On Personal Ground
Madison Jones looks at the Civil War
By Marc K. Stengel and Shelton Clark
JULY 13, 1998: In one playful sense, the very career of Madison Jones is a war between the states. Although he is a Tennessee native and one of Nashville's favorite literary sons, he has, since 1956, been claimed by Alabama as writer-in-residence and professor--now emeritus--of English at Auburn University. Last fall, Jones released his 10th novel, as if to signify the well-rounded symmetry of an acclaimed career. Nashville 1864: The Dying of the Light was published in Nashville by J.S. Sanders & Company. His first foray into the crowded and prickly field of Civil War writing, the novel has just garnered the first annual Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction, presented by the United States Civil War Center at Louisiana State University.
"I have to admit that Nashville 1864 was a bit of a departure for me," Jones confides. "I'm not really a Civil War buff in the sense of someone who reads everything he can get about the Civil War. I haven't really read a great deal about it at all, in fact. I had never read [Nashvillian] Stanley Horn's The Decisive Battle of Nashville, for example, until I began to kick around the idea. As it turned out, his book was essential to me, especially for figuring out some geographical matters.
"The Battle of Nashville sort of got shuffled off in Civil War history. In the first place, the West in general was shuffled off. There was so much glamour connected with Lee and Jackson and Virginia as the heart of the old, old South. People just sort of neglected the war in the West in fact and in history. Not much weight was put on the loss of Nashville in 1862 and then, of course, in the final battle in 1864. But actually, that was the end of the war for all practical purposes. After that, Lee was simply brilliantly hanging on."
Jones, now 73, grew up in Nashville and on a family farm near the Sycamore Creek community in Cheatham County. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, he studied with Donald Davidson, the noted and uncompromising Agrarian poet and historian. Jones then took his stand as a master's degree candidate at the University of Florida, where another revered Agrarian, Andrew Lytle, helped forge the student's literary talents into that rare blend of fiction which is at once "serious" and popular.
"Although it's hard to say just how much influence my familiarity with Nashville had on me," he says, "I did have the sense of being on personal ground; and I assume that has contributed to whatever virtues the book has in terms of making fiction seem as real as it can seem. My grandfather, who was born before the war, lived with his family on White's Creek Pike. The Yankees did come and take all of their stock and whatnot. From the time of about my 6th birthday, I lived in a house that belonged to my grandfather, and I spent a lot of time with him.
"He would sometimes read to me about the Civil War and tell me some about his own personal experience in it. He remembered a good deal about it. He was a little bit younger than my hero in the book [Steven Moore]. In 1864, he would have been only 9 years old; I made my hero 12 years old. But when I wrote the book, it was a little bit like writing about family. I mean, I just felt familiar with everything. My grandfather certainly didn't do anything like what Steven did, nor did anything specific about his life suggest my story. I just got to thinking about a boy looking for his father after the war, which in a certain way made me think of all the sons of the South looking for their fatherland, so to speak."
Jones' depiction of the Civil War South is far more than a hard chronicle of belligerent actions and army bivouacs. It is a delicate portrait, too, of the extended and complicated family that antebellum Southern society represented before its lambent, fading flame was forever extinguished.
"Another thing I took from my grandfather was the slave boy Dink," he explains. "I don't know what Dink was actually like, although my grandfather used to talk about how he and Dink played together. He was my grandfather's companion.
"One thing, I think, might well be said: I have presented my story as the memoir--the recollection--of a man writing in 1900 about his boyhood experiences of the Civil War. I represented what I thought a man like that would think and feel. I purposefully did not give it any 20th-century perspective. This device, I think, has wrongfully laid the book open to the interpretation of some rather bigoted folks--politically correct folks--who said it was pro-slavery and that I was so biased, and so forth.
"Well in fact, the point is, this was a man who was telling a story and seeing it as he would have seen it at that time and from his own experience. I think the better reviewers and readers have accepted that premise rather than become alarmed or outraged as a few others did. Steven Moore didn't defend slavery, but he said a lot of things that certainly modified the supposed horrors of it."
It is hard if not impossible to get Jones to acknowledge the awards his work has attracted, or the esteem in which he is held both as novelist and as teacher. He will, however, fall comfortably into conversation about the larger topic of fiction as an enterprise--the aim of which, ultimately, is to merge writer and reader in a unique and mysterious communion.
"There is what I consider genuine, serious fiction and then what I consider entertainment," he observes. "It's hard to make any absolute distinction, and there are other examples that seem to fuse the two. But certainly you can tell whether the writer has anything on his mind. I guess that's what you'd say: anything on his mind.
"Even so, I sincerely believe that if you really get into the life of a piece of fiction, your philosophical ideas tend to fade away, and you just get absorbed in what unfolds. That's what should happen; and if it does, the reader will not have a sense of being preached to, or of things being set up to bear out the author's opinions. Once it becomes apparent that the author is changing things around to make his point, then you cease to believe; and the fiction ceases to be really effective, or any good at all."
--Marc K. Stengel
Battle fatigueThe Last Full Measure, by Jeff Shaara (Ballantine, $25.95) Historical fiction, particularly war fiction, is by its very definition mythic. And no war holds as much mythic sway in this country as the Civil War does. As a result, Civil War novelists must make a choice: Do they seek to be historically faithful, or do they tap into this mythic power to create something more inventive, more compelling? In the case of Jeff Shaara's The Last Full Measure, the author clearly has chosen to stick to the first option. His well-researched book may not be especially imaginative, but it's certainly an accurate, multi-perspective reconstruction of events.
Shaara's father, Michael, won the Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. After the elder Shaara's death, Jeff (a former rare-coins dealer) wrote a well-received sequel, Gods and Generals. The Last Full Measure completes this trilogy, following the war's post-Gettysburg denouement.
Shaara's skill is in painting characters that most of us know only from historical textbooks. Each chapter is dedicated to a single day's events, taken from the perspective of men such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. It is perhaps no surprise that Lee is portrayed as a deeply religious, thoughtful man. Interestingly, Shaara suggests that Grant was far more valuable to the Union cause than history has so far given him credit for. Although the general has often been lampooned for his alcoholism--James Thurber's sardonic reenactment of Appomattox depicted a hung-over Grant surrendering to Lee--Shaara contends that Grant was a master tactician in the face of an impatient press corps and several incompetent Union commanders.
As with war itself, the fascination, and sometimes the frustration, of The Last Full Measure, is the planning, the preparation, the waiting for each battle to unfold. But Shaara effectively juxtaposes the planning stages of war with the gruesome reality of war itself. At one time thought to be fought by gentlemen, it's clear that the conflict between the states became increasingly barbaric. In the author's presentation, the movements of regiments and the strategies of flanks are conceptual; the cries of dying soldiers and the marches past dozens of corpses are painfully human.
Interestingly, Shaara follows up the lives of the war's principals--reminding the reader that the nation did indeed pull itself back together after the war. But all this history, of course, begs a question: Does Shaara's exhaustively researched book work as a piece of fiction? The author clearly wishes to be faithful to the events and the players in the Civil War, and as such, he can't really be expected to tinker with plotting and resolution. But if readers are looking to experience history vicariously, they couldn't find a better volume.
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