Fiction Fights the Civil War: Recent Books Dealing With Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction

Pat Young

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Muster!, the blog of the Journal of the Civil War Era, has a new series on recent works of fiction dealing with slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. There seem to be more novels on the Civil War Era out in the last several years than at almost any time in the past.

Here is a link to the overview of what Muster! is calling a Roundtable on the subject:

https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2018/10/fiction-fights-the-civil-war/
 

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Sarah Gardner wrote the opening essay for the Roundtable. Here are excerpts from her introductory post:

Interest in how the war is represented in popular literature remains unabated because the legacies of slavery and the war endure... Who determines the meaning of those legacies in large measure informs our current political moment. And though that might be true of any period in the last 150 years, it seems especially so now...

Urgency does not lessen the difficulty of dislodging dominant narratives, however. “Deeply embedded in American mythology of mission, and serving as the mother lode of nostalgia for antimodernists and military history buffs,” David Blight explained, the Civil War remains very difficult to shuck from its shell of sentimentalism. “Over time,” he continued, “Americans have needed deflections from the deeper meanings of the Civil War. It haunts us still, we feel it […] but often do not face it.”[1] The politics of memory is a tricky business, as Blight and others have demonstrated. This roundtable looks at recent works that stare into the belly of the beast, that seek to reimagine what the war might mean.
 

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Clinton begins by discussing the reaction to the author's first novel, Cold Mountain:

The cover of Charles Frazier’s Varina: A Novel identifies its author as the “bestselling author of Cold Mountain.” When Cold Mountain, his first Civil War novel, appeared in 1997, it stayed on the New York Times list for over a year and won him the National Book Award. The star-studded film in 2003 earned $175 million worldwide, and Renée Zellweger collected an Oscar for her performance as Ruby Thewes. The relationship between Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes was a nuanced counterpoint to Ada’s love story with Inman, and it emerged as a paean to female friendship and to wartime survival.

Some scholars took umbrage at the book’s particularly whitewashed landscape. Frazier was reprimanded—at times savaged—for the absence of black voices. People of color were few and far between in his story; for instance, at one point, an enslaved woman was carried to the riverside to be drowned by a white preacher, disposing of her as if an unwanted kitten. Frazier concentrated on how those fighting for the Confederacy were fighting for “home,” rather than to shore up the slave power (and by association, white supremacy)—and so the perpetual wrangle continues.
 

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More from Clinton:

Thus Varina, his fourth novel, confronts issues of race and southern identity, and perhaps signals penance. Frazier’s main character, James Blake, is described as a black child orphaned by war then adopted by Jefferson and Varina Davis. After surrender in 1865 and despite his protests, he was torn from the Confederate First Family. This backstory is based on Jimmie Limber, a refugee featured in Elizabeth Botume’s First Days Amongst the Contrabands.

In the novel, Blake accidentally discovers his former protector nearly forty years after their forced separation. He seeks out “V” (as she is called throughout the novel) and insists upon answers about his heritage. Over the course of several Sunday afternoons, the former first lady of the Confederacy reminisces, prompted by Blake’s interrogation, and the tale unfolds. Frazier and James Brooke do not let V off the hook. When she confides to James about the days “when we all took care of one another,” James retorts “who is we?” During formalized exchanges, James poses uncomfortable questions: “Did you own me?” “Was I your pet?” Further, he challenges her memory of her “friendship” with Ellen, the (enslaved) African American house servant who accompanied her on the flight from Richmond. She recalled in an interview that Varina may have been a good mistress, but Ellen was happier with her freedom. But V attends Ellen’s wedding, proclaiming sisterhood.

Frazier threads “truth and reconciliation” into the book’s clever patterns of warp and weft. V is alternately self-deprecating and self-serving. Her acerbic observations—drawn from both her own writings and those of Mary Chesnut—as well as Frazier’s scintillating insights, rattle and snap throughout the book. Frazier allows his leading lady’s memory to be selective, indeed blatantly faulty.
 

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More from this interesting essay:

With her husband’s death in 1889, Varina Davis made her way to Manhattan to live by her wits and her pen. (This factoid, Frazier maintains, launched him on his journey to creating “V”.) She parted company with most former Confederate widows and her homeland. Was she disloyal? A pragmatist? Rebel, or no rebel at all? She was perhaps happy to leave the crumbling Confederate states behind, done with mourning, as she tartly advised her surviving daughter: “Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health, and will depress your husband.
 

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Joan Cashin’s superb 2006 biography, First Lady of the Confederacy, projected a convincingly modern, albeit flawed, protagonist. Frazier echoes and expands this image, making excellent use of recent scholarship and many details are clearly drawn from the meticulous research of recent Civil War scholarship whose authors, regrettably, are omitted from his slim bibliography
 

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From the conclusion:

Charles Frazier has produced a brilliant and riveting glimpse of Varina’s life, immersing himself in his characters’ time and place. We are transported and in his debt, as he grapples with the mesmerizing, with the mercurial, and with riddles the Civil War still evokes. Varina emerges full of caution, compassion, grit, and woe. Frazier’s power lies not just in his authenticity but in the way he applies his gift of imagination to this epic era and haunting Confederate emblem.
 

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From the conclusion of the review:

Slave Old Man is many things. Just a little more than 100 pages in length, it is a translation; a story of enslavement and escape; a discourse on the nature of French West Indies; the story of an old man, or an old slave, or both, but a man nonetheless; and a meditation on history. But we also cannot miss its moral significance as another reminder of the pernicious and lasting legacy of New World slavery and white supremacy in our own time. Thus, this new English translation contributes to and extends a vibrant and politically significant genre of neo-slave narratives, pioneered in the midst of the Civil Rights movement by Margaret Walker, and sustained by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and most recently Colson Whitehead...
 

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From the review:

McBride taps into how African American collective memories of the American Civil War at the Pennsylvania-Maryland-West Virginia border allowed for the persistence of John Brown’s legacy as a freedom fighter. In the war’s aftermath, the nation strongly encouraged border African American residents to forget John Brown’s raid, the Civil War enslavement of freeborn African Americans, and the military experiences of those who either enlisted or were drafted. Remembrance became a political act essential to postwar African American border identity. These African Americans refused to accept the hegemonic Lost Cause and Reconciliationist impulses. Through oral traditions and postwar commemorations in segregated African American spaces, they developed and sustained a Civil War collective memory that empowered them to actively remember–while the nation purposefully forgot–well into the twentieth century. Thus, James McBride’s acknowledgement is as powerful as the opening prologue. He recognizes and celebrates the actions of ordinary African Americans “who, over the years kept the memory of John Brown alive.”
 

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From the conclusion of the review:

The Good Lord Bird deepens our understandings of sectional debates over slavery, violence, and the diverse African American experience on the eve of the American Civil War. Moreover, it provides important insights into the role of memory, violence, and the intersectional contours of African American remembrance of the Civil War
 

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From the review:

Because most are poorly-plotted, barely-disguised apologies for the Lost Cause, many historians have a low tolerance for “alternative histories” of the Civil War. Whether in the form of Confederate memorials like Silent Sam or Harry Turtledove novels, folks love to fantasize about what the United States would have been like if the South had won. Missing from most of these alternative histories is any mention of slavery, or when it does appear, as in Turtledove’s 1992 novel The Guns of the South, it appears as a foil to highlight the noble characteristics of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. However, a promising new alternative history, which may be of interest to scholars and history buffs alike, breaks this mold and makes slavery central to its narrative.

Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines, a new Civil War alternative history set in the twenty-first century, imagines a future “dis”-United States that has avoided civil war altogether. The nation is now governed by something akin to the Crittenden Compromise, where federal law sustains slavery where it existed, while prohibiting its further extension. By the time we meet the novel’s protagonist, Victor, a former PBL (“Person Bound to Labor”), slavery has been abolished in all but the “Hard Four” slave states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and “Carolina.” In exchange for his freedom, Victor has become a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals, scouring the free states in search of runaways who have liberated themselves from the highly industrialized–yet no less brutal–business of twenty-first century slavery. Traumatized by his childhood on just such a corporate plantation, Victor is haunted by dreams of his violent upbringing, yet he excels at his job as a slave catcher. He performs so well because he cherishes his own freedom, such as it is. Victor is not quite free; the Marshals have fitted him with a tracking device in case he decides to run. But how long will he be able to continue his horrific career? Will his cold, hard heart, that slavery has given him, finally be warmed and softened to the plight of those he pursues? And if it does, will he survive?
 

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From the conclusion of this essay by Carole Emberton:

Underground Airlines is a fast-paced thriller with the heart of a slave narrative. Winters has earned a reputation as a sci-fi/detective novelist, and this novel reflects that. Think John Grisham meets Solomon Northup. Victor is a flawed, hard-edged man who wants to do the right thing. Standing in his way is a conglomerate of detached, yet brutal, government bureaucrats who will stop at nothing to see the law carried out. And all the hard, philosophical questions concerning slavery are there: How does an enslaved person maintain a sense of his own identity and morality separate from that of his enslavers? What are the limits of the “slave community”? How does trauma shape the people we become and the choices we make? How long can a house divided against itself stand?

Winters answers that last question definitively: a long **** time. It’s 2016, but there is no sign of slavery “dying out” in the Hard Four, despite immense national and global pressure. The times have changed, but slaveholders have adapted, using modern technology to keep slavery profitable and more efficient. They have powerful lobbyists who buy Congressional support. All the corporate shenanigans that allow Starbucks and Amazon to avoid taxes and reap mega profits also allow companies like Garments of the Greater South to evade the various anti-slavery financial mechanisms that the U.S. and its global allies have instituted. And finally, injustice’s oldest allies–racism and apathy–prevent most Americans from caring too much about what happens “down there,” much less to the black people who live stigmatized and segregated in free cities throughout the rest of the country.

Sound familiar? It should. Underground Airlines is as much a story about today as it is about the past. In that sense, it recalls the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A., which imagines a white supremacist fantasy world where the Confederacy won, but that world looks a lot like the world we actually live in. If C.S.A. challenged the sanitized text-book version of the Civil War that so many Americans grow up believing, then Underground Airlinescontinues this work by provoking readers to consider whether Winters’s fictionalized world differs in any meaningful way from the “real” one we inhabit everyday. For scholars of Civil War-era history, the dystopian alternative universe Winters has created feels a lot like home.
 

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From the review:

In this imaginative and deeply moving book, George Saunders has re-envisioned the moment when President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie died, in February 1862, ten months into the Civil War. Saunders’ novel is an odd and unconventional book, composed of fragments of actual historical writing and fictionalized historical passages, along with the musings of individuals who have died and now inhabit the cemetery where Willie’s body has been interred. This is the “Bardo” of the book’s title – a sort of in-between place, poised between the land of the living and a more definitive afterlife – and the book’s central premise involves the struggle to get Willie, and his father, to fully accept death so that Willie can leave this disturbing transitional world.

More than just a meditation on Willie’s tragic demise, the book is also a much larger deliberation on the overwhelming onslaught of death that gripped Americans in the middle years of the nineteenth century.
 
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