And then the cannon really got to it. Confederate cannon on Nicodemus Heights started tearing into the Yankees from sideways and Union cannon from up the road started ripping the trees up behind Usaph. Something awful was happening to the Georgians over in Miller's cornfield, and in the little torn snatches of time between bangs you heard a human shrieking there, and the car above the cornfield, you saw between blinking, flew with bits of farmer Miller's corn crop and with limbs, naked and clothed, and with haversacks and heads and hands . . . -- Thomas Keneally, in his novel "Confederates."
And now, exactly 117 years and one month and 11 days later, and a few paces off to the left, Thomas Keneally walks within the geography of his own novel, hailed by critics as the finest evocation of the Civil War since "The Red Badge of Courage" -- a fierce tale of hot death and salty sex and loneliness and confusion and courage in the ranks surrounding Stonewall Jackson.
It is raining and overcast in Antietam, and farmer Miller's corn field lies decidedly more tranquil than that fall day in 1862 -- the worst day for casualties in U.S. history -- when 12,410 Federal soldiers and 10,700 Confederates did not see the sun set.
Right now, that same sun is threatening to go down, and take with it the last few rays of light that illuminate the symmetric stubble of harvested corn. l
The rain has kept the tourists away today, and somehow the place is more firmly connected with its past. Thomas Keneally can smell it. "I feel a presence," he says. Not religious; just raw material for the writer.
Keneally looks as though he has animated a Mathew Brady photo: the formal, proper beard covering the chin, the high collar, the bald head, and the piercing eyes.
Using a Polaroid SX-70, the first still camera he has ever owned in his 45 years, he darts about, as if he wants to document and capture once and for all the Bloody Cornfield, a name it well earned by drinking up so many lives. aNever mind that he spent two years of his life creating a novel That New Yorker called "a tour de force . . ., a serious work of fiction . . . writing little short of brilliant." And never mind where he did it: He has just come 12,000 miles to be here, 28 hours in a jet from his home in Sydney.
Click. Whirrrr. The marvel of modern technology intrudes on the past, spitting out an indelible image. And Thomas Keneally sys:
"I feel an immense closeness, a little like going to the place where your grandfather was brought up. It seems so intimate and familiar to me, the foreigner."
As Decatur Cate climbed up that stone fence by the Dunker Church, finding the big flat stones pretty slippery in spite of his long hands, he got the sting of a ball in his upper leg. It went straight through the meat and by the time he fell on the far side, not far from Lucius -- and Keneally -- was now standing, he already knew somehow no bone had been broken. "Get up Cate," yelled Lucius.
"Look, over there," says Keneally, "a Dunkard girl. Nothing really changes through history. See how she covers her hair. It's a German church, don't know how old. The Church of the Brethren. Called themselves Dunkards, but the Southerners called them Dunkers."
And though Cate could not hear him, lip reading was enough. He rose and faced the immense lines of the blue regiments 300 paces off.Dear Christ, he thought. This is just Cannae all over, and there is no chance now, God and history really are going to swallow Decatur Cate . . .
You might say that's what happened to Thomas Keneally back in 1976, when he drove his Chevy van though the town of Sharpsburg just a mile from the Antietam battlegrounds here. He noticed cars that still displayed the Confederate flag. And even though this was Maryland, he heard a wonderfully intriguing Southern manner of speaking that seemed to still set these people apart from the Northerners.
He had come to America to write newspaper stories for The Melbourne Age:
articles on NFL Football, and the suicide of Eli Black, the United Brand's president who jumped from his office in the Pan Am Building, and drug testing by pharmaceutical firms, and the geriatric Disneyland called Leisureworld that exists somewhere beyond space and time a few miles out of L.A. But in all his travels with his wife and two daughters when they would venture out from the house they had rented in New Milford, Conn., he was continuously drawn to the Maryland and Virginia sites where the Civil War had been planned and fought.
"Initially," he says, "I was attracted because I found the people so much like Australians -- very much unto themselves. And then I became fascinated with this idea of the two cultures in one civilization. What happened here," he says, fanning an arm across the battlefield, "was of such extraordinary ferocity. I was astounded that Amercans could do that, even given their extraordinary regional differences. And as it crystalized, I realized that history rarely perceives wars of differing cultures in the way I wanted to present this one, as a harvest of violently dead young men."
This, Usaph believed, was an amazing thing to see. But it did not horrify him, even though he had an average feeling for his fellows. There was something in him that stopped him being horrified as the heads and armless trunks of Georgia's children rose from the corn. The cornfield was a good 200 paces off, and something cool in his belly whispered to him that 200 paces was as good as a country.
Keneally can distance himself, too: he gets lost in the mist falling on farmer Miller's cornfield; just as he was able to step back and read scores of books that had been written about the war. He could mull them over, and go through the indexes of the books, and write down on separate sheets of paper interesting surnames and Christian names he's come across. And then he'd jumble them to come up with good Southern names like Decatur Cate and Usaph Bumpass and Lafcadio Wheat, fictional characters he's blend into his story with real men like Stonewall Jackson and Kyd Douglass.
He kept getting drawn back to his perception of the culture clash. "Even in this state," he says, sitting in the Red Byrd Restaurant in Keedsville, Md., dining on the same sort of country ham steak that the characters in his book always seem to be eating, "you can see the difference between the mountain and the valley people." And eventually he absorbed that difference so well that he could write as they spoke and think as they acted:
The Surgeon-General was always writing decrees that soldiers would be punished for squatting and excreting at random, but poor hill farmers, or laborers of the flatlands of the Carolinas, had been doing just that since babyhood. To them, crapping where the urge took you was all part of those direct and honest country ways those Yankees would try to convert you from, if you gave them the chance.
He studied the books. He wrote down real incidents that he wanted to include in the novel in fictional form: a boy who dies in a hospital when a bone shatters accidentaly and punctures a deep artery; wounded soldiers on the battlefield falling down into their hats and drowning in the blood from their wounds; a slave auction in a town square; and the loss of an eye.
"I'm blinded, Bolly," he announced. And he already had that way of lifting his ear that a blind man has. He was dazed too. When you looked at him close you saw his right eye hanging by a sort of wormy stalk out on his cheek, where it was stuck in a sort of paste of blood. The sight brought up some bile into Usaph's mouth and he had a hard, gaspy time swallowing it .
Again, in the mist, time seems suspended. Keneally fits in here, just as his characters fit into the cadences and sentiment of the South, their lives played out on the geography of the war that circled Washington. But then, the author is a veteran of a pen mightier than most swords. He's done 16 novels, ever since that Christmas vacation in 1963 when he was 27, and bored with teaching English and history at a private high school called Waverly College. So he sat himself down just like a stubborn old Virginia farmer, and batted out "a sort of thriller." And then he mailed it off unsolicited to the publishing firm of Cassell in London, just like the character in the Australian novel and film, "My Brilliant Career."
Anyway, this check came back for 150 pounds and old Thomas Keneally decided that he had become a novelist and he quit teaching and turned out "blood Red, Sister Rose" about Joan of Arc, and "Gossip from the Forest," which was made into a TV film by Granada TV in London, and "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith," which was made into a feature film right there in Australia, and "Passenger," a rather eerie novel told from the viewpoint of an unborn child. And now Robert Solo, a Hollywood producer, has just optioned "Confederates" for an American feature.
"I'm really not interested in writing nonfiction," he says. "I'd rather muck about with the facts. I was talking with a reporter on The New York Times called Mitgang, who had written a biography of Lincoln, and he said to me: 'You refer to Lincoln in the book as Abe. He disliked that, always wanted to be called Abraham.' Well, I don't want to worry about whether a man dislikes being called Abe or not."
No, what Thomas Keneally worried about was the overall feel of this book. And so after he had gone back to Australia with the wife and kiddies, and written a major portion of "Confederates," he came flying back here to retrace the route of the action in his book, from Richmond, up to Manassas and over to Frederick and Antietam in a rental car.
"Manassas," he says, "really gets me. There aren't that many placards around. You get the feeling that the ghosts really haven't been exorcised."
And his voice trails off, even though you know that this is a man who has relived and rethought the war inside his Down Under Australian being, questioning it as does the British journalist Searcy in the novel:
These accounts and any others he would ever read would always sicken Searcy. Why, knowing everything, hadn't McLellan managed to trap the beast, the Secession itself, the Serpent of Slavery between Antietam Creek and the big river that morning and so ended it all ?
"What McLellan should have done," says Keneally, "was push his forces against the entire Rebel line simultaneously, rather than at various individual parts during the course of the day. But really, I'm not a student of nor am I an expert at military strategy. I'm simply a writer."
Somehow the phrase sounds hollow, spoken in the Bloody Cornfield where the author is standing. The mist settles on the same earth that drank the blood of Georgia and Virginia -- and of Usaph Bumpass and Decatur Cate.
And once again Thomas Keneally fades back into his novel:
This is what it is to live . . . with a man who sees his job as being to whip history into shape .
(All italicized passages from "Confederates"; copyright (c) 1979 by Thomas Keneally and published by Harper & Row.)