Coincidentally, just as I was beginning to write this blog post on the danger of having work reviewed, I received a very welcome note that was relayed from Mildred James, the remarkable woman whose hundredth birthday was recognized on this site just over a year ago. The note felt very relevant for it included comments from Mildred’s daughter on a newspaper article that, in noting her mother’s 101st birthday, got a number of facts and names wrong and misquoted Mildred on what it was like to turn 101. I won’t repeat the misquote but tell you what Mildred actually said: “I don’t feel much different than when I was 100. Inside every old person is a young person trying to figure out what happened.”
While it’s never pleasant to have something you said misrepresented in even a small way, I sympathized particularly with Mildred and her daughter because of a review of Suite Harmonic that appeared this week in the Civil War Monitor. As my friend Peter Hessler put it, “It’s not an awful review.” In fact, it has many generous things to say, and I’ve already addressed my main concerns in a comment I posted on the Monitor website. Still, I find myself troubled about two things I didn’t fully explore. They matter to me in a way that means I want to talk about them here.
The first is the lesser matter. The reviewer, who works as a state archives records management analyst and is clearly passionate about her work with “highly localized, primary-source family” documents, writes that the epigraphs at the beginning of the Suite chapters “lend undue authority to the chapters that follow.” After considering this, I think she means quoting from an actual document requires that everything that follows be wholly factual, a view that becomes part of her seeming argument against the existence of historical fiction itself, with Suite Harmonic a particular offender since its fictional elements exist in a work so “deeply researched.” To me, this is not only odd, but skews the reading of the book. The epigraphs are added for color and sometimes for poignancy, their purpose to set a tone that also gives the reader a glimpse of the sorts of documents that help a writer generate story.
Splash of cold water to my face here.
To go on, as I indicated at the end of the Suite Harmonic acknowledgments, my purpose in writing it was to re-create John Given’s world and experience as faithfully as possible and “to internalize the facts of that world in order to make the shimmering story implicit in them emerge with all the force of imagined life.” Part of my method was unusual in that all the named characters of Suite, even the most everyday and minor ones, are based on actual people gleaned from the historical record, particularly John’s letters. There were two exceptions, as I say in a note at the end of the book. I created Bridget as an assumed character in the Given family because of the gap in children’s ages, the fact of the Potato Famine, and the Irish naming tradition that strongly suggested a missing second daughter named after the paternal grandmother. Adding Biddy provided an important plot vehicle for considering the Given family life in Donegal.
The other character I added was an African American clerk, Hamilton, who works alongside John Given in Decatur, Alabama. Though his role is small, Hamilton serves a significant purpose in following the racial arc of the story. Since Suite Harmonic is about the Civil War, race is by definition part of its back story and it was something I was very concerned with from the outset. I specifially did not want to project current attitudes onto the past. Rather, I wanted to recognize that many Union soldiers and certainly many Irish ones were not only not abolitionists but held racist views. I also wanted to give an accurate depiction of John Given based on the man I knew from his letters, from family stories, and from the rest of the paper trail I found.
As I said in answering the interview question from Paulette Alden, I would have altered or abandoned the project of writing about John if I’d found a smoking gun of racism. This comment and the fact that I created Hamilton (there’s no mention of Biddy) became the focus of the Suite Harmonic reviewer. She considered them a violation of my promise to “reconstruct John’s world with as much fidelity as possible.” Here’s a small but pertinent detour: another of my great-grandfathers was named after a man who was well known for the sole fact of being a racist. If I were writing about him in documenting family history, I would of course include that information, as I am here, and not alter the fact that his father, at least, held racist views. But John Given was not only my great-grandfather; he is the main character of a novel. Regardless of how closely a work of fiction is based on historical fact—consider the work of Hilary Mantel—it is the business of literature to reach for the deepest human truths that can’t be suggested only by a presentation of facts. It is the important work of the novelist to evoke them imaginatively.
John, the man I grew to know over so many years of unearthing his story, was always a man on a quest, always someone who, after lengthy reflection, could change his outlook. That truth is written into everything he did and it made my path clearer as I worked to link his experience to the racial background of the war. Suite Harmonic has so many scenes that touch on race—John in his card game discussion on the boat on his way back to the 25th and Shiloh, his teasing Kate over her abolitionist sentiments, his elaborate anti-Lincoln riff in one of his letters, his discussions with Reverend Heuring and at the campfire with his cousin Menomen, his fascination with multi-racial Memphis, his decision about the vote he cast in 1864 when “it wasn’t his own voice or Kate’s that he heard . . . but his Grandfather Given’s just as though he were standing beside him and talking quietly into his ear: You can vote, John? You can vote for freedom for a man? Then do it, lad. What are you waiting for?
Then this from the 25th’s trainwreck on the way back from the Siege of Atlanta: “The train’s forward cars had jumped the track into a patch of vines that had already begun to change to their fall color. They made a meandering stripe of red. It looked like blood from a wound that had flowed as far away as it could get from its source. John stared. It reminded him of something, though it took a moment before he remembered what. Then he knew. Once at headquarters in Memphis, he’d heard a general say that the mark of the Southern states was miscegenation, that it ran clear through them like a bright red thread so that the South, with its florid tales of chivalry and fine Southern womanhood and the whole rest of its elaborate mythology, was largely just kidding itself. John had been struck by the comment. He remembered the conclusion he’d drawn for himself: that the red thread was the mixed blood that kept coiling back to the heart of the South, but that it was mixed only in terms of idea. He had seen Hamilton’s blood—the elegant clerk, and he was elegant—and it was like any other man’s blood. It was exactly like the whole river of blood he’d seen in this war.”
And more–the other men’s arguments about black troops, particularly the ones not used as planned at the Siege of Petersburg, the linkage in John’s mind of the speech on race given by a Confederate in the Richmond statehouse and his thoughts on whether Levi might have heard black troops racing down the streets when Richmond was taken.
In her laser focus on Hamilton, it is the reviewer’s contention that John’s thoughts near the end of Suite Harmonic are an illustration of what she calls the book’s “21st century commentary” on race and one that reduces the “history of American race relations” to a simple notion that African Americans “can be intelligent, too” (her construction, which she underlines with a sarcastic getaway line). This is the passage she quotes: “What, after all, had he known of the politics of America when he arrived at twenty-one? When had he ever owned a slave? How was he accountable for an institution he could never have imagined, let alone have fostered? And for that matter, when he had finally begun to know a black man in Hamilton the clerk, hadn’t he acknowledged to himself that he didn’t feel his superior?”
She does not, however, go on to quote the culmination of John’s whole adulthood of considering race as he remembers the Grand Review on the last New Year’s Day of his life. I will.
“The black men who trailed the forward division moved their families and mules into the line. John heard a scurry, a squawking of turkeys and squealing of pigs. Laughter rolled through the troops. A black boy had battled two turkeys apart and held one firmly in his arms and ducked his head away from its beak.
“A young boy. A boy like the shy one who had held John’s berry pail the day before when he’d gone out looking for early huckleberries. John watched him and the turkey in his grasp. He knew that he’d not gone to war for such a boy. He had gone for honor, for Union, for a sense of belonging and for some idea of manhood that had long since drifted away. He had gone as a son, but not for this boy. Yet somewhere along the way, they’d become inseparable—the boy with the pail, the boy with the turkey, and young John Given in Donegal: an Irish lad layering the peat from the bogs in even-cut rows and then resting against his shovel to stare at the moody sky. Yearning. Always yearning.”
With John Given, I not only did not find the smoking gun of racism, but met a man who, as I read him, tried to understand his adopted country and himself through the prism of race. I worked to reveal his real and likely thoughts as an evolution, with Hamilton playing a small but key role as the sort of acquaintance—an educated black man hired as an army clerk—John might well have worked beside. To say Hamilton exists only to bolster a simplistic view of race seems far off the mark. For the fact is that there‘s nothing but complexity in John’s experience of race. In that sense, perhaps he does reflect the 21st century, though by projecting forward, not back.
But to return to the original idea of this post and the matter of having work reviewed and just how that went, I’d say it’s not been so bad. It’s given me a chance to ponder things with John Given once more and to remember scenes I haven’t thought of in quite a while. And the fact is that the reviewer did get the crucial part down: she spelled my name right, something the reporter who wrote about Aunt Mildred didn’t actually do. We’ll fix that now. That hyphenated name you’ve adopted as a contemporary woman, Aunt Mildred? Of course, it’s not Propts-James as the reporter spelled it. It’s Propst-James and, with the Mildred added, it’s the name of one of the world’s very best and real people.