilled minister.

The plan, however, is ultimately undone. Ingham sends his double to a public meeting where the governor is expected to speak. His double was meant to sit on the platform and say nothing at all but, when the governor does not appear in time, he is called to the podium and quickly exhausts his four prepared speeches. Confused, he resorts to his Irish brogue and challenges audience members to a fistfight.

The universal impression, of course, was that the Rev. Frederic Ingham had lost all command of himself in some of those haunts of intoxication which for fifteen years I have been laboring to destroy. Till this moment, indeed, that is the impression in Naguadavick. This little confession will relieve from it a hundred friends of mine who have been sadly wounded by that notion now for years; but I shall not be likely ever to show my head there again.
No! My double has undone me.

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