A Master of Justification
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
By Elisabeth Payne Rosen
Unbridled. 473 pp. $25.95
The nice slaveholder is a persistent and troubling figure in literature about the antebellum South. Of all the memorable people who appear in Frederick Douglass's "Narrative" (1845), none is as disturbing as his Baltimore owner, Mrs. Auld, "a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings." Harriet Beecher Stowe knew how to shock her Northern readers with descriptions of cruelty, but "Uncle Tom's Cabin" begins on the plantation of a "good-natured and kindly" owner. "There had never been a lack of anything," Stowe writes, "which might contribute to the physical comfort of the negroes on his estate."
It's the same pattern we see in the best modern novels about slavery: Sweet Home, the plantation in Toni Morrison's "Beloved," is for a time a place of surprising civility, and the black owners in Edward P. Jones's "The Known World" pride themselves on treating their slaves with dignity and respect. As all these writers demonstrated, what's really unsettling is a morally compromised figure who's convinced -- like us -- that he's a good person making the best of a difficult situation.
Elisabeth Payne Rosen follows in this tradition with her first novel, a long, uneven work of historical fiction called "Hallam's War." Her hero, Hugh Hallam, is a kind, conscientious man, a veteran of the Mexican war who's turned to farming in West Tennessee. She draws plantation life in rich, colorful detail, but she's particularly attentive to Hugh's treatment of his slaves. "He had allowed his slaves to build their own chimneys of solid brick," she tells us on the first page, channeling Hugh's pride in his own benevolence. "Each cabin had a small yard where its inhabitants could keep chickens or tend a patch of greens." He never beats his slaves, never even threatens them or speaks harshly to them, nor does his sympathetic, intelligent wife. Despite his "divided conscience," he holds the "arrogant conviction that he could rise above the system." Their home, Palmyra, is a beautifully maintained model of modern farming techniques, inspired by Hugh's boyhood acquaintance with Monticello (which had its own illusions about slavery).
Everything here stands in stark contrast to the plantation of Ross McQuirter, his hard-drinking friend and neighbor. McQuirter beats and rapes his slaves and bleeds his land in a relentless pursuit of higher cotton yields. But he's no Simon Legree. In fact, as the story progresses, we discover that he's despicable and pathetic in ways that aren't immediately obvious.
The greatest strength of "Hallam's War" is its exploration of the tension between these two men. Hugh is a superb character, whose struggle to do the right thing pulls on our sympathies despite the unfathomable conditions of slavery. Early in the novel, at a sale that will determine much of the story, Hugh catches the gaze of a badly beaten slave: "In that moment," Rosen writes, "Hallam saw clearly what he would never forget: saw a man like himself, near his own age, born into the same century in the same part of the world; a man with an inner life as private and complex as his own." But, of course, Hugh lives in a culture designed to smother such insights. Watching McQuirter brutally separate a man from his young daughter, Hugh clings to his own superiority: "If he had kept his own conscience clean on this one account, it was only by a willed and systematic perversion of his own moral logic: a system by which he was able to judge another man's action as evil -- as he now judged McQuirter's to be -- and yet continue to do business with him. He thought it was a measure of the strength of his mind -- an almost physical vigor, a muscle in his brain -- that he was able to separate and balance these warring elements."
Rosen is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, and in addition to her novel's considerable historical research, she brings a commendable degree of psychological insight. She understands how good people justify evil actions, and she explores Hugh's character with tremendous empathy and unstinting clarity.
Into the precarious balance of Hugh's home, she introduces John Varick, an affable young reporter from New York. In the wake of Stowe's incendiary novel, Varick is touring the area hoping to write a fair and balanced series about slavery: "neither the romantic fantasy of 'The Old Plantation Home,' " he tells them, "nor the most lurid abolitionist scenarios." With so much passionate propaganda on both sides, Hugh welcomes the opportunity to "clear the air," and the situation provides Rosen a chance to draw out the different species of hypocrisy in the North and South.
All of these big themes are richly developed in the lives of interesting, engaging characters, but the novel frequently sags under the weight of domestic detail and minutiae about farming. We learn an awful lot about the way people dress for various parties; we're dragged through far too many inconsequential conversations; and we're told enough about planting to manage the back forty ourselves.
When the Civil War finally breaks out, the novel's problems with pacing and emphasis grow more severe. Big chunks of the story focus on planning and bureaucratic delays -- an accurate reflection of real war, but a tedious way to relive it in a novel. Far too many battles take place offstage, only to be recounted in summary or in newspaper reports. This is doubly disappointing considering how dramatically and movingly Rosen re-creates a couple of ghastly engagements, particularly Hugh's experience at Shiloh.
Ultimately, "Hallam's War" doesn't feel so much like a first work as a life's work, which carries the burden of including everything. But Rosen is too good to stop now. Next time, a smaller, more controlled field would allow her characters to hold their own against the tide of a million note cards crammed with historical details.