Storybook war

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On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

Weaver, Chesterton, and the inside of history

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I’ve been revisiting a few passages from past reading that have meant and continue to mean a lot to me, bridging as they do the two things to which I’ve devoted my life: history and writing fiction.

From GK Chesterton’s 1925 book The Everlasting Man, a passage I’m almost certain I’ve shared here before:

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. I have already touched on it in such a case as the totem or indeed any other popular myth. It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. . . . That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems, the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.

That parting shot is there to keep us historical novelists humble. It’s also hilarious.

From Richard Weaver’s essay “Up from Liberalism,” published in Modern Age in 1958:

In the meantime, I had started to study the cobwebs in my own corner, and I began to realize that the type of education which enables one to see into the life of things had been almost entirely omitted from my program. More specifically, I had been reading extensively in the history of the American Civil War, preferring first-hand accounts by those who had actually borne the brunt of it as soldiers and civilians; and I had become especially interested in those who had reached some level of reflectiveness and had tried to offer explanations of what they did or the manner in which they did it. Allen Tate has in one of his poems the line “There is more in killing than commentary.” The wisdom of this will be seen also by those who study the killings in which whole nations are the killers and the killed, namely, wars. To put this in a prose statement: The mere commentary of a historian will never get you inside the feeling of a war or any great revolutionary process. For that, one has to read the testimonials of those who participated in it on both sides and in all connections; and often the best insight will appear in the casual remark of an obscure warrior or field nurse or in the effort of some ill-educated person to articulate a feeling.

Weaver isn’t directly concerned with fiction here, but his sentiments broadly parallel those of Chesterton above. I’m reminded as well of the late great Sir John Keegan’s introduction to The Face of Battle, his seminal examination of that “more in killing,” a heavy influence on my own grad work at Clemson:

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Per Weaver and Keegan, you can get a bone-deep understanding from a memoir like Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Fraser’s Quartered Safe out Here, or Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier that you can’t from top-down histories of the campaigns those authors lived through. They are less concerned with how these things happened but are blistering hot answers to the central question: What was it like?

From Cass Sunstein’s 2015 Atlantic essay “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind”:

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). . . .

Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

To tie these disparate commentators loosely together, Keegan—a great military historian who, because of a childhood illness and resulting disability, never personally saw combat—writes in The Face of Battle that “the central question” of the military historian is “What is it like to be in a battle?” A corollary question is “its subjective supplementary, ‘How would I behave in a battle?’” This question moves the discussion immediately from facts to imagination. While both the rigorous histories—Chesterton’s “official forms and political pronouncements,” Weaver’s “mere commentary of a historian,” Sunstein’s “ideologies [and] apologetics”—and the “psychological” ones built “to get you inside the feeling” of a time and place are both concerned with conveying truth through narrative, one is better at outlining events from on high and the other will convey Keegan’s “central question”: What was it like?

This tension runs right through both academic historical work, especially narrative history, and the creation of fictional or based-on-a-true-story narratives set in the past. Compare what I’ve written here before about the perspective war movies take.

The crucial thing all four of these writers drive at is understanding. They want us to get into—in Chesterton’s wonderful phrase—“the inside of history.” Good fiction performs that role heroically, enlivening the imagination and bringing the reader into a lost world the way nonfiction rarely can.

Note that I’ve chosen to describe this as understanding and not the milquetoast modern virtue of empathy, with its hints of uncritical acceptance, tolerance, and fundamental relativism. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, one that could carry the weight of quite a long essay. Perhaps someday. Understanding is critical; understanding is discriminating; and understanding is compassionate. It can be all of these things because it turns willingly toward what it looks at and receives it as knowledge. It is not the apathetic blind eye of empathy. Look no further than Sunstein’s essay on Gone With the Wind, in which he critiques the novel and its author at length while still holding it up as a window into understanding a different time and place—two different times and places, in fact, viewing the novel as an artifact of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

To understand all may not be to forgive all, but it is to touch brains and to see a shared humanity—common weaknesses, foibles, and, just occasionally, virtues—with people who are deeply unlike us, people we are tempted to dismiss. That applies to both the living and the dead. And if, as I’ve written earlier this semester, bigotry is ultimately a failure of imagination, we need all the good historical fiction we can get.

Most of What Follows is True

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

I’ve posted before about the CBC Ideas Podcast, a series I discovered when they devoted two episodes to the Icelandic sagas. I hope they do more of those, but in the meantime I’ve listened to some very good episodes. One of the latest covers a topic near to my heart: historical fiction.

The talk, “Most of What Follows is True,” takes its name from the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film much loved by author Michael Crummey, the lecturer. Crummey, now a writer and an author of several historical novels, describes catching documentary on TV about the real Butch and Sundance, and his disappointment at the pair’s real-life fate: no Bolivian army, no glorious final moment, guns blazing, but a murder-suicide after being cornered in a miserable hovel. Which raises the question of what most means when you say that “most of what follows is true.”

Crummey, a native of Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast of Canada, considers several novels that purport to be historical but mangle the time and place in which they take place, and presents his own approach to some of his own writing. How much, he asks, does the historical novelist owe the past? How far should the historical novelist go in massaging history to make a compelling story? These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and, with Griswoldville freshly released and still very much on my mind, I appreciated Crummey’s sensitive and thoughtful discussion, especially as it applied to accurately depicting a specific place and authentically evoking another time. Place and time are, of course, connected, since the past itself is a foreign country.

I’ve embedded Crummey’s talk in the post, above. It’s well worth your while to listen to! And do check him out on Goodreads. I’ll be looking for some of his work. River Thieves sounds particularly interesting.

A good visit with Impolitic Podcast

Last week I was honored to be invited onto my old classmate Paul Matzko's Impolitic Podcast. Paul's show offers up "friendly arguments" between a libertarian (himself) and a socialist (his co-host, Sean). Paul asked me (a conservative) to substitute for Sean this week and we had a fun, freewheeling conversation about my books, historical fiction, World War II as "the Good War," Charles Portis, conspiracism, the Babylon Bee, and the soft censorship of the internet age. 

You can listen by subscribing to Impolitic on iTunes, clicking through to the Impolitic blog, or listening via Stitcher below. Enjoy, and thanks again, Paul!

Shakespeare in Fiction

Last week I got Bernard Cornwell's latest novel, Fools and Mortals, from the library and blitzed through it. It's an immensely enjoyable book and a quick read.

Fools and Mortals

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Cornwell made his reputation with historical action adventures like the Sharpe series, following an English soldier in the Napoleonic wars, an the Uhtred series, set in Anglo-Saxon England during and after Alfred the Great's reign. He's also written standalone novels like Agincourt and Redcoat, set in crucial times and featuring lots of thrilling, well-executed action. His heroes are typically amoral badasses who are tough bordering on sociopathic but always do the right thing in a pinch.

Fools and Mortals is vintage Cornwell is some ways and a departure in others. The characters are masculine tough talkers and there's plenty of grit to be found, and there is more than one fistfight and plenty of casual wench-ogling. But, as Cornwell himself has pointed out in interviews, not a single person dies in this novel, and the heroes aren't soldiers, but actors. And the protagonist dresses like a girl.

Fools and Mortals takes place over the course of a few days in 1595. The narrator is Richard Shakespeare, baby brother to the Bard. Richard is ageing out of the female roles he has been playing and longs to have a man's part in one of his brother's plays. His brother is, in fact, working on two, which he believes to be among his best work. In the meantime, the brothers and the rest of their company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, keep up a tedious schedule of rehearsals and performances and try to keep the Puritans from shutting them down.

There are multiple subplots and threads of conflict running through Fools and Mortals (not unlike one of Shakespeare's plays), and Cornwell paces it all masterfully. Rival companies are trying to steal Shakespeare's new material so they can stage it first. The Puritans are looking for ways to shut down the theaters that have been built outside their jurisdiction in the City of London. The government's Catholic hunters are harassing everyone. Richard wants better roles, a permanent position with his tetchy brother's company of players, another chance to meet the fetching servant girl who works for the Lord Chamberlain's wife, and, in the meantime, he's barely paying his rent.

Like A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Shakespeare and his company perform at the end, all these loose plots come together in the staging of a play to celebrate a wedding. A book with lots of subplots ending in a play with lots of subplots ending in a play—it's wonderfully meta in a way modern pop culture can't rival. 

Cornwell being Cornwell, there is no shortage of sneering religious hypocrites (an actual line from the villain: "In the name of the Lord, bend over.") and sniveling cowards as bad guys, but he keeps things pretty restrained. And there is a surprisingly sympathetic and moving portrait of an elderly Jesuit missionary living out the end of his life in the house where Richard rents a room. The book is full of period detail, especially when it comes to the staging of Shakespeare's plays themselves.

And the theatrical aspect proved the most enjoyable and interesting part of the book to me. Cornwell got the idea for Fools and Mortals from summers he's spent acting with the Monomoy Theatre (you can see him as Prospero here), and his experience as an actor shows. The performances in the book are peppered with unexpected but vivid touches clearly drawn from life—for example, the different ways each player handles the stress backstage before a performance begins, the panic and irritation that come when someone forgets their lines, the way the actors feed on the energy of a bored, indifferent, or excited audience. It made me want to find the nearest theater performing Shakespeare and go sit down for a play as soon as possible. 

Fools and Mortals was a great read, a real labor of love for Shakespeare, and a treat for people who love Shakespeare's work. I recommend it. 

And, by the way, the two plays in the novel are A Midsummer Night's Dream, from which Cornwell gets the novel's title ("Lord, what fools these mortals be") and Romeo and Juliet. I won't reveal whether Richard finally gets his man's role onstage.

The Shakespeare Stealer series

By sheer coincidence, as I read Fools and Mortals for myself I also finished reading a young adult series I've been reading to my wife before bed each night. They're The Shakespeare Stealer, Shakespeare's Scribe, and Shakespeare's Spy, by Gary L. Blackwood.

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The series follows Widge, an orphan from the north of England, as he is first enlisted to steal from and then joins Shakespeare's players. The series takes place across about two years, from 1501-3, ending with the accession of James I. Along the way, Widge survives plague, works directly under Shakespeare, and becomes no mean player himself. He also develops a crush on Shakespeare's daughter Judith, who proves to be a high-maintenance tease, and rivalries with other boys in the company. 

Many of the same Elizabethan themes crop up in the series as in Cornwell's more recent book—acting, boys playing female roles, Puritanism and Catholic hunters, the cutthroat rivalries between acting companies, and more—but usually in a more kid-friendly way. The plots are more diffuse and not as tight, but Widge is an amiable narrator and good company to have on the journey. The series incorporates a lot of nice period detail and you get a really good sense of what London was like at the time.

We really enjoyed Blackwood's trilogy and recommend it for your own reading, or if you have kids who enjoy a good historical story and might want to learn a little about Shakespeare, too.

No Man's Land

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

It's the last day of January. How many New Year's resolutions lie in smoldering ruins? I've managed to give new life to two of mine—losing weight and reading seventy books—through a simple change of routine. I'm spending half an hour on the stationary bike every day, half an hour to exercise, clear my mind, and read. I've already managed to blister through three novels this way: Evelyn Waugh's hilarious Scoop, Ready Player One (about which more at another time, perhaps), and the subject of today's post, No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien.

I haven't actually finished No Man's Land yet, but I already want to recommend it. It was a breath of fresh air, after the empty ephemera of Ready Player One, to read a novel that, while imperfect, wants to grapple with real life, with things that matter. 

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No Man's Land is the story of Adam Raine, a London boy whose father, a socialist labor activist, moves himself and Adam to a coal mining town in the north of England. There, Adam's father, a changed man after the tragedy that drove them from London, struggles as a union negotiator to balance the demands of his fellow workers with the realities of mining life and the claims of the mine's owner, Sir John Scarsdale. Adam struggles to fit in; he's a bright, bookish boy and his father works hard to keep him in school and out of the mine. Demagogues and agitators threaten Adam's father's position and the safety of everyone in the mine, and local boys show a natural hostility to Adam. Another tragedy brings the two halves of this story together, and sets Adam's life on a new and unexpected course.

When Adam is taken in by Sir John with the promise of seeing that he completes his schooling and has a chance at an Oxford scholarship, Adam becomes close with Seaton, Sir John's elder son, a principled, good-humored army officer, but falls foul of Brice, Seaton's younger brother, a boy Adam's own age. Brice is conceited, self-absorbed, and entitled. He also aims to marry Miriam, the beautiful daughter of the local parson and the object of Adam's admiration since the day he met her. 

The novel begins in 1900, when Adam is a small boy, and, as the title suggests, the First World War is the ever-present, looming threat to all of this—to Adam's romance with Miriam, to the mine and its workers and their families, to Sir John and his heirs, to Britain, and to the lives of all the characters. When war comes, most of them end up in the trenches. Adam, Seaton, and their peers from Scarsdale end up at the Somme.

I have less than 200 pages to go, and the story has just brought us to July 1, 1916, the awful first day of the British assault on the Somme, a day that saw over 19,000 British soldiers killed, most within the first few hours, and another 38,000 wounded. The author depicts the battle in all its horror, without flinching or holding back. Not all of the characters made it out of that first day--and the Battle of the Somme lasted until mid-November. 

With its class struggle, romantic rivalries, and large cast of workers, housewives, butlers, country parsons, lords, and ladies, No Man's Land teeters on the brink of melodrama. Comparisons to Downton Abbey suggest themselves, but the novel reminds me more of Dickens than contemporary TV. The characters are sympathetically portrayed and well-drawn, and their conflicts with each other feel real. This is especially refreshing in a Games of Thrones era in which everything is resolved with murder, rape, or some combination of the two. 

Most interestingly, and something the publishers have taken full advantage of in promoting the book—the novel is dedicated to JRR Tolkien, the author's grandfather. Simon Tolkien drew on his grandfather's experiences at the Somme as an inspiration, and certain elements of the narrative, such as Adam's chaste, dutiful pursuit of Miriam, reflect real moments from Tolkien's life. The novel is mostly fiction, the plot and characters mostly fictitious, but its connection to a remarkable real life man lends the novel a richness that elevates the book.

I may have more thoughts when I've finished the book. As I've said, it's imperfect, but it's very, very good, a refreshingly old-fashioned novel that realistically and sympathetically depicts a crucial historical moment through the lives of ordinary people. 

On History in Fiction (and Vice Versa)

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Last month, Peggy Noonan had a column in the Wall Street Journal about what is at stake in inaccuracy—or, perhaps, misrepresentation—in historical films. Noonan wrote in response to season two of The Crown and Steven Spielberg's latest film The Post. If her summaries are accurate she raises some legitimate but relatively minor concerns, but she rather hyperbolically calls these inaccuracies "lies" and writes that, through depicting JFK as a smoker and Nixon as a malevolent criminal power withholding the Pentagon Papers to protect himself, "we are losing history."

Today, Christopher J. Scalia, son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, responded with a column on the virtues of even inaccurate historical films. 

I both teach history and write historical fiction, so I care deeply about the uneasy marriage of history and fiction in that genre label. I also think Scalia has the better argument.

Scalia draws from Sir Walter Scott, author of immensely popular 19th-century romances—what we would today call "historical novels"—to make his point. Briefly, Scott responded to accusations that he had, in novels like Ivanhoe, "adulterat[ed] the pure sources of historical knowledge" or, in Noonan's terms, lied about the past. The danger represented by his inaccuracies or adulterations is described in terms strikingly similar Noonan's: Scott was "causing history to be neglected—readers being contented with such frothy and superficial knowledge, as they acquire from your works, to the effect of inducing them to neglect the severer and more accurate sources of information."

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Scott's critics had a point—if they were looking for pure accuracy in his novels. Ivanhoe is replete with medieval stereotypes and anachronistic howlers. But pure accuracy was not his concern; telling a good story was.

Here, Scott's defense gets interesting, and he makes a point I have felt intuitively but never seen put into words before. The benefit of even a book like Ivanhoe is that, if the story excites and entertains—delights, in one half of Horace's formulation—and does these things well enough, the reader who has been touched by the story will seek out the truth behind it: 

I have turned the attention of the public on various points, which have received elucidation from writers of more learning and research, in consequence of my novels having attached some interest to them.

Or, in Scalia's words: "Historical fiction actually promotes interest in purer history."

I might amend this to "good historical fiction," since there must be excellence in execution for any art to be effective, but Scalia's summary is, in my experience and observation through hundreds of novels and films, exactly right. Accurate, if you will. 

How many readers have—on their own—dug deeper into Anglo-Saxon England or the Napoleonic Wars because of Bernard Cornwell? Or ancient Rome because of Colleen McCullough? Or Greece because of Stephen Pressfield, High Medieval Europe because of Umberto Eco, the Tudors because of Hilary Mantel, or Texas, Hawaii, Poland, and large tracts of the rest of the world because of James Michener?

All of these writers' books have problems—some of them serious, and worth serious consideration—but they have all successfully interested the public in the past, and that's something. Fiction may be the first history that many untrained readers come to, but it is often not the last.

Read both Noonan's and Scalia's pieces; they're both worth your while. I have much more I could write, especially on the reaction of some historians to a fine film like Dunkirk, but those thoughts can wait for another day.

A final thought on the value of fiction from G.K. Chesterton, a passage I return to again and again, which I'll close with sans commentary: 

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. . . . It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. Was it like Whittington's cat or like a witch's cat? Was its real name Pashtl or Puss-in-Boots? That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel. 

—from The Everlasting Man