Conflict of Lasting Interest to novelists.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)

Article excerpt


The torrent of factual literature inspired by the Civil War flows unabated. The market shows no indication of having reached saturation point. This has been the case for decades. It also is true of the fictional approach to the war, although there seems to be less of the latter.

It may be interesting to look briefly at six novels in which the war plays a major or minor role, beginning with one published two years after hostilities ceased and ending with one that appeared almost a century after the North and South began to fight. Writing styles, story lines and characters differ markedly; not all books cater to the same kind of reader.

"Miss Ravenel's Conversion From Secession to Loyalty" (1867) was written by John William De Forest (1826-1906), a cotton manufacturer's son from Humphreysville, Conn. De Forest had attracted interest with his "History of the Indians of Connecticut" (1851) but then turned to fiction - "Witching Times" (1856), which was serialized in Putnam's Magazine.

He served under Gen. Philip Sheridan during the war, which explains the stark realism of his battle scenes in "Miss Ravenel's Conversion." Stylishly written but somewhat superficial, it is concerned with a young lady who, choosing between two suitors, marries an unfaithful one. De Forest gives an impression of standing back from his story as an amused observer. The book was not a success but is attracting attention now as a period piece. Other novels followed, but "Miss Ravenel's Conversion" is the one for which he is remembered.

"The Red Badge of Courage" (1895) is world-famous. Stephen Crane (1871-1900), a tragic figure, was born in Newark, N.J., and, suffering from tuberculosis, died young in Germany. His years as a war correspondent served him in good stead: He wrote much about war, along with other topics and poetry. His short but finely crafted masterpiece is centered around young Henry Fleming, who flees from the battlefield but regains his courage. The horrors of war are seen from the viewpoint of common soldiers fighting for the Union.

Stark Young's (1881-1963) "So Red the Rose" (1934) did well until Margaret Mitchell's runaway best seller eclipsed it. Set in Mississippi, it reveals uncritically, in somewhat idiosyncratic prose and dialogue, the pride and courage of the plantocracy, seemingly secure in its rather restricted world until the tides of war lapped against and ultimately overwhelmed it. …