- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

T he torrent of factual literature inspired by the Civil War flows unabated. The market shows no indication of having reached saturation point. This has been the case for decades. It also is true of the fictional approach to the war, although there seems to be less of the latter.

It may be interesting to look briefly at six novels in which the war plays a major or minor role, beginning with one published two years after hostilities ceased and ending with one that appeared almost a century after the North and South began to fight. Writing styles, story lines and characters differ markedly; not all books cater to the same kind of reader.

"Miss Ravenel's Conversion From Secession to Loyalty" (1867) was written by John William De Forest (1826-1906), a cotton manufacturer's son from Humphreysville, Conn. De Forest had attracted interest with his "History of the Indians of Connecticut" (1851) but then turned to fiction "Witching Times" (1856), which was serialized in Putnam's Magazine.

He served under Gen. Philip Sheridan during the war, which explains the stark realism of his battle scenes in "Miss Ravenel's Conversion." Stylishly written but somewhat superficial, it is concerned with a young lady who, choosing between two suitors, marries an unfaithful one. De Forest gives an impression of standing back from his story as an amused observer. The book was not a success but is attracting attention now as a period piece. Other novels followed, but "Miss Ravenel's Conversion" is the one for which he is remembered.

"The Red Badge of Courage" (1895) is world-famous. Stephen Crane (1871-1900), a tragic figure, was born in Newark, N.J., and, suffering from tuberculosis, died young in Germany. His years as a war correspondent served him in good stead: He wrote much about war, along with other topics and poetry. His short but finely crafted masterpiece is centered around young Henry Fleming, who flees from the battlefield but regains his courage. The horrors of war are seen from the viewpoint of common soldiers fighting for the Union.

Stark Young's (1881-1963) "So Red the Rose" (1934) did well until Margaret Mitchell's runaway best seller eclipsed it. Set in Mississippi, it reveals uncritically, in somewhat idiosyncratic prose and dialogue, the pride and courage of the plantocracy, seemingly secure in its rather restricted world until the tides of war lapped against and ultimately overwhelmed it. "Rose" is a story of the indomitable but doomed gentry of the Deep South.

Andrew Nelson Lytle's "The Long Night" (1936) makes uncomfortable but compulsive reading. Mostly set in Alabama, it is the story of a vendetta interrupted by the outbreak of war. The central character enlists in the Confederate army, but as the story draws to a close, he is contemplating desertion. Mr. Lytle, who was born in 1902 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and died in 1995, sustained an unrelievedly dark mood throughout his novel, and battle scenes are convincingly portrayed.

"Long Storm" (1936) was for readers who wanted something better than a formulaic Western novel, though Ernest Haycox (1899-1950) had turned out many such books since 1929. In "Long Storm," Mr. Haycox depicted the murderous activities of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society formed in the 1850s that spread across the North. He provided a gripping tale of a riverboat captain who runs afoul of the Knights.

Mr. Haycox, who was born in Portland, Ore., gradually improved the quality of his work, creating rounded and interesting characters and fast-paced, convincing narratives, eventually with a singularly graceful prose. He was becoming a novelist of stature at the time of his early death. His novels were never satisfactorily transformed into movies, but "Stage to Lordsburg," a short story, was filmed as "Stagecoach" and gave a tremendous boost to John Wayne's career.

Mr. Wayne was given his finest screen role with the adaptation of the novel "The Searchers" by Alan LeMay. Mr. LeMay was at his best, however, with "By Dim and Flaring Lamps" (1962), his novel set in Missouri at the outbreak of the Civil War. A father and his two sons are set upon by vicious raiders led by a planter's renegade son. Although leavened by humor, it's a grim tale, with vivid descriptive passages.

Peter Cliffe lives in Hertfordshire, England, and is a retired administrator for a multinational company. He developed an interest in the Civil War while working in the United States.


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