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Best Novel Of The Civil War
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
On went the regiments, moving at the ordinary quick-step, arms at a right-shoulder-shift, ranks closed, gaps filled, unfaltering, heroic. The dead were falling; the wounded were crawling in numbers to the rear; the leisurely hum of long-range bullets had changed into the sharp, multitudinous whit-whit of close firing; the stifled crash of balls hitting bones and the soft chuck of flesh wounds mingled with the outcries of the sufferers; the bluff in front was smoking, rattling, wailing with the incessant file fire; but the front of the Brigade remained unbroken, and its rear showed no stragglers. The right hand regiment floundered in a swamp, but the others hurried on without waiting for it. As the momentum of the movement increased, as the spirits of the men rose with the charge, a stern shout broke forth, something between a hurrah and a yell, swelling up against the Rebel musketry and defying it. Gradually the pace increased to a double-quick, and the whole mass ran for an eighth of a mile through the whistling bullets. The second fence disappeared like frost-work, and up the slope of the hill struggled the panting regiments. When the foremost ranks had nearly reached the summit, a sudden silence stifled the musketry. Polignac’s line wavered, ceased firing, broke, and went to the rear in confusion. The clamor of the charging yell redoubled for a moment and then died in the roar of a tremendous volley. Now the Union line was firing, and now the Rebels were falling. Such was the charge which carried the crossing and gained the battle of Cane River.
De Forest has allowed his mighty subject to provide the emotion for the events; he has dispensed with the language of metaphor. Herein lies one of his signal contributions to American literature. If a major problem for the modern writer has been to devise ways to purify language of inherited abuses, here is an early forerunner of Crane and Hemingway who has done just that.
Implicit in De Forest’s style and subject matter is a second innovation in American letters. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is consciously aimed at both male and female readers, at the casual magazine subscriber as well as at the serious highbrow. This attempt to widen and deepen the American novel-reading audience was singlehanded, premature, and a failure; De Forest was not able to expand the narrow and timid sensibilities of a predominantly feminine clientele wedded to books like Mohun . But the effort is worth our respect today, for it demonstrates one man’s determination to redefine the writer’s relation to society, a connection traditionally tenuous and thwarting for most of our finest nineteenth-century writers, by presenting to that society something new—a full and meticulously honest image of itself. In 1867, we are forced to conclude, American men and women did not choose to gaze into a mirror as clear and revealing as Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .
That the candor of De Forest’s style extended to other areas is demonstrated by the intelligence of his analysis of the underlying conditions and the possible consequences of the Civil War. Almost half a century before Charles Beard and the economic determinists, John De Forest had the insight to play down simple minded abolitionist explanations and to note the importance of cotton, the spirit of capitalistic speculation, and the political party as shaping factors in the sectional conflict. He saw the war as an immensely complicated confrontation of industrial democracy and a vicious aristocracy.
Happily, the common man had triumphed and slavery had been abolished, but the two were not necessarily connected phenomena. Nor were they necessarily happy auguries for the future. Whether that struggle would impart to the reunited nation “a manlier, nobler tone” De Forest did not know. He did, however, recognize the dangers that lay ahead, and Miss Ravenel’s Conversion has much wider significance than simply as an interesting literary curiosity. Because of De Forest’s experiences, his novel literary code, and his notions of audience, his book offers an image of the Civil War peculiarly revealing of the American mind on the eve of peace. It is an image amazingly free of sectional bias. Through a realistic imagination have been filtered the common experiences of the critical years behind an uncommon vision of the troubled decades ahead.