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disciplined artists languish unpublished, uncelebrated and unpaid.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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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