Tuesday, November 6, 2007

First Thoughts

Setting up my new website has been a hoot, and I need to doff my sombrero to Britt Kaufmann, who designed it so elegantly. Also check out her own site, She’s a fine poet as you’ll find, and I’m proud to call her my friend and colleague.

Now that my site’s up, she’s been after me to write a blog for it, but because I’m seldom comfortable talking about myself—which is what most bloggers seem so eager to do—I was unsure whether to attempt it.

But looking through the materials for the site, I couldn’t help waxing nostalgic about my first piece of historical fiction to be published, and decided to set down a few thoughts on the subject, which I might as well share with you as my inaugural experiment in blogging.

It’s now thirteen years since I wrote Hiwassee. After so long a passage of time it’s impossible even to recreate in imagination, much less entirely recover, my state of mind at the time I wrote it. I was a different person then, living an entirely different kind of life. If I leaf through Hiwassee today, it gives off an air of alien quaintness, not as if an earlier version of myself had written it but as if a complete stranger had done so.

He’s a stranger I like, though. I admire his simplicity of phrasing, the directness of his storytelling, his obvious care for his characters and, above all, his sense of mission. He’s telling a story no one else has yet told, at least not in fiction, and it’s a story he passionately believes should be told if readers are to gain purchase on anything like the essence, if not the actual truth, of the past.

His book came out in 1996, a year before Charles Frazier covered much the same historical ground in a far more masterful way in Cold Mountain. Frazier showed him how far he had yet to go on the road to becoming a finished novelist. But in 1996 that hadn’t happened yet. Hiwassee was the best he could do, and he was proud of having done his best, and his book—which he’d considered more of an adventure story than a serious piece of writing—had astonished him by garnering unanimous critical praise as respectable literary fiction. Prominent people in the literary world to whom he’d looked as icons wrote favorable blurbs; critics spoke of him as if he were not just a good journeyman writer but a gifted one. It was quite a year! But as I say, Cold Mountain gave him a rude wake-up call.

He’s a better and deeper writer now, though he still has lots to learn. But that first little book of his has an earnestness, an honesty, and an evident quality of good intent that I find endearing. He’s done his homework; he knows his subject front-to-back; and he understands his purpose, which is to portray the tragedy of the Civil War. He’s no partisan—though his chief characters are Confederate in sympathy, they’re human beings first and last. They’re moved not by politics or by their views on slavery or secession but by love of home. They are trying to save home. They are trying to save each other.

The villains of the piece are a motley crowd of bushwhackers motivated by no allegiance save to greed. They are stock bad guys out of central casting, except for two, one named Liver and Lights, who murders a halfwit; after the killing the victim’s little terrier improbably adopts him, and when the dog is lost later on, Liver and Lights weeps inconsolably. Another exception is their leader, the vicious Bridgeman, who can kill and torture without thought but also longs to possess the good character of the mountain farmers he despoils and sometimes falls victim to self-pity and self-doubt.

Here I see the seed of my later work. Rarely are my villains evil through-and-through. Always they exhibit traits that make them recognizably human—Bridgeman’s insecurity in the face of real virtue; Nahum Bellamy’s genuine zeal for equal rights for the newly emancipated slaves in Freedom’s Altar; Webb Darling’s amused, disillusioned self-awareness in The Cock’s Spur; G.G.M. Weatherby’s love for his daughter in Where the Water-Dogs Laughed. The writer of Hiwassee believed, as I continue to believe, that there is always good in evil and evil in good, and that to think otherwise is a dangerous delusion. To believe that a person who does evil is an other—a monster, a madman, an inhuman being—conveniently distances him from the rest of us, from the people who are, by definition, incapable of committing despicable acts. Yet history is crowded with examples to the contrary. We need to know what is in us to do.

The same holds true for the “good” people in the story. Judge Madison Curtis, in order to save his wife Sarah from torture—and to save what remains of his worldly possessions—misdirects the bushwhackers to a neighbor family, who are massacred. That he feels guilt and tries to ameliorate the harm he’s done doesn’t change the fact that he’s been the cause of the massacre. Yet he has always thought himself—and in fact is—a virtuous man. A virtuous man who has done an evil thing, in hopes of saving home, in hopes of saving his family.

It’s that idea of the ambivalent nature of good and evil that I’m proudest of when I read Hiwassee today. It’s a cautionary tale for all time. The fellow who wrote that book wasn’t trying obsessively to rebuild the past for its own sake, like a ship in a bottle; he was trying to make the past relevant to us in our time. He’s a teacher, showing us that the past needn’t be dead, that it can be a living lesson about the choices the world forces us to make, and that very often none of the choices offered us are fair.

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