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Best Novel Of The Civil War
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
La sainte passion (De Forest makes clever use of the Creole setting to employ phrases he could not have printed in English) has other devotees in the Ravenels’ New Orleans household. One is Mrs. Larue, a relative by marriage. She is the dark temptress of the tale; but again, she is as unlike the conventional dark-haired, black-eyed vamp of popular fiction as Lillie is from Hawthorne’s Phoebe Pyncheon. Her Creole eyes and rounded shoulders offer grave dangers to Carter. After some months of military inactivity, Colonel Carter makes an “astronomical expedition” to Washington (that is, he seeks the political patronage that will bring him a brigadier’s star). Mrs. Larue conveniently takes passage on the same ship. Though Carter tries feebly to fend her off, he is no match for a woman who spouts Michelet by moonlight and drapes her bare shoulders in a diaphanous veil. The inevitable seduction soon takes place.
When the adultery is discovered by the Ravenels, Lillie and her baby son leave Louisiana and the Colonel. Carter, genuinely sorry for his error but also slightly mystified that they were making “so much of the affair; such affairs were altogether too common to be made so much of,” takes to the field and leads his brigade into the battle of Cane River, where he dies, bravely and profanely, with a Minié ball in his side. Captain Colburne, matured by battle as Lillie is matured by marriage, returns at last to New Boston and wins the pretty widow. “It grieves me,” the author concludes, “to leave this young woman thus on the threshold of her history. Here she is, at twenty-three, with but one child, and only at her second husband. Two-thirds of her years and heart history are probably before her. Women are most interesting at thirty: … then only do they attain their highest charm as members of society.” As the ironic and dispassionate chronicler of domestic life and feminine psychology, De Forest is surely the superior of most of his predecessors in American fiction, and in this novel at least, he is the peer of Henry James and Howells at their best.
But Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is much larger than a love story. The novel includes social profiles of northern and southern cities, political life in Barataria and Washington, contraband cotton intrigue, a plantation experiment by Dr. Ravenel with Negro freedmen, and a cast of characters drawn from every social class. De Forest’s Negroes and Irish soldiers, his saloonkeeperpoliticians, his Butternut cavalrymen from Texas, represent virtually the whole spectrum of national types. De Forest is at pains to demonstrate that our Civil War affected everyone, from the Governor of Barataria down to “Major” Scott, the leader of the ex-slaves on Ravenel’s farm who has such trouble with the Seventh Commandment.
At times, to be sure, the Yankee moralist’s voice drowns out that of the detached social historian. Such often happens with the theme of temperance. He still recoils from the evils of drunkenness as he came to know them in the South and in the Army. Through Edward Colburne (in some respects the author’s alter ego) the novel preaches the cold-water cause. Nevertheless, De Forest is capable at times of talking like a modern sociologist. This mark of resolute honesty is most clearly manifest in his battlefield and hospital scenes. Compared to them, the bloody episodes in the novels of his more popular contemporaries ring about as true as the libretto of an operetta.
This may be most neatly observed in the case of John Esten Cooke, whose Mohun in 1869 so far outsold Miss Ravenel’s Conversion . Cooke was a Virginian, and his story helped to initiate that southern conquest of the North by book, myth, and movie that began right after Appomattox and has yet to stop. Cooke knew the realities of war as well as De Forest, for he had served on General Jeb Stuart’s staff, but when it came to putting them on paper he preferred the grandiose imprecisions of romanticism. Here, for example, is a typical battle passage from Mohun : I set out at full gallop, and soon reached the column. At the head of it rode Young, the beau sabreur of Georgia, erect, gallant, with his brave eye and smile.
I pointed out the enemy and gave the order.
“All right!” exclaimed Young, and, turning to his men, he whirled his sabre around his head and shouted,
The Column thundered on, and as it passed I recognized Mohun, his flashing eye and burnished sabre gleaming from the dust cloud. …
“Charge!” rose from a hundred lips. Spurs were buried in the hot flanks; the mass was hurled at the enemy; and clashing like thunder, sword against sword, swept everything before it.
De Forest’s months and years in the field had been served with the infantry, not with the cavalry, and this perhaps helps to explain the down-to-earth, anti-chivalrous accuracy of his prose. Unlike Cooke, whose episodes all run together in a welter of adjectives and repeated metaphors, De Forest makes us see and hear each moment of battle.