Wednesday, October 14, 2020
October 14, 2020: Confederate Memory: Henry Adams and Henry James
[On October 12th, 1870, Robert E. Lee died—but not before the post-war deification of Lee was already well underway. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that process and other aspects of Confederate memory, leading up to a special post on a great recent book on the subject!]
On the parallel but not identical Confederate veteran protagonists of two 1880s novels.
In a chapter in my dissertation/first book on “the South question” during the Gilded Age, I argued that the period’s dominant cultural form related to that post-Civil War national debate was not the familiar “romance of reunion” (in which Northern and Southern white characters fall in love and mutually agree to forget or at least move past the Civil War and sectional division; that genre certainly did exist and I started the chapter by analyzing one representative example, controversial physician S. Weir Mitchell’s 1884 novel In War Time) but rather what I called the “narrative of conversion”: Northern and national characters and audiences being converted to the Southern, Lost Cause, neo-Confederate perspective on the war, on history, and most of all on America’s identity and future. I’ve encountered many literary examples of that conversion narrative, including the James D. Lynch poem Redpath about which I wrote in yesterday’s post. But in that chapter I focused on two of the most striking such Gilded Age literary conversion narratives: Henry Adams’ anonymously published Democracy: An American Novel (1880) and Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886).
The male protagonists of both novels are Confederate veterans who have come North—to Washington, DC in the case of Adams’ John Carrington, to Boston in the case of James’ Basil Ransom—and find themselves wooing Northern women, Madeleine Lee and Verena Tarrant respectively. They pursue these women not only romantically, but also and interconnectedly in an effort to convert them to their Southern, neo-Confederate experiences and perspectives on the war, its aftermaths, region, and nation. They find themselves opposed in those efforts by telling alternative suitors: Illinois Senator and presidential hopeful Silas Ratcliffe in Adams, abolitionist and suffrage activist Olive Chancellor in James (who may be pursuing Verena out of romantic desire, although that theme is ambiguous as you might expect from an 1880s novel, but certainly wants her for the cause in any case). And John and Basil overcome that opposition, and a great deal of uncertainty from Madeleine and Verena, to win the hands of these women, in endings that (as I read them in my book and would still read them) symbolically position these Confederate veterans and their neo-Confederate perspectives as potent forces in the shaping of the national future.
The concluding lines of James’s novel depict both Basil’s triumph and that national future as somewhat less than ideal, however: as Basil takes her away from Olive, Verena says “Ah, now I am glad” but is revealed to be in tears; and the narrator notes, in the book’s final sentence, “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.” The narration of The Bostonians is as multi-layered and ambiguous as is the case in most James works, and this moment could be read as simply one final example of that narrative complexity. But I would also argue (perhaps more strongly than I did in my book, although I hope I noted this distinction there as well) that James’ novel is more a depiction of Basil’s conversion of Verena and influence on her/the nation’s future, whereas Adams’ book is more a celebration of John’s conversion of Madeleine (or at least presents that arc as a more overtly and clearly positive development). Moreover, while no one in James’ novel is particularly admirable, Basil is quite an asshole; while John is far more idealized by Adams’ narrator and novel. Which makes these books two complementary but interestingly distinct primary sources for our analysis of the late 19th century rise and dominance of these neo-Confederate figures and narratives.
Next memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Confederate or Civil War memory you’d highlight?