On The Trail of the Black Russian
A journey into the heart of the Delta helped a Yale professor unlock the key to an enigmatic figure from the past.
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Looking back on his 2008 trip, Alexandrov says his personal experiences went hand in hand with actual document-based research, and proved vital when it came time to sit down and write. “Without Clarksdale I would have had nothing on the early years except for very abstract references to former slaves,” Alexandrov says, referring to Thomas’ parents. “And I wasn’t going to an archive where I was looking at documents that had been produced thousands of miles away. I was looking at documents effectively where they had been produced. And then when I was driving around, I would see on the mailboxes the surnames of some of the people I saw in the documents, from a century before. That history is alive in so many ways and for someone like me who is interested in the continuity of history, that’s another thing that is appealing about the South. People there live it.”
Following his trip to Memphis and Clarksdale, Alexandrov would complete the final leg of his research in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). It was here, he had pieced together, in this exotic land far removed from rural Mississippi, where Thomas spent the last decade of his life before dying in a hospital there, probably of pneumonia in 1928, after serving time in prison for unpaid debts. He was only 56, but had certainly lived a full life.
Back in New Haven at his writing desk, Alexandrov began to craft the text of his first-ever popular-history. Despite being an experienced author of academic prose (works with titles like Plurality of Interpretation and Nabokov’s Lolita and Limits to Interpretation: The Meaning of Anna Karenina), the process of writing for a general commercial audience was new to the Yale professor.
“It was a real tough climb,” he says, acknowledging there were times when he wondered if he could pull it off. Eventually, of course, he did; since its publication last month, The Black Russian has earned praise from a wide range of critics. As for what comes next, Alexandrov says he’s “been converted” to general-interest nonfiction and already has a number of future book ideas in mind. Whatever it ends up being, however, he doesn’t plan on repeating the globe-trotting, detective-like research it took to uncover the Frederick Thomas mystery.
“The next book is going to be based on something with a lot more information,” says Alexandrov with a smile. Here he pauses, seeming to consider how to continue. “Anyway, I’ll never find another Frederick Bruce Thomas.”
Andy Ross is a Mississippi native currently living in New York City. His nonfiction and journalism have appeared in The Daily Beast, Fringe, Texas Highways, Texas Live, Mississippi Sports Magazine and various newspapers. His latest story for Memphis magazine appeared in the September 2009 issue.