It takes the emotional power and insight of fiction to get to the heart of such a complex character, and Madison Smartt Bell has accomplished that feat in his just-released novel, Devil's Dream. Bell is an ideal writer to take on the mythic, morally ambiguous Forrest. Born and raised in Nashville, he is probably best known for his epic trilogy of novels on the Haitian revolution All Souls' Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone that the Builder Refused. He has always had an arms-length relationship to his identity as a Southern writer, but his roots show in his displaced Southern characters, his thematic obsessions with religion and race, and his lush way with language. He has an instinctive understanding of the conflicting currents in the South's collective psyche.
Bell is also a master at sifting through the nuances of larger-than-life characters, as evidenced by his portrait of Haiti's liberator, Toussaint Louverture. Like Forrest, Louverture had been eclipsed by his legend over the years, and Bell humanized him, transforming the vengeful, godlike being of myth into a complex and courageous man who met a poignant end. Though Forrest inhabits a lesser pantheon than Louverture, his legend begs the same deconstruction, which Bell delivers. The Forrest of Devil's Dream is a merciless warrior who loves women, weapons and horses—not necessarily in that order—but he's also a man of deep feeling, and not without qualms about the heinous system he fights to sustain.
The author is scheduled to appear at a book signing for Devil's Dream at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 7 p.m. Nov. 20. On the occasion of Bell's new novel, the Scene corresponded with the acclaimed novelist about the genesis of Devil's Dream, the historical research and attitudes that went into the book, and the mass of contradictions that is its subject.
Q Scene: Growing up in Middle Tennessee, you must have heard stories about Nathan Bedford Forrest. Was he a figure of fascination for you then? How was his legend presented to you?
A Madison Smartt Bell: On the Mississippi side of my family there's a story about a little girl born toward the end of the Civil War. Story goes, during those hard times, the family didn't get around to giving her a name. Sounds far-fetched but not out of the question that they might have just called her "Sis" or something for a few years until she got big enough to think she needed a better name than that. She looked about for somebody important and so named herself Forrest because it was a powerful name, thus becoming forever and aye my great (great-great?) Aunt Forrest.
That gives you some idea of Forrest's prestige in the South at the time of the war's end. He seems to have been, at that point, unequivocally admired in the region, although before the war the planter aristocracy wouldn't have wanted to let him in the house, due to his rough frontier manners and the fact that he was a slave trader.
I read (and still possess) one of that series of little orange biographies of American heroes that were all over in the early '60s—Bedford Forrest: Boy on Horseback, I believe it is called. I enjoyed it at the time but don't remember much about it. Those books were all sorta the same, it seems to me now.
When I was in my 20s I read Andrew Lytle's work on Forrest: Bedford Forrest and his Critter Company, and the substantial parts on Forrest in A Wake for the Living. I also got to hear Mr. Lytle talk about Forrest from time to time. Lytle saw Forrest as representative and a hero of what he called the Southern "yeoman"—that is, the small freeholders who worked a good deal with their own hands and owned few slaves if any. Forrest fits this description to the extent that he was a frontiersman during his youth, and very much a self-made man. Lytle's sense that Forrest ran his fighting force as if it were a sort of extended family has some influence on Devil's Dream.
Toussaint Louverture and Nathan Bedford Forrest were both brilliant fighters, both men who seemed to relish violence. Is there something about the character of the warrior that particularly engages you?
As my internal production of testosterone decreases, so too does my interest in violence per se seem to decline. I'm not sure that Toussaint really relished violence—he would go a long way to accomplish his ends by other means—and indeed Forrest also often preferred to win by bluff if he could. However Forrest certainly had if not a taste then at least a great talent for violence, including close or hand to hand combat, and there are many observers who report that he fought as if possessed.
I have practiced martial arts, for which I have very little talent, for many years and have seen a very few fighters who are able to perform in a kind of perfect unconsciousness—that is, their reactions are not slowed by any kind of cogitation however brief. Those are the champions (and it is really, um, special to be in the ring with somebody like that). I think Forrest was like that, or turned into that in battle (more so than Toussaint), and that insight helped me write the action scenes. Forrest also had a violent temper which he could not always control. Toussaint's rage was one of his instruments and I think he always had it well in hand. Toussaint was a master of dissimulation, something which Forrest had no patience for. Their experience of slavery was, obviously, very different. I do believe that they shared a gift for strategy and charismatic leadership—they both understood how to make something out of nothing when that was the thing that had to be done. Had they ever met I think they would have understood each other very well, though it wouldn't necessarily have been a sympathetic understanding.
Although he's admired for his military skill, it's probably fair to say that mainstream opinion of the historical Forrest is pretty low, thanks to his association with the slave trade and the Klan, as well as the massacre at Fort Pillow. You give him a complex but decidedly sympathetic portrayal in Devil's Dream. Do you think of this novel as, on some level, an attempt to correct the record about the man? How do you answer those who will say you have romanticized him?
Well... again, the comparison to Toussaint is appealing; when I started on that subject, in the mid-1980s, you could find hagiographies and demonizations and not much in between. I ended up trying to find some middle ground in all the books I wrote about Toussaint, especially the strictly nonfictional biography. There has been a lot more written about Forrest in English than about Toussaint—if people take extreme views of him it's not because balanced accounts are not available: the best of these, I think, is the 1993 biography by Jack Hurst. Some romanticization (think of the French roman) is probably inevitable in turning an historical figure into a character in a novel—but what I tried to do is imagine how he might have really been, warts and all (and he had plenty), and then describe that in action. Lytle, I think, idealized rather than romanticized him—early writers (e.g. Wyeth) did romanticize him in a sort of chevalieresque manner. The real Forrest does not fit the chevalier model too well, though he was certainly a helluva horseman, and was also endowed with natural courtesy and a sense of fairness (except sometimes when out of control of his rage).
Forrest, a thorough pragmatist among other things, did a lot of things that you wouldn't want your friends to do—but there is a fat vein of hypocrisy in the attitude to all this—in the Southern aristocracy's abhorrence of the people who sold them the slaves that made them rich, and in the Northern moral condemnation of a slave system that produced raw materials (which the North never stopped using) for their manufacturing systems. I'd love to see a list of abolitionists who didn't wear cotton. The majority of Southern whites during Reconstruction certainly desired the restoration of white supremacy, while despising and fearing the Ku Klux Klan.
Forrest's involvement in the Klan is somewhat hard to trace since the Reconstruction KKK was an organization that kept its secrets fairly well. What can be teased out of the shadowy record is: Forrest did not found the Klan, as is often alleged, but agreed to assume leadership of it, probably on the invitation of Nashvillian John Morton (Forrest's artillery commander during the war), after the Klan had already begun to deliver a continuation of the war by other means over most of the region. The Reconstruction Klan was a terrorist organization dedicated to resisting occupation by a conquering military power and to doing everything possible to restore the political and social status quo ante (i.e. white supremacy in the South). In that respect the Reconstruction Klan resembles entities like the Palestinian Liberation Organization more than it resembles 20th century avatars of the KKK—which tend to be fascist, pure and simple. The later Klans have no continuity with the Reconstruction Klan, which dissolved when former Confederates regained their political rights—Forrest seems to have been instrumental in disbanding it at that time—and afterward he made some significant public gestures in favor of racial reconciliation in the South.
Are there gaps in the historical record about Forrest that frustrated you as you researched the novel? What don't we know about him?
Much more is known about Forrest than about Toussaint. I'd have liked to know more about his wife, Mary Ann, and also about his siblings. Getting details about his horses was a major pain in the neck.... I'd have the name of a horse and no idea what it looked like.... The evidence for his relationship with the slave Catharine is suggestive rather than conclusive, and there's not much of it. I'd really have liked to know more about that; on the other hand not knowing gave me more freedom to invent.
The Haitian character, Henri, is a remarkable presence in the narrative. He's the soul of revolution, "God's first man," and yet he also carries the irony in the novel. Can you explain how you came to create the character? How do you see his role in the book?
Well. Henri provides a highly unusual, not to say improbably, point of view on the action, and, since he is dead for most of the action, his situation is the means for making the chronological presentation work.
Many years ago I was told a story by Jack Kershaw, whom your readers may know as the creator of the equestrian statue of Forrest next to I-65, north of Old Hickory. Mr. Kershaw is an interesting and unusual person, whose political views I do not share—but he is an ingenious and energetic iconoclast, and also a very talented and accomplished outsider artist (he has a very large body of virtually unknown work, most of it far more aesthetically pleasing than the Forrest statue).
In any case Mr. Kershaw got interested in my works about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, and having read them he told me this tale: that Forrest's personal bodyguard was all black and captained by a son of Toussaint Louverture named Henry or Henri. I have not been able to find any scrap of evidence for that—and any biological son of Toussaint would have been over 60 at the time of the civil war. Still, the idea seemed to me to be a good way into a novel about Forrest.
Forrest did have black men in his command, mostly from his own plantation—most, though not all, were teamsters rather than combatants. He did promise to free those men after the war, if the Confederacy were victorious. In fact he freed most of them after Chickamauga, when he was convinced that Bragg's mismanagement had doomed the Confederacy to defeat.
Forrest's wife and lover are devoted to him, even though he continually humiliates them. Do you see them as tragic figures?
Uh... I don't see that he humiliates these women. The idea is that he is humbled in his relationship with Catharine, by the fact that the power he technically holds over her is useless because of his feeling for her. In the scenes where they are together she often has the upper hand. Well, maybe I didn't convey this idea as well as I wanted to...
For Mary Ann to be humiliated by Forrest carrying on an affair with a servant in her household, she'd have to put up with it, which she doesn't—she forces him to take the whole business out of her sight, which I consider to be a good victory for the time and place.
I see both women as more heroic than tragic; both are strong characters making the best of sometimes adversarial circumstances.
Spiritual exploration has been important in a lot of your writing. Forrest, as portrayed in Devil's Dream, takes a defiant stance toward God. Did you find evidence in the historical record of the religious beliefs of the real Forrest? Does your Forrest embody a uniquely American spiritual bent?
I did a little extrapolation, but Forrest's refusal to bow to religion is part of the historical record. He did become a Christian very late in life, very likely at Mary Ann's behest—and yet I think he was incapable of doing anything insincerely, so he must have been sincere in this conversion. I wouldn't project any generalizations about American spiritual life from that— there are agnostics and atheists aplenty, but people who think there is a God but don't want to bow down or be beholden to Him are quite rare—and I do think that was Forrest's stance.
Any novel of war is necessarily violent, but the way you write about violence is striking. It's vivid, sensual. The deaths of Forrest's horses are vaguely erotic. Can you speak a bit about that? What is revealed in the violent acts human beings commit?
Erotic, you say? That sure is interesting. I think that comes from the fact that Forrest hated losing horses so much he would go out and kill an enemy in hand to hand combat every time it happened. As a quasi-centaur he was close to his horses, and I think he hated the waste of having them killed in battle.
Real, actual violence is ugly stuff and you want to stay away from it if you can, although I do think sometimes it is necessary to achieve worthwhile ends, such as one's own survival and the maintenance of fundamental justice. The aestheticized violence found in my fiction is there to furnish Aristotelian catharsis and to remind the reader that the stakes of moral issues are high. Flannery O'Connor has been more eloquent about this subject that I have.
Devil's Dream seems to be a very cinematic novel, complete with soundtrack. Are there any plans for a film?
Why thank you! I hope the studios and producers are listening....
The prose style in Devil's Dream is not a radical departure from your previous work, but it does seem less lush, more restrained than the writing in your Haiti trilogy. Was that a deliberate choice?
I needed to cover Forrest's career during the entire war and I didn't want it to get too long. The Haiti trilogy was meant for one book in the beginning and...I didn't want that to happen again.
Also I have a very low boredom threshold and don't like to repeat myself, at least not if I know I am doing it. If was I was going to write another novel with a lot of war scenes I didn't want to do it in the same style as previously. In writing the book I found a kind of iconic similarity to all Forrest's battle scenes, as if he was performing the same ritual over and over (especially when he got a horse shot out from under him) and I think the style reflects that in some way.
WOW, xray/zoombah/gastthedead/vladthevulgarnakedmonkey, looks like AnglRdr served you a sh*t supper.
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