Fiction Fights the Civil War

Fiction Fights the Civil War

This week, Muster begins a series on recent fiction about slavery and the Civil War. Interest in how the war is represented in popular literature remains unabated because the legacies of slavery and the war endure, a point emphasized by Carole Emberton in her roundtable review of Underground Airlines. Who determines the meaning of those legacies in large measure informs our current political moment. And though that might be true of any period in the last 150 years, it seems especially so now, one year after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Urgency does not lessen the difficulty of dislodging dominant narratives, however. “Deeply embedded in American mythology of mission, and serving as the mother lode of nostalgia for antimodernists and military history buffs,” David Blight explained, the Civil War remains very difficult to shuck from its shell of sentimentalism. “Over time,” he continued, “Americans have needed deflections from the deeper meanings of the Civil War. It haunts us still, we feel it […] but often do not face it.”[1] The politics of memory is a tricky business, as Blight and others have demonstrated. This roundtable looks at recent works that stare into the belly of the beast, that seek to reimagine what the war might mean.

It opens with Catherine Clinton’s review of Charles Frazier’s Varina (2018), which Clinton reads as an atonement to Frazier’s blockbuster 1997 novel Cold Mountain. Frazier’s creation of James Blake, an African American child orphaned by the war and adopted by the Confederacy’s first family, allowed the author to confront head on those topics he evaded in his debut novel. In so doing, he also forced himself to grapple with his own role in perpetuating a narrative of the Civil War that ignores (or denies) the centrality of slavery to the conflict.

Timothy J. Williams reviews Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, published originally in French and Creole in 1997, but only recently translated into English by Linda Coverdale. The world Chamoiseau created is governed by power structures erected by sugar planters in colonial Martinique. But once the old man escapes the plantation, he dissolves into the colony’s primordial “forestine soul” where time is not marked by particular events that occur in sequential order. In this world, Williams explains, distinctions evaporate, including those between past and present, between Africa and colonial Martinique, between memory and history.

Slave Old Man is not the only epic tale reviewed in this roundtable. Hilary Green reviews James McBride’s Good Lord Bird (2013)an imaginative retelling of John Brown’s final years. The novel suggests that Brown was a man of twists and turns. Or, to borrow from Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, Brown was a complicated man. And Green notes in her review of the (in)famous abolitionist occupies an ambiguous position in American memory. In this novel, McBride engages this conflicted legacy by turning attention away from Brown, although his presence lingers, to an invented character, Brown’s ersatz son, Henry Shackleford. Henry emerges as the tale’s protagonist, a Telemachus-figure in search of his patrimony. Henry’s recollections, the literary device that frames the novel, offer readers a way into African American collective memory.

Carole Emberton’s review of Ben Winters’ genre-bending novel Underground Airlines (2016) reminds readers that not all counterfactual narratives of the Civil War avoid slavery’s legacy. Instead of imagining a world in which the Confederacy had won, Winters’ imagines a world in which the Civil War had never taken place, a world in which slavery still exists in four states and shows no signs of dying out. The novel’s protagonist, a former slave turned fugitive slave catcher, is every bit as complicated as John Brown. And the world in which he inhabits is as every bit as complicated as our own, in large measure because it is our own.

The series concludes with Nina Silber’s review of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). It is commonplace for publishers to boost their lists by claiming for one of their titles, “the most eagerly anticipated novel of the year.” In the case of Lincoln in the Bardo, however, publicists were not far off the mark. The novel was Saunders’ first in nearly a two-decade career as one of the nation’s most acclaimed writers of short fiction. It is perhaps fitting that Saunders returned in this novel to the Civil War and its persistent influence on contemporary society. The titular story of his first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a tale of a dilapidated theme park set in the not-too-distant future, shares with his first novel an interest in haunted landscapes and similarly offers a meditation on horrific violence. That story ends in a bloodbath, with little sense that the repetitive loop of commemoration and violence will end. Lincoln in the Bardo ends differently and, as Silber suggests, holds out the possibility for both empathy and justice.


Now that the roundrable has ended, our guest editor’s concluding post can be found here.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.

Sarah Gardner

Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University. She is currently writing a book on reading during the American Civil War.

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