By Marc Stengel
Charles Frazier wears the accomplishment of a first novel a little awkwardly, as if it were a suit, slightly too big just yet, that he will eventually grow to fit. He is shy, unprepossessing; his boyish, tousled hair is at odds with the salt-and-pepper grizzle of his neatly trimmed beard. Whereas his voice is almost too quiet to hear in a bustling coffee shop, it lifts rich, full, and bold off the pages of Cold Mountain. This is the story of W.P. Inman and his perilous anabasis—his physical, spiritual homeward trek—through the Civil War-torn highlands of North Carolina; and it is the story that Frazier, a son of the mountains, returned home from a momentary exile in Colorado to write.
“After moving back to North Carolina, I spent a lot of time getting to know home again. I would go up into the mountains every chance I got. I’m not really sure what I had in mind; I was keeping a journal full of local history, natural history, recollections of family and things that the older people I knew said and did and how they lived.
“Then my father told me this family story about this ancestor of ours and how he deserted from the Civil War and walked home. I was really fascinated just by the walking part, this notion of walking through a state in turmoil that was coming apart at the seams.
“After my father told me the story about this guy, I started doing some Civil War research, but I tried to keep it pretty confined. I didn’t want it to take over and have the book become a generals-and-battlefields kind of book.
“It helped that what my father knew about him you could write on a postcard. And what I could confirm, absolutely and positively, through the state archives wasn’t an awful lot more than that. So what I had was just a kind of a series of points, and then I was free within those points to do what I wanted since there weren’t any facts to, well, get in the way.”
In Cold Mountain, Inman steps out of the war and out of time. The path to survival amidst roving Federals, sadistic troopers in the Confederacy’s Home Guard, and all manner of bandits and scalawags lies in the mountains. Here is where all highland sons, Frazier not least among them, have depended for generations on a stern but enveloping nurture. And here is where a poignant, parallel story entwines the fate of well-bred, impoverished Ada with that of a feral woman-child, Ruby, whose origins seem not so much of the mountains as within them.
“My family’s been in the Southern Appalachians for 200 years, and they pretty much—like an awful lot of people there—came shortly after the Jacobite demise at Culloden and the resulting Highland Clearances in Scotland. I think what they were looking for was someplace that felt a lot like Scotland. And it does. There’s an awful lot of Celtic feeling in the mountains, which probably explains why we’ve always felt different from the rest of the South. When I was a kid, a lot of people thought anything much east of Raleigh was like another state—you didn’t entirely trust the intentions of those people, and in some ways they were different culturally. I guess one way to look at it is that ‘down there’ there are a lot of people with English heritage, and in the mountains, you’ve got a lot of Scots and Irish. And those two traditions don’t always mix all that well.”
Nor, Frazier seems to think, can one take for granted that the past will mix all that well with the present—unless one pays some heed to their blending. “When we bought our little farm-in-the-making outside Raleigh, I wanted our daughter Annie to have some sense of her placement. I think most people don’t at all have a sense of their placement in the physical world. We’ve got a creek running through our place, and I took her out one day and we followed the creek as best we could in the car down to the lake; from there we followed it on the map down to the ocean.
“And then, on the days of summer solstice and winter solstice, we sat out on the porch and watched where the sun hit the horizon and marked those particular spots from a particular observation point. We’ve identified trees and animals; we’ve looked for—and found—Indian arrowheads in the field. I just want her—to the extent that we can discover together, for ourselves—to feel like, OK, now I’ve got some sense of where this place is...which is its own form of literacy, I suppose.”
Signs and Events
♦ Nick Bunick, The Messengers: A True Story of Angelic Presence and the Return to the Age of Miracles, 6 p.m. Aug. 19 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. In light of Mr. Bunick’s conviction that he lived 2,000 years ago as the Apostle Paul, it may be tempting to think of him as St. Nick, but you’d be advised not to toy with him. He has friends in high places, as they say. Two special angels, unfortunately, will not be in attendance: Julia Ingram and G.W. Hardin actually wrote the book Mr. Bunick will be signing. Their curious absence should dispel for once and all the presumption that ghosts can’t also be saints.
♦ Charles Wolfe, The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, 7 p.m. Aug. 26 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Wolfe is a genuine Tennessee treasure both for his academic thoroughness and for his popular accessibility on matters musical. Intended as a comprehensive overview of southern fiddling rather than as an exhaustive encyclopedia, The Devil’s Box delves as much into folklore as it does into musicology. With a foreword by “classical” fiddler Mark O’Connor, it should make a welcome acquisition for any collector of regional titles—no strings attached.
♦ Also to note: Tess Gerritsen signs Life Support, 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers; June Juanico reads and signs Elvis in the Twilight of Memory, 6 p.m. Aug. 20 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. As of Aug. 1, Davis-Kidd Booksellers’ new Web site is up and at ’em at www.daviskidd.com.
The first next step
Nashville 1864—The Dying of the Light, by Madison Jones (J.E. Sanders & Co., 1997, $17.95)
It is to two books, published many years ago, that I credit much of my appreciation for the city where I’ve spent my life. Seedtime on the Cumberland, by Harriette Simpson Arnow (1960), and The Decisive Battle of Nashville, by Stanley F. Horn (1956), depict Nashville in the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, respectively, as a proto-city with only the faintest traces of today’s metropolitan ambitions, frustrations, and growth. Reading those books, I felt—in an inverse, deductive way—an invigorating sense of accomplishment to “discover” John Rain’s threadbare wilderness station near the site of today’s state fairgrounds, or to envision a swarm of retreating Confederates surging through the parking lot of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church after their rout atop Colonel Shy’s Hill.
These aging books are curiously modern as portraits of Nashville in the process of becoming. It is a delicious irony, then, that a most recent book, Madison Jones’ 1997 novel Nashville 1864—The Dying of the Light, should present an image of Nashville, frozen in time, as once it was.
Jones, a Nashville native, and J. E. Sanders & Co., a Nashville publisher, have issued what amounts to a little piece of literary jewelry hewn from local gemstone. In appearance and heft, the slender, compact volume—a novella, really—simulates the privately published chapbooks in which local veterans once bequeathed their personal, often tedious reminiscences of the War Between the States. It is a ruse reinforced by Jones’ schema for his tale: Nashville 1864 presumes to be the personal memoir, long lain dormant, of one Steven Moore, who endured Nashville’s occupation and decisive last battle as a child. Moore’s anonymous grandson discovers the work in his 40s and publishes it in his own old age—near our own time, it is supposed—after becoming “a good deal less than pleased with what I saw happening in Nashville and elsewhere.”
A reader familiar with Stanley Horn’s exhaustive, occasionally grand, and sometimes pedestrian history of Nashville’s tragic debacle will at first question what new benefit comes of retracing old footsteps. Jones waits to acknowledge his indebtedness to Horn’s book in a terse note at the very end. He is, of course, confident in his veteran talents to bring static history to life. His agent in the attempt is the 12-year-old Moore, who together with slave companion Dink flits into, over, and through the battle action in what amounts to a weirdly aloof and personal quest after unanticipated insight.
Against a sweeping backdrop of the unalterable events of Dec. 15 and 16, 1864, Jones directs Steven and Dink into the fray in search of Steven’s father. A member of Tyler’s Brigade, 10th Tennessee, in Cheatham’s Corps, Jason Moore would have been attached to the ill-fated Colonel Shy at the right (east end) of the Confederate line on the first day of battle. Through the abysmal mists and fog of that unusually severe Nashville winter, the boys prosecute their innocent infiltration of the battle lines. With constant reference to palls of smoke and cloud that obscure friend and foe alike, Jones creates a mythical half-world reminiscent of the Homeric mists in which immortals reveal themselves to the mortals contesting the plains of Ilium.
When apprehended by Yankees during preparations for battle, the boys are shooed home with but a scolding and an escort: “ ‘You boys come on.’ I think it was his voice, before I could even see him clearly, that identified him to me. It was a black man.... There was misting rain but no obscuring fog anymore and on our way back to the pike Dink couldn’t keep from glancing back time and again at the soldier: a big one as black as he was, walking a little behind us with his musket angled over his shoulder.”
Within the day, the boys, now safely behind Confederate positions, will witness the desperate charge and repulse of black Union troops under command of William Shafter in Morgan’s Brigade. Near the present-day intersection of Nolensville Rd. and Polk Ave., Confederate fire decimates the Union ranks. By the same time on the following day, the Rebs would be routed from the summit of Shy’s Hill overlooking modern Harding Place.
In yet more resort to mythic precedents, Jones eventually reunites son with a father mutilated by wounds that are powerfully symbolic. From his groin injury Jason Moore will have no redemption in this life, as the Grail Legend likewise tells of the Fisher King who was doomed to await the virtue of subsequent generations. But from his blindness the vanquished Confederate will eventually be partially released, since he, unlike Oedipus, cannot bear full blame for the destruction of his ill-fated fatherland.
There is little dissent among historians that the Confederate defeat in Nashville was the decisive, strategic conclusion of the Southern war effort. As such, it has always represented an ironic, negative superlative—“the last failed attempt”—for a city of weening ambition such as we have become. Madison Jones has managed to redress the situation somewhat with a depiction of those two awful days refracted through his subtle imagination: In the dying of the light of the Confederate cause, there is a glimmer of promise beyond. Steven Moore and those who follow him inherit an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild and redress a shattered society.
The Dog-Eared Page
“There is a lot of wordplay in Hittite texts [dating from 1750-1200 BC]. Some of it shows up in words for alcoholic beverages. One drink was called walhi, a name that seems to be related to the verb meaning “to hit hard.” Another drink was called marnuwan, a name that seems to be related to the verb meaning “to disappear.”—Cullen Murphy, Just Curious (Houghton Mifflin, 1995)
“A creative illness succeeds a period of intense preoccupation with an idea and search for a certain truth.... Throughout the illness, the subject never loses the thread of his dominating preoccupation. It is often compatible with normal, professional and family life. But even if he keeps to his social activities, he is almost entirely absorbed with himself. He suffers from feelings of utter isolation.... The termination is often rapid and marked by a phase of exhilaration. The subject emerges from his ordeal with a permanent transformation and the conviction that he has discovered a great truth or a new spiritual world.”—Henri F. Ellenberger, The Creative Illness (Basic Books, 1981)
To comment, cavil, or compliment, your e-mail is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A creative illness succeeds a period of intense preoccupation with an idea and search for a certain truth.... Throughout the illness, the subject never loses the thread of his dominating preoccupation. It is often compatible with normal, professional and family life. But even if he keeps to his social activities, he is almost entirely absorbed with himself. He suffers from feelings of utter isolation.... The termination is often rapid and marked by a phase of exhilaration. The subject emerges from his ordeal with a permanent transformation and the conviction that he has discovered a great truth or a new spiritual world.”Henri F. Ellenberger, The Creative Illness (Basic Books, 1981)
To comment, cavil, or compliment, your e-mail is welcome at email@example.com.
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