Dr. Niall Munro, Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Oxford Brookes University, was a fellow at the Ransom Center during the summer of 2015. His research was supported by the Fred W. Todd Southern Literature Endowment Fund. Munro is at work on a book entitled “Our only ‘felt’ history”: American modernism and the Civil War. While at the Ransom Center, Munro accessed the collections of Evelyn Scott and Stark Young.
If a reminder was needed, the recent removal of the statue of Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall at the University of Texas—just yards from the Harry Ransom Center—demonstrated once again that the events and figures of the American Civil War are still deeply embedded in American collective memory. Or as William Faulkner’s character Gavin Stevens put it in Requiem for a Nun, “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
My research at the Ransom Center has been concerned with the legacy of the war in the cultural consciousness of the nation and how it was “remembered” in literature published in the 1920s and 30s. Although the book I am now writing does explore the work of well-known authors such as Faulkner, it also aims to recover those writers who were famous in their own time and produced significant Civil War narratives, but whose reputations have since fallen away–novelists from the South such as Evelyn Scott and Stark Young, both of whose papers I have examined in detail at the Center.
Scott’s 1929 novel The Wave offers a truly inclusive picture of the war, relating it in short chapters from nearly 100 perspectives. The archives at the Ransom Center include a comprehensive collection of reviews of the book, many of which greeted it as a masterpiece. It is good to be reminded just how acclaimed Scott was in her own time. Moreover, such reviews offer insight into how the Civil War was interpreted in the late 1920s.
The State newspaper in North Carolina called Scott’s book “one of the most important novels yet written by an American,” whilst The Nation, although it accepted that some readers would resist the “formlessness” of the book, argued that this was “the only way in which a thoroughly modern temperament could survey the war completely because only thus can the utter madness and senseless horror of strife be completely communicated.” As this comment indicates, The Wave caused contemporary readers to reflect not just on a fraternal shedding of blood, but also on how the country was still coming to terms with World War I.
But Scott’s novel was not met with universal acclaim, even by those closest to her. In an “Autobiographical Sketch” found amongst her papers, Scott admitted that despite adopting an impartial attitude towards the Civil War in The Wave, Southerners had regarded this as “a betrayal of an expected loyalty to the tradition to which I was born.” Scott believed that her inability to “take sides” was because even though her mother’s family was from the South, her father’s forebears were Ohio abolitionists. From an early age, she found herself at odds with that Southern tradition. As a white woman from an established family, she felt compelled to conform to certain codes of behavior.
If Scott wrestled with the traditions of the Old South, Stark Young’s 1934 novel So Red the Rose, about two plantation families in Mississippi, appears to consciously belong to the “moonlight and magnolias” school of writing that would be made famous by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind just two years later. A sometime member of the Agrarian group, which advocated a social and intellectual rebellion against the over-industrialised North, Young was a highly influential drama critic and established novelist when he published So Red the Rose. And as we follow the plot (or watch the movie version directed by King Vidor and starring Margaret Sullavan), there is indeed a sentimental treatment of landowners who like nothing more than to sit on the veranda sipping mint juleps and imagine their slaves as contentedly employed in the cotton fields.
But then the war comes. Mary McGehee, mistress of one of the richest plantations in Mississippi, and a Confederate soldier’s mother, becomes convinced that her son Edward has been killed. She journeys north to Shiloh, Tennessee, with one of her slaves to bring his body home. Shiloh was nearly a Confederate victory, but in the end it was emblematic of what became known later as the “Lost Cause,” as Southern troops were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers on the Union side. More than 20,000 men were killed or injured at Shiloh, but–at least at this stage in the novel–Young doesn’t give us any gruesome details.
However, as the manuscript pages held by the Ransom Center reveal, the battle was on Young’s mind again as he debated how to end the novel. Originally he intended to reunite the two families as if it were old times, but in his final draft, we see Mary McGehee’s mind flash back to the experience of Shiloh. But this time Young tells us what she really saw and heard there. At first, Mary recalls how the battlefield was strewn with the dead and dying; she could not avoid listening to the agonized cries of the wounded in the dark.
She was at Shiloh; but now she heard nothing, only the silence; then, inside her body, she heard her heart beating. Edward was among them somewhere but the others too were hers. She stood there looking out across the darkness and the field where the dead lay, as if they were all sleeping.
Perhaps Young intended this ending to be, as some critics have suggested, “elegiac,” an affirmation of a civilization that won’t die but will some day awake once more. But by revising the ending to something so much bleaker than his original draft, Young leaves the reader with a reminder that no matter how stoic you may be, a whole generation of young men has gone. Perhaps 8-year-old Middleton, who accompanies his mother to the cemetery, represents a new generation, but he is unable to cope and breaks down in tears when he sits with Mary in the cemetery. Even if he didn’t fight, he is to be marked forever by the memory of the Confederate dead.
If we rarely read the Civil War novels of Scott, Young, and others from the 1920s and 1930s, one book can be held responsible for that neglect. As Young’s fellow Agrarian Andrew Lytle once remarked: “What a shame that Georgia woman and her Gone with the Wind had to come out at this time. If she had been ten years on it why in God’s name couldn’t she have waited another year and added several more hundred pages.”’ In six months, Gone with the Wind had sold a million copies, and the 1939 film (explored in a recent Ransom Center exhibition) merely sustained the fervor of its reception. A Civil War novel that offered an experimental narrative like The Wave, or lacked the intensity of romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, would fail to retain its popularity in the face of such opposition. But in strikingly different ways, Scott and Young offer nuanced and complex versions of the Civil War, a conflict that did so much to determine the national character, and one that continues to shape how we understand America today.
You can find out more about Evelyn Scott from the Evelyn Scott Society at evelynscott.org, which promotes the exchange of information and scholarship about the author.