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Building a Life on a Battlefield

Peter Svenson's Unlikely Nonfiction Contender

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Nov. 16, 1993; Page B01
© The Washington Post

CROSS KEYS, Va. -- As every reader knows, the publishing world these days regularly throws millions of dollars at politicians, talk show hosts, athletes and other perpetrators of the non-book while hordes of genuine and disciplined artists languish unpublished, uncelebrated and unpaid.

But every now and then the good guys win one. So it is that the first book of Peter Svenson, 49-year-old painter, writer and recent historian (not to mention teacher, farmer, architect, carpenter, bricklayer, plumber, electrician, machinist and scourge of groundhogs) stands today as a nominee for the National Book Award.

"Battlefield," his modest, eloquent and oddly moving account of buying and farming one of Stonewall Jackson's battle sites is the longest of long shots as a nonfiction finalist after an earlier nominee proved ineligible.

But that was no more surprising than "Battlefield" being published in the first place, arriving as it did over the transom at Faber & Faber in Boston, to which Svenson had sent it unsolicited, unflacked by agentry and undeterred by 30 years of rejection slips.

"I certainly had no expectations. I had long ago been conditioned to rejection," said Svenson the other day, ruminating in his sun-washed studio on the quixotic ways of fortune. "But I'm an optimist. I thought it had possibilities."

The Battle of Cross Keys was a keystone in the legendary Shenandoah Valley campaign wherein Jackson's army of 16,000 managed to defeat three Union armies totaling more than twice as many men. But Svenson discovered it was being largely ignored by historians consumed with the larger picture of the Civil War. And the patrimony of the land that encompassed it -- several square miles of rolling farmland just south of Massanutten Mountain -- was being ignored as well. Fields were being chopped up and developed, old roads changed.

"The 20th century was bypassing all this without a thought," Svenson says, even as he himself, with piles of paintings and manuscripts unsold, "was being bypassed in my creative life. Somehow it all seemed related. And I found I wanted to write about that. In fact, I had to."

A gray-bearded, Thoreauesque figure unseduced by convention, Peter Svenson has spent most of his life in quiet rebellion against the social and environmental compromises of our consumer-oriented society. He builds his own houses. He splits his own logs. He overhauls his own tractors. Hell, he even bakes his own bread.

If he sounds like just another aging flower child, however, there's a difference.

"I never aspired to be a dilettante about anything," he says. "I think I'm imbued pretty deeply with the work ethic. Whatever I've gone into, I've always thought of as a serious endeavor in which I could both help maintain my freedom as an artist and concentrate the mind. And I always worked at it pretty hard."

As he writes in his book: "The fact that I designed and built houses demonstrated no great feat of ingenuity or acquired skill. It only showed my intransigence toward the accepted wisdom that exempted the intelligentsia from common labor."

The son of a New York University business professor, Svenson majored in political science at Tufts, intent on saving the world with John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. Then came Dallas.

"I don't think most young people today have any concept of how much that day changed the way we think about everything in this country," he says, "and the upheaval it caused in so many people's lives. I probably would have become a diplomat if it hadn't been for the assassination. I was headed in that direction. But after Dallas all the years of conditioning for fitting in to 'society' and 'progress American-style' just seemed pointless. I've never been one who looks back fondly to Woodstock and all the groovy times. For me the '60s were a period of tremendous disillusionment."

After two years in the Navy running the ship's store in a fleet oiler that almost never left Norfolk, Svenson moved back to Boston and began to write and paint.

"I had some money saved up and I was able to sell a number of my paintings. But except for a couple of minor articles, I couldn't sell any of the writing."

Eventually, he picked up a master's degree in fine arts at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Then in 1969 he married, moved to Albemarle County, Va., not far from Charlottesville, bought some land and set out to build his first house.

"Not all this self-reliance was a matter of philosophy," he says. "I've spent most of my life fairly close to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Most of the time there was just no choice. It was either do something myself or do without."

But even as a child he was always building things, he says, so faced with a need for inexpensive shelter he built his own: a geodesic dome. It cost him less than $10,000 and expanded his construction skills into bricklaying, wiring and even fiber glass.

"The plumbing was already in the blood," he says. "One of my grandfathers was a plumber in Newark."

Several years later, after shoestringing along painting, teaching and occasionally moonlighting in construction, he sold the house for $80,000, built another, got divorced in 1979, moved to the Shenandoah Valley and built a more conventional house, only to have a hangar-size poultry barn housing thousands of turkeys go up just yards away. He sold that house at a loss and in 1985 moved to the battlefield. But he didn't know it was a battlefield at the time.

"We were a family of four, embarked upon the uncharted waters of a second marriage," he writes in his book, "an artist, a college professor, and two children who were shuttled along the interstate to join the household on weekends and school vacations. ... I suspected the 40 acres held secrets that would eventually be brought to light" but because of the multiple demands on his time as he built his fourth house, he knew, "my curiosity would have to be satisfied in increments."

It is the incremental revelations in "Battlefield" that hold perhaps its greatest charm. As Svenson discovers the true nature of his land, he discovers the true nature of the battle, and, he says, of himself.

"In the first place," he says, "people in the North have a very warped view of the Civil War. I wasn't much interested in it initially. Having been raised and educated in Rhode Island and New Jersey, I was brought up with the idea that the overwhelming righteousness and superiority of the Northern point of view just made the South beneath discussion. ... Jefferson Davis was looked on as a criminal."

It was only "after living down here a while and marinating in it," reading old diaries and letters and battle reports and memoirs, he says, that he began to understand that it wasn't just a war over whether to end slavery or keep it. That popular notion, he says, is "largely a product of the disturbing and simplistic way we're now dealing with race in this country."

While there was a lot of rhetoric in the South purporting to justify slavery, he says, the diaries and letters show "almost everyone, North and South, realized that it was morally wrong and had to go. But no one could agree on a means and a timetable for ending it."

The true tragedy, he says, was that people who couldn't solve this dilemma ultimately went to war to let God solve it, submitting themselves in those religious times to the equivalent of a medieval trial by combat, trusting in Providence to let right prevail.

"Learning to understand that -- that this war had to be fought to let the Union be born -- that was a sobering education for me. And more important, I think, a real process of growing up."

It is that process that the reader shares in "Battlefield" as Svenson paces and plants his fields, meditates on machinery and groundhog eradication, and steeps himself in history. He also displays an engaging overlap of artist and engineer, writing so clearly and lovingly of machinery that you long to have him rewrite the manual for your VCR. His rundown of belts, pulleys and wheels in his hay baler reads like the catalogue of spears in the "Iliad."

The idea for his book emerged, he says, when the local paper in Harrisonburg advertised for a weekly columnist. The pay was $25 a column, and in his endless search for money, he sent in a couple of samples in which he reflected on farming his battlefield. They were rejected.

"That was pretty disappointing. But this was the first adult writing I had tried in a while and knowing Civil War interest was on the rise I thought maybe I could repackage them as a book."

Over the years, he says, he had tried everything in writing from poetry and magazine commentary to children's fiction, to no avail. He even wrote country and western songs, some of which were recorded "by unknown artists now in Florida selling real estate."

Yet as the book emerged, "it felt good to me," and friends who read it were encouraging, so when he finished it he sent out "somewhere between 40 and 60" query letters to almost every publisher he could find. Most said they weren't interested in a writer without an agent, but others were encouraging. Five or six asked to see the manuscript and sent it back with more encouragement. Finally, after a second revision, Faber & Faber took it. He got an advance of $3,000, "which was nothing, really, but it works out better for royalties if the book sells."

"Battlefield" was published in December and sold slowly at first, but it was reviewed well and sales gathered strength as the year progressed. It had just sold out its 4,000 first printing and was headed for paperback when he was contacted by the National Book Award jury. "Breast Cancer Journal," one of the nonfiction finalists, had been ruled ineligible when the author, Juliet Wittman, informed the jury she was not a U.S. citizen, as the rules require. "Battlefield" had been selected in its place. It was the first incident of its kind in the history of the awards.

Now there's a second hardcover printing in the works for Christmas and a spurt of new interest in the stores. Not to mention that shot at the $10,000 nonfiction award to be announced tomorrow night in New York. And Svenson's working on a sequel. Does all this feel the least bit like validation?

"Well, I never thought I was a failure," Svenson said the other day as he showed a visitor around. "I always thought I was a long shot. But I couldn't convince too many people of that, particularly those closest to me. I had a father-in-law who wanted me to go into dentistry. And I think my parents always expected me to outgrow all this and become a college professor. ... By the time I got into my forties it occurred to me that I may have been headed toward looking like a pathetic figure. ... But it never occurred to me to quit. I figured one day I'd start getting lucky."

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