Telling How It Was

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He is always on the side of the ordinary soldier, never loses sight of the fact that it was he who had actually to carry out the grandiose battle plans drawn up by generals and politicians, North and South. But the Big Picture is never neglected; Foote explains clearly just what those huge blue and gray armies were trying to do and includes persuasive portraits of all the important leaders, some of them surprising. He clearly admires both of the South’s most unrelenting conquerors, Grant and Sherman, for example, while managing to make at least this unreconstructed Northerner more sympathetic to the problems faced by Jefferson Davis and more admiring of the dash and generalship even of Nathan Bedford Forrest than I would have ever thought possible.

At the same time, he is unblinking about the dark side of the Confederacy and blessedly unromantic about the Lost Cause. His second volume was first published in 1963, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights that neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction had managed to secure. In his acknowledgments to that volume he includes a tribute to “the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen that it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction—deriving, as it does, its scale from the performers—is in miniature.”

At $15.95 a book (and $50.00 for a boxed set of all three volumes), The Civil War: A Narrative is a spectacular bargain; I can’t imagine a more rewarding Christmas gift for anyone interested in a masterful retelling of the best story Americans know.

Slavery was at the center of the Civil War, of course, yet that war’s great unwritten story remains that of the slaves themselves. They left few records, may have spoken frankly about slavery only to one another, and, once freed, understandably did their best to put its horrors behind them.

In Beloved (published by Knopf), an extraordinary new work of creative imagination, the novelist Toni Morrison— The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon —attempts to re-create the world of the slave and the ex-slave from the inside.

I hesitate to call Beloved a “historical novel” because of the unfortunate connotations that phrase inevitably conjures up. No bodices are ripped here; no research is paraded to fill pages; there isn’t a moment of easy pageantry. Beloved isn’t about slavery in any pedantic or political sense; it contains no stereotypes, racial or otherwise.

I can’t imagine a better gift for anyone interested in a masterful retelling of the best story Americans know.

Rather, it is about the interior life of human beings—a grandmother, a mother, offspring, old friends, and total strangers—all of whom happen to have been shaped by having once been slaves and who are living in Ohio eight years after the war’s end, when the book begins.

There is a kernel of hard historical fact at its core. While compiling The Black Book , a sort of scrapbook of snippets of black history back in 1973, Morrison came across a white Cincinnati clergyman’s 1856 account of his visit to Margaret Garner, an imprisoned runaway who, before the slavers that hunted her down could stop her, slit the throat of one of her four children and tried to kill the rest rather than have any of them returned to bondage. She seemed eerily calm sitting there in her cell, the sympathetic but baffled preacher reported. “I was as cool as I am now,” she told him, “and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings than have them be taken back to slavery and be murdered by piece-meal.”

But the novel’s protagonist shares only the awful fact of her infant’s murder with the authentic Margaret Garner; her personality and the wholly persuasive world the author has built around it are entirely Morrison’s own creation. I will not spoil the pleasure of the plot by giving away what happens, even in broad outline, but I think it fair to say that few books, fiction or nonfiction, have ever succeeded so well in conveying what it was to have been someone else’s property, to know, as one former slave says toward the end, “that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.”

Beloved also raises a more general question that must trouble anyone interested in history and its impact: How would any of us measure up, it asks, if, like its haunted central character, we were given a second chance, an opportunity to right wrongs we’d done.

In a note at the end of the first volume of his massive narrative, Shelby Foote asserts that “the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was : to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.”