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Marching back in time

Know the name John De Forest? Didn’t think so. I didn’t, at least until the other day when I happened to pick up a Penguin Classics novel with the odd and clumsy title of “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.”

According to the excellent introduction by English professor Gary Scharnhorst (six biographies of leading 19th-century American authors to his credit), De Forest’s work was one of the first – and still is one of the best – novels ever written about the American Civil War. William Dean Howells considered that it exhibited “an advanced realism before realism was known by that name,” and was “one of the best American novels” ever written.

We all know and admire Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” but Crane had not even been born when the Civil War ended. De Forest, on the other hand, saw considerable active service as a captain in the 12th Connecticut Regimental Volunteers in the battles of Georgia Landing and Bisland and in the siege of Port Hudson in Louisiana in 1862-63. And he also saw action in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in Virginia in 1864.

The introduction reminds us that De Forest was indeed an unusual figure, rare among men of his generation, being both a professional writer and a soldier. It is worth noting that such literary figures as Whitman, Howells, Henry James, Bret Harte and, except for a brief two-week period in a Confederate militia unit, Mark Twain all avoided military service during the Civil War. After De Forest’s death at the age of 80, his tombstone was engraved with a crossed pen and sword.

Born the son of a paper and textile manufacturer some 10 miles from New Haven, he was raised by an intensely pious mother. A sister-in-law described him at the age of 20 as “one of the most truly godly men I have ever known.” A bout of typhoid fever kept him from enrolling in Yale and left him with a fragile constitution. He traveled to Syria for his health and, early in 1850, spent the next four years as a dilettante in England, France, Germany and Italy and became fluent in French and Italian. The knowledge of French stood him in good stead when he came to write his Civil War novel, where he was able to express some daring for the period thoughts in French that he couldn’t have voiced in English without risking censure.

Howells, then editor of the highly influential Atlantic Monthly, always supported that novel, as well as other works by De Forest. In his column in Harper’s, as late as 1887, he wrote that even when “put by the side of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” it is an admirable novel and spacious enough for the vast drama glimpsed in it.” Henry James, in reviewing it for The Nation, wholeheartedly praised De Forest’s “excellent description of campaigning in the terrible swamps and forests of Louisiana and in the trenches at Port Hudson.”

The plot line is fairly simple. Lillie Ravenel, a pretty fair-haired young thing has come north from New Orleans with her father, a worthy doctor and geologist, who supports the Union. Lillie harbors rebel sympathies up North. The Ravenels meet young Edward Colburne who immediately, if ever so discreetly, is smitten with Lillie’s charms – if not at all in accord with her politics. We also meet Colonel John Carter, a Virginia gentleman and West Point graduate, whose sympathies are with the Union. Carter is an admirable literary creation, even if De Forest at his publisher’s request had to smooth down some of the Colonel’s rougher, more realistic edges vis-?-vis his drinking, his swearing and his taste for the ladies. Henry James apparently was much impressed by Carter, declaring him “well-depicted; daguerreotyped from nature.”

Lillie is much taken with the dashing Colonel. She and her father are forced to return to New Orleans, where her father has financial investments to watch over. The Colonel and his regiment, including Colburne, are posted to Louisiana. Lillie has an aunt, Madame Larue, quite a vivid personage, and not at all the sort of lady you would expect to find in a proper 19th-century novel. She and Colonel Carter have a liaison, even though by now Carter has married Lillie. In between the romance, there are political intrigues and vivid battle scenes as well as descriptions of field hospitals whose realism was not to be equaled by any writers in English until the next century.

Why didn’t the novel get the readership it merited in its day? Readers in those times were principally female, and realistic battle descriptions were clearly not to the taste of women accustomed to domestic or sentimental romance, written more often than not by, as Hawthorne put it, the “damned mob of scribbling women.”

Thanks to Gary Scharnhorst and the editors at Penguin, you have the good fortune now of being able to discover a too-long-neglected work. Reading the war scenes and encountering Colonel Carter and Madame Larue may give you an eerie feeling of suddenly stepping back in a time machine. It’s an exhilarating and refreshing experience.