Remembering the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson 150 Years Later

May 26th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

The Battles of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) were the first two major battles fought in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.  After the summer of 1861, there was very little fighting (most of which were skirmishes rather than full-scale battles), as both the Union and Confederate forces sought to consolidate their positions before being major battle operations in 1862.  The key to the fighting in the Western Theater was the control of the major rivers, as they constituted the main means of mass transport in the South during the mid-19th century.  The commanding Confederate general, Albert Sidney Johnston (who later died at Shiloh; pictures of that battle can be found here), had his Army of Tennessee forces spread in a wide arc from Columbus, Kentucky through northern Middle Tennessee up to Bowling Green, Kentucky.  In Paducah, Kentucky, the commanding Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, had established his winter headquarters at the mouth of the important Tennessee River.  Whoever could control the Tennessee and nearby Cumberland Rivers would not only seize control of the Tennessee capital of Nashville, but shipping and troop movements from southern Kentucky down into northern Alabama and Mississippi would be in peril.

Back in late April, my dad and I went to visit the Fort Donelson site (ever since the Tennessee River was dammed in the 1930s, Fort Henry has been submerged under water; we did not cross over to visit Fort Heiman) just outside the town of Dover, Tennessee, an hour’s drive away from my hometown.  The Battle of Fort Donelson has a very important part in my family’s history; it was here that my two-times great-grandfather first saw combat duty, when he came upon the surrendering Confederate forces and sneaked into the Union camp to rescue his first cousin (this deed was later published in a state history book from the turn of the twentieth century).  It is odd, walking along ground where my ancestor likely witnessed the bloody aftermath of this first major battle (hundreds were killed on both sides, a prelude to Shiloh’s carnage).  Seeing the remains of the earthworks dug hastily by commanding general Pillow’s forces just a scant time before Grant’s forces marched over from Fort Henry.  Viewing the replica cannon batteries placed along a bend in the Cumberland River, not too far from Clarksville’s Fort Defiance and where two generations of my dad’s side had already lived before the battle.  The pictures below can only hint at what made my dad and I pensive at times (at other times, I probably talked his ear off, as I am wont to do).  We stopped first at the federal cemetery, only to learn that very few soldiers buried there actually fought in the battle.  Then as we traced the road back toward the main battlesite a couple of miles away, we saw traces here and there of the earthworks that protected the perimeter of the fort.  Stopping next at the visitor’s center, where we bought books on the battle and watched a 15 minute documentary on the battle (including the fierce snowstorm that preceded the actual fighting and the pre-war ties between Grant and the Confederate general, Simon Bolivar Buckner, who surrendered to him, as Pillow and his second-in-command escaped the night before down the river), we then drove along the automobile trail, stopping to take pictures of monuments to the fallen, of the eagles’ nest (home to the endangered American Bald Eagle for the past dozen year or so), of the riverside batteries, and the trenches dug by the soldiers.  It was a gray and overcast day, colder than the days before.  Perfect weather to reflect the somberness of the site:

Battlesite Map

Union regiments and casualties

Confederate regiments and casualties

Map of the region, found in the Visitor’s Center

More on the battle’s importance in the prosecution of the war

Monument to the fallen soldiers

Remains of some of the earthworks, with replica cannons

View of the Cumberland River, near one of the batteries

More on the riverside fighting, where the Confederates drove off the Union gunboats

View of the riverside batteries at the bend of the river

Plaque dedicated to the Confederate river batteries

Plaque describing the Union counterattack on February 15

After the Fall of Fort Donelson, there were, of course, many other battles fought inside Tennessee (only Virginia had more battles fought within its borders), but in a real sense, it was the beginning of the end:  the center could not hold.  Later, there will be descriptors of other battles and pictures, such as Parker’s Crossroads in December 1862 (visited along the way to Shiloh) and likely the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro (its sesquicentennial is just before New Year’s Day), and possibly even a short bit on the largest Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River, the Battle of Westport (October 1864), which is in the Kansas City area.  But regardless of how many other sites my dad and I will visit in the near future, it is difficult to imagine any being more personally meaningful than the Fort Donelson site.

Faulkner Fridays to resume in mid-June and other assorted updates

May 23rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Been extremely occupied the past month with several things, including the filing of job applications and, starting yesterday, job interviews.  Haven’t had the energy nor the time to devote to reading, much less reviewing, Faulkner’s fiction as I had planned.  It looks like it could be another week or up to another month before things ease up enough for me to resume the weekly series.  I do want to finish it, after getting roughly 1/3 through his fiction, and I do want to schedule it on Fridays, for alliterative reasons, so the best option would be to give myself roughly 3-4 weeks to get things in order in order to recommit myself to a project that is much, much more than just writing short commentaries on his fictions.

Also should note that the planned Mario Vargas Llosa series will be delayed, likely until late 2012 or early 2013, as it would be better for me to just stick with one long review series at a time.  Sorry for anyone reading this who was hoping for those reviews to be posted by now.

Some may have noticed that I touched up some old reviews of books that fit in with the others posted here and reposted them here.  One of those, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, will be the first of an irregular series (no scheduled days or intervals) of reviews of McCarthy’s fiction.  Hopefully, it’ll be of interest to some here.

So no, Paul and I haven’t closed shop; we were just on an extended little vacation.  More reviews sooner than later.  Some might actually be worth responding to, we hope.

Christine Montalbetti, Western (2005)

May 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Finally, all one can say about this – while the sapphire hue gradually becomes dominant – is that, among this troop of pitiful little thoughts, all bruised and indistinct, there’s one that’s steadier than the others, more robust, older, that fixes the gaze of our thirty-year-old on the wall in front of him, not because of any quality of the wall in itself, but because it is the ideal, neutral screen to project this thought upon; a thought unharmed by the jerky ups and downs of his rocking, a thought that was never made indolent by languid nighttime sleep, but remained strong and sure of what it wants, a thought whose power is at least partly based upon its longstanding and proven perseverance.  We ourselves still know nothing about this key and almost authoritarian thought, but let’s face it, it’s not hard to figure out that said thought is what will provide the overall motivation for our man, explaining his days in this place and lending his mind a purpose that, unknown thought it is, no doubt forms the horizon of his life wherever he may be, and which – we can tell from the sort of tension persisting even in his early morning apathy – he must never let out of his sight.

You can see pretty well now, you can even see perfectly, the sky is completely blue, punctuated by the white fluff of small, neat cirrocumulus, a really nice effect, and so I think the action can begin. (pp. 21-22)

The Western perhaps is the Americas’ gift to world literature.  There is something awe-inspiring in the stark, bleak landscapes, in the actions of the rugged, fierce cowboys/vaqueros who populate its wastes and its lowlands, fighting for justice (or for greed).  A good Western can invoke the best elements of a morality play, with the man with the white hat dueling with the man with the black hat.  In between, there are struggles revolving around self-reliance, how to make one’s way in an unforgiving locale.  These stories, at least in their most popular form, did not originate in settled, cultured Europe, but instead were the product of frontier life and the sacrifices and (sometimes evil) decisions that the frontiers people had to make as they moved into a hostile environment, often peopled with natives who resisted their advance and who resented the depredations of these invaders.

Today, the Western as a genre is nearly dead.  The frontiers have been tamed.  The natives have been eliminated or subdued.  John Wayne and Roy Rogers are in their graves and there is no need to retell their stories.  We have seen it all, perhaps.  We know how that gunfight at the O.K. Corral will turn out.  We anticipate, before becoming bored, what it means when a man wearing a black hat walks into a saloon.  We have satirized it in movies such as Blazing Saddles or reversed the myths in stories such as Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Blood Meridian.  What possible “new” ground could be trod in this desolate genre seemingly bereft of originality or interest?

French writer Christine Montalbetti in her 2005 novel (translated into English in late 2009 by Betsy Wing) Western manages to squeeze just one more ounce of water from that stone.  She deconstructs the Western genre, both literary and cinematic alike, in an artful fashion.  Instead of focusing on the “action,” what she does so adroitly here is examine in minute detail those overlooked moments that serve to define the scenes that follow.

The plot, unimportant as it is to the story, is that of a gunman seeking his revenge and preparing for a shootout.  But what’s intriguing about this tale is that Montalbetti concentrates on things such as the insects in the soil where the man is standing, on the wall where he is staring, on those teeny-tiny details which add atmosphere to a story.  In the passage above, a traditional Western writer might have stated in a sentence that the man was giving an intent stare while the sky was clear outside.  What Montalbetti does here is invert the story, making the reader focus on the “close up.”  Here we see the troubled thoughts, the almost diffident way in which the gunman attempts to focus himself in preparation for the action to follow.  It is akin to those ominous pauses in the movies before the showdown begins in earnest.

Montalbetti draws out these moments, turning what otherwise would be a humdrum, average duel into a psychological portrait of the gunman and of his surroundings.  The attentive reader will find him or herself taking these insights and perhaps applying them to any Western book or film previously seen or read.  This technique, although it can be wearisome to those who don’t want to think about what they are reading, adds so many layers of depth to the simple plot that the reading turns into a reflective exercise that meditates on the semantics of the Western itself.

Western is a short novel at 192 pages, yet its brevity belies its content.  Montalbetti takes us all the way through the course of the gunman’s preparation for the duel, keeping our attention focused on the surrounding details just long enough for the reader to appreciation what is transpiring, rarely overindulging and thus risking tedium at the most critical juncture of the novel.  Western adds so much to this nearly-moribund genre that it almost certainly will be a “fresh” read even for those readers who are well-versed in both the Western genre and in postmodernist literary techniques.  Highly recommended.

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God (1973)

May 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ll tell ye what old Gresham done when his wife died and how crazy he was.  They buried her up here at Sixmile and the preacher he said a few words and then he called on Gresham, ast him did he want to say a few words fore they thowed the dirt over her and old Gresham he stood up, had his hat in his hand and all.  Stood up there and sung the chickenshit blues.  The chickenshit blues.  No, I don’t know the words to it but he did and he sung em ever one fore he set back down again.  But he wasn’t a patch on Lester Ballard for crazy. (p. 24-25)

Before he became renowned for Western-themed works such as Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy wrote several novels set in East Tennessee.  In his third novel, Child of God, published in 1973, McCarthy explores human deprivation and depravation through the actions and thoughts of Lester Ballard.  It is a chilling read, seeing the depths to which Ballard sinks, but beyond that, there is that sense that through the violence, through the sexual deviance, that Ballard represents humanity in its most wretched and primeval state.

Child of God is set in the mountains of Sevier County, Tennessee during the mid-20th century.  It is, even today (minus the garish Pigeon Forge and scenic Gatlinburg), a remote, rough region, replete with mountain men similar to those portrayed sinisterly by James Dickey.  Lester Ballard, who is only 27 when the novel begins, is evicted from his own home as it is auctioned off while he was still living there.  Driven out of his domicile (suffering a blow to the head in the process), Ballard retreats further into the wilderness, metaphorical and real alike.  Viewed with suspicion by the Sevier County sheriff on account of his family past (Ballard had kin who were in the quasi-KKK White Caps around the turn of the 20th century), Ballard’s isolation from human society is accentuated during a scene a quarter of the way into the novel where he is locked up in the county jail and his only companion is a black man in for a fugitive warrant:

They had a nigger in the cell opposite and the nigger used to sing all the time.  He was being held on a fugitive warrant.  After a day or two Ballard fell into talking with him.  He said:  What’s your name?

John, said the nigger.  Nigger John.

Where you from.  You a fugitive ain’t ye?

I’m from Pine Bluff Arkansas and I’m a fugitive from the ways of this world.  I’d be a fugitive from my mind if I had me some snow.

What you in for?

I cut a motherfucker’s head off with a pocketknife.

Ballard waited to be asked his own crime but he wasn’t asked.  After a while he said:  I was supposed to of raped this old girl.  She wasn’t nothin but a whore to start with.

White pussy is nothing but trouble.

Ballard agreed that it was.  He guessed he’d thought so but he’d never heard it put that way. (p. 51-52)

This little scene, before Ballard begins his final, crazed descent represents several of the themes McCarthy explores in Child of God:  the outcast fugitive, the reduction of rape to a cipher for human violence, the lingering sense that there is a perverse commonality in this greeting between a murderer ostracized for his race and an accused rapist who has already been cast out of home and hearth.  McCarthy’s eschewing of traditional punctuation in this novel works especially well in scenes such as this, as the perceived boundary between the unnamed third-person narrator and the character dialogues blend together to the point where it feels as though Ballard were speaking to that “fourth wall” as much as to the character of Nigger John.

The latter parts of the novel become more haunting because of this narrative device.  As Ballard retreats to a troglodyte condition, emerging like a cave troll to ambush, kill, and then fuck the corpses of young women (with a repeating pattern of encounter and type occurring within this descent into murder and necrophilia), there also emerges strange, touching (and yet simultaneously sickening) scenes such as Ballard’s trip into town after the first such event:

How much is that there red dress out front, he said.

She looked toward the front of the store and put her hand to her mouth for remembering.  It’s five ninety-eight, she said.  Then she shook her head up and down.  Yes.  Five ninety-eight.

I’ll take it, said Ballard.

The salesgirl unleaned herself from the counter.  She and Ballard were about the same height.  She said:  What size did you need?

Ballard looked at her.  Size, he said.

Did you know her size?

He rubbed his jaw.  He’d never seen the girl standing up.  He looked at the salesgirl.  I don’t know what size she takes, he said.

Well how big is she?

I don’t believe she’s big as you.

Do you know how much she weighs?

She’ll weigh a hunnerd pound or better.

The girl looked at him sort of funny.  She must be just small, she said.

She ain’t real big. (p. 96-97)

As the novel moves toward its conclusion, Ballard’s alienation from society becomes more and more clear.  A reclusive necrophiliac murderer, his thoughts and desires are revealed in a clarity that is disturbing for how closely they resemble our own thoughts of release.  Whereas Ballard might seek comfort in what is to us ghastly and reprehensible things, readers might come to see dim reflections of themselves in the straightforward, earnest way in which those thoughts are presented to us.  It is as though despite one’s own moral codes, Ballard’s case is so pitiful, so sympathetic underneath the horrific actions of his life that the reader, just as a key character comes to do late in the novel, might find herself subconsciously feeling sorrow as well as revulsion toward Ballard.

Child of God may not be McCarthy’s best novel (his later, Western novels further develop the symbiotic relationship between violence and human morality), but it certainly contains most of the key elements that are developed more fully in Blood Meridian and other latter novels:  the sparse yet haunting prose, morally challenged characters whose plights capture the reader’s attention, and well-developed settings that infuse the stories with distinctive local colors.  Child of God works best when the reader struggles against his or her own preconceptions in order to understand just who Lester Ballard is.  Disgusting as his actions might be, Ballard is never a character cipher but instead a complex being whose humanity becomes the center of a story that lingers on far after the final page is turned.



Herman Melville, Moby Dick

May 3rd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.  There is nothing surprising in this.  If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Quote from this first paragraph, especially the opening “Call me Ishmael,” and more likely than not, people will recognize it, even if they do not immediately respond with “that’s from Moby Dick!”  Published in 1851, Herman Melville’s most famous work divides today’s readers as much as it did when it was published nearly 160 years ago.  Too frequently, there are criticisms of the book being “too slow,” or that it is “too much about whaling,” or that its plot does not manifest itself in a fluid fashion.   Sometimes, a book is read too early in one’s life; this was certainly the case for me.  When I was assigned to read the book for my English IV Honors class, I could not finish the book; the whaling aspects and the symbolism embedded in the text were tedious to read, largely because my mind was not receptive enough (or perhaps not ready enough, since I was, after all, only seventeen when I first attempted to read the book) to ponder what Melville had created here.  For the next six years or so, I thought of the book (well, the few times that it was mentioned to me) as being one of the most wretched excuses for a novel to ever be read, until I had a conversation with a graduate history professor of mine about novels and symbolism.  He held up Moby Dick as being one of the best examples of American literature and after I expressed my disdain for the book, he urged me to give it a second chance, to read it not as a late 20th century reader would read a late 20th century novel, but rather to read it as I might approach a Paradise Lost.  I did and my opinion of the novel did a 180 after completing the novel when I was twenty-three.  Now that I’m thirty-seven, I decided it was time to re-read it again, to see what else might be revealed, as after all, some things do improve with age and repeated trial.  This maxim certainly held true in regards to Moby Dick, as I savored this re-read, stretching it over weeks, reading only a few dozen chapters at a time and then pausing for several days before recommencing.

“Call me Ishmael.”  Ishmael, Hagar’s outcast son, spared only by the mercy of God.  From that first sentence, Melville begins to build a story full of biblical allusions, both in the character names (Ahab, Gabriel) and in the themes of human desire, self-illusion, revenge, and the holiness of the leviathan.  Around these elements he adds Romantic elements, particularly in the scenes focusing on whaling and why men sign themselves up to be workers on ships such as the Pequod.  There is something innately dangerous about setting to sea in a wooden whaling ship, driven only by the power of the wind and the efforts of her crew.  For Melville’s original readers, such ships were fading into the past, being replaced first by steam-driven ships and later by much larger, metal-hulled ships that greatly reduced the dangers of capsizing and drowning.  For us, we can scarce imagine the terrors and the awe-inspiring moments such as this one from Chapter 29:

Some days elapsed, and ice and icebergs all astern, the Pequod now went rolling through the bright Quito spring, which at sea, almost perpetually reigns on the threshold of the eternal August of the Tropic.  The warmly cool, clear, ringing perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up – flaked up, with rose-water snow.  The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns!  For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights.  But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world.  Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; then, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights.  And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.

Here, as in several other passages scattered throughout Moby Dick, Melville’s prose is lush, perhaps too lush for modern sensibilities.  However, passages such as this seek to capture the bewitching wonders of sea, ice, and heavens in a fashion that impels engaged readers to stop, pause, and to reflect on natural beauties.  This is not to say that these natural wonders are safe or that our tendency to pause and behold them are always wise, but rather that such natural elements are just as vital to this roving, winding narrative as are the human characters that flit and flicker across this scenic backdrop to Melville’s morality tale.

Melville’s characters also play a huge role in this novel.  From the heathen harpooner Queequeg to the revenge-filled desire of Captain Ahab to Ishmael and other characters, both on the Pequod and her sister whaling ship, the Rachel, their motivations for fame, money, adventure, lust, and revenge war with the elements surrounding them.  Some of Melville’s detractors have noted that often these characters disappear for long stretches, that their intriguing tales lose their potency due to Melville’s tendency to mix in chapters on the sea and whaling with the “current events” aboard the Pequod.  To some extent, there is some truth to this, providing, of course, that Moby Dick ought to be read foremost as a story of the sailors’ battle against the famed white sperm whale and the sea.   However, I believe such a reading would miss the key element here, that of what Moby Dick itself represents.

Throughout the narrative, Melville scatters short chapters on the whale as represented in myths from across the globe, from the biblical Leviathan to it being the first of Vishnu’s incarnations to it being a terror that represents in concrete form the puny nature and limitations of human beings.  Moby Dick symbolizes not just our lusts and desires, but also the terrible majesty of the unknown and indomitable.  It truly is the leviathan that overwhelms us, revealing to us just how futile some of our aspirations are.  But it is much more than that.  It is awe-inspiring in a way that we today cannot feel as easily as perhaps some could perceive in previous centuries.  We are divorced from nature to an extent and nature’s power, encapsulated in the form of Moby Dick, does not excite fear or desire in us as it once did.  Instead of a dangerous foil, Moby Dick’s progeny are now viewed as helpless waifs, in danger of being wiped out by human avarice.  One cannot help but wonder what Melville would have made of this if he were alive today.

Perhaps it is this diminution of nature into something less wild, perhaps it is the loss of our awe and dread of nature and nature’s beasts, or perhaps it is a reduction in faith in our our dreams that has weakened the power of this narrative.  While certainly the writing conventions have changed and this has impacted our view of how novels should be constructed, I find myself wistfully thinking that something has been lost in the translation of time and place.  There is a powerful story that moves me, but will it continue to move others as the years pass and we move further and further away from natural wonder and fear?

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