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Best Novel Of The Civil War
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Besides this fund of first-hand military experience De Forest had little to recommend him in 1865 as the potential author of a major novel. Before the war, it is true, he had published five books—two novels, two travel books, and a history of the Indians of Connecticut—but none of these had caught the popular fancy. His personal experience had perhaps been wider than that of other Connecticut Yankees; he had lived in Syria and in Europe and read widely in French, Italian, Russian, and English literature. Tolstoy’s War and Peace , which was begun a short time before Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , was not available to De Forest until some years later; it is clear, however, that the Russian and his provincial American contemporary were both attempting the same feat: to write a national prose epic on the theme of war.
Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , then, grew out of De Forest’s European experience as well as his American, and is distinctly European in scope and tone. Like Thackeray and George Eliot, De Forest is not concerned with unusual individuals isolated from society, but rather with normal people in constant and concrete relationship with their world. In other words, De Forest is a social realist; in fact, he is one of the very first in our literature. Twenty years before Howells and Garland initiated realism in this country, De Forest had already naturalized the European novel and given it classic expression in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .
De Forest was a pioneer, and his book suffered the fate often reserved for trail blazers. It was a complete failure with the reading public of 1867, the year Miss Ravenel’s Conversion actually appeared, because it was ahead of its time. Not many people in 1867 were prepared to confront the brutalities, the sectional hypocrisies, and the corruption which, in De Forest’s narrative, went along with the heroism and sacrifice of the war. To be sure, a few discerning critics like William Dean Howells of the Atlantic Monthly praised De Forest’s book, and this esteem served to keep its reputation alive in subsequent generations. In 1939, partly as a result of the national love affair with Gone With the Wind, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion was at last reprinted and caused a flurry of interest.
The present-day reader, inured by Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and James Jones to the soldier’s patois , and trained by historians to detect oversimplified versions of the Civil War, is in an even better position to appreciate De Forest’s forthrightness and his keen understanding. If we can keep our own perspective and yet enter imaginatively into John De Forest’s, we can find in this work not only a forgotten masterpiece of American fiction but also one of the earliest and most discerning images of the Civil War as the crisis of American culture.
In keeping with the canons of realism, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion has a commonplace plot. De Forest asks us to imagine a family of refugees, a widower father and his blonde, blue-eyed daughter, come to New Boston, in the little New England state of Barataria, from New Orleans in the months just after Sumter. Dr. Ravenel is a mineralogist and in spite of southern birth an implacable foe of slavery. “Ashantee” is his sarcastic nickname for southern society. Lillie Ravenel, however, like most young people, is passionately devoted to her native region and openly exults in the faces of the New Bostonians at the news from Bull Run. So she has little more than a flirtation with Edward Colburne, the patriotic and athletic young lawyer who manifestly prefers her company to that of the college widows who hang like ivy on the social fringes of staid Winslow University. Lillie is attracted instead to a handsome, red-faced Virginian, Colonel John Carter. This charming, irreverent, sherry-drinking West Pointer has not followed his state into secession but is instead recruiting a Baratarian regiment.
Colburne raises a company to serve under Carter, and the scene shifts to the battlefields of Louisiana and Mississippi. Lillie and her father return to New Orleans, where the Doctor is treated as a traitor and beaten over the head one dark night. This event begins to influence Lillie’s ideology. Illogically, but inevitably, she begins “to see that Secession was indefensible, and that the American Union ought to be preserved.”
Equally illogical but believable is Lillie’s marriage to Carter. Though she has the hair and eyes of the traditional romantic heroine, Lillie is a very different character from fictional figurines in Godey’s Lady’s Book . For one thing, she has a sense of humor. For another, she is a wife capable of sexual feeling. “It was curious,” De Forest observes, “to see how slowly she got accustomed to her husband. … She frequently blushed at encountering him, as if he were still a lover. If she met the bold gaze of his wide-open brown eyes, she trembled with an inward thrill and wanted to say, ‘Please don’t look at me so!’ He could tyrannize over her with his eyes; he could make her come to him and try to hide from them by nestling her head on his shoulder; he used to wonder at his power and gratify his vanity as well as his affection by using it.”