Monday, January 26, 2015

Ted Kennedy, Chappquiddick, and Joyce Carol Oates' novel Black Water (1992)

Ted Kennedy, around 1970.

The only picture of Mary Jo Kopechne I've ever seen.

Cover of Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates, 1992.
The Presidential aspirations of Ted Kennedy ended during the night of July 18-19, 1969, when Kennedy’s Oldsmobile went off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, just off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy was able to get out of the car, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the upside down car. Kennedy did not report the accident to the police until the next morning, after the police had towed his car out of the water and found Kopechne’s body. The accident at Chappaquiddick would forever cast a pall over Ted Kennedy’s legacy.

Joyce Carol Oates published Black Water, a short novel based on the events of Chappaquiddick, in 1992. Black Water tells the story of Kelly Kelleher, an idealistic young woman who meets The Senator, as he is always referred to in the novel, at a party on an island off the coast of Maine on July 4, 1991. Kelly and The Senator start talking, hit it off, and leave the party together. On their drive to the ferry, The Senator is driving too fast, misses a turn, and his car lands in murky black water. The Senator escapes the car, but Kelly is unable to, and drowns. Black Water is told from Kelly’s perspective, and the book flashes back in time as Kelly slowly drowns, thinking that The Senator will come back to rescue her.

Black Water is written impressionistically, almost like a poem, as various lines repeat again and again in the short chapters. The novel gives a voice to the voiceless, as we observe the thoughts of this doomed young woman. It’s quite a good book, and it inevitably makes one think more about Mary Jo Kopechne. Who was this young woman who died so tragically? A great deal of mystery still surrounds the events of Chappaquiddick, and there’s very little information to be found about Mary Jo Kopechne. I’m a collector of books about the Kennedys, and I’ve only ever seen one photo of Kopechne. It’s the same 1962 college graduation photo that was on front pages the day after she died. Didn’t anyone take a photo of her during the next seven years?

Oates does little in Black Water to distinguish The Senator from Ted Kennedy. The Senator is meant to be a portrait of Ted Kennedy in 1991, so instead of the dashing young man Kennedy was at the time of Chappaquiddick in 1969, The Senator is in his mid-50’s, and is a bit disillusioned with politics. As he tells Kelly, “It makes me angry sometimes, it’s a visceral thing-how you come to despise your own words in your ears not because they aren’t genuine, but because they are; because you’ve said them so many times, your ‘principals,’ your ‘ideals’-and so damned little in the world has changed because of them.” (p.139-40) The physical descriptions of The Senator are clearly applicable to Kennedy: “That dimpled grin, the big chunky white teeth,” with eyes “the blue of washed glass.” (p.20) “And his broad handsome-battered face, the eyes so transparently blue, the nose just slightly venous but a straight nose, lapidary, like the jaws, the chin, the familiar profile.” (p.39) 

In a 1992 interview with The New York Times, Oates said of the book, “I wanted the story to be somewhat mythical, the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.” If Oates wanted Black Water to be mythical, then why did she stick so closely to the events of Chappaquiddick? Why not create a different, fictional scenario? If Oates’ interpretation of Chappaquiddick is that it was about a younger woman and an older man, I would disagree. Kennedy was only 8 years older than Kopechne, and Chappaquiddick was less about a man taking advantage of a woman than it was simply a terrible, tragic accident. Ted Kennedy certainly didn’t mean to drive off that bridge. 

Black Water is a fascinating book, and a quick read at 150 pages. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident.

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