Saturday, May 25, 2013

Long Remember by MacKinlay Kantor

I’m sure I picked this one up at the local library’s book sale, and I’m sure I did because I recognized the author’s name from that historical novel about the Andersonville prison that I read some time ago. I don’t remember much about Andersonville, but I do think I will remember pieces of this novel, also set during the American Civil War, this time amidst the Battle of Gettysburg. And one of the pieces I’ll remember is the novel’s protagonist, Dan Bale.

He’s a native of Gettysburg who has been living out west for a number of years—Wisconsin or Minnesota, I forget which. At the very start of the novel he is coming back into Gettysburg to tend to his sick grandfather who, in fact, has died while Bale was in transit, and whose estate Bale will now inherit and need to manage. The war, which has been raging for two years, and which consumes everyone else’s attention in Gettysburg, is a distant concern for Bale, and when he is forced to confront it, he is unrepentant in his stark opposition to it.

Here he is, talking to an old friend—Elijah Huddlestone, or Hud—about a volunteer regiment Hud is trying to organize, and which he wants Bale to join.

“I’d be of no use to you. Not the way I feel.”

Hud shouldered the musket, thudded it down again. “Say, did anybody tell you about Wesley Culp? They say he’s in the rebel army.”

“He ought to have known better.”

“I suppose,” Elijah nodded, “that it was because he was down south before the war, and all.”

“You ought to know better, too,” Dan told him. “Everyone ought to know better. But of course they don’t. Human beings belie their designation every day, and have been doing so constantly for two years. The only hope is to keep on until all the fools are killed off. Then we might have—not peace, but at least a diversion of energy towards something else. ”

There were welts of color on Huddlestone’s cheeks. “Perhaps—” he tried to make his voice smooth—“you don’t believe that the Union is sacred. Is anything sacred to you?”

“Nothing,” Dan said. “I reckon human life comes as close as anything else, though.

“Did you ever kill anything?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you ever kill anything?” repeated Dan.

Elijah’s face froze into a furious, pearly white. “Why, you damn fool, we went hunting together all the time when we were boys!”

“Yes,” Bale told him, “and we killed squirrels and partridges and two deer and I don’t know what all. And out west I killed two Indians that I know of, and maybe more. They were animals, too. That’s what I try to tell myself, always. But I’ve felt funny ever since.”

And I realize, this early on, that the protagonist in the war novel I’m about to read, written in the 1930s about the American Civil War, is, of all things, a humanist. What an expected surprise. And it’s not just war that he opposes. Here he is, meeting his late grandfather’s minister.

Before the carriage was out of sight, a middle-aged man in a long coat had appeared from somewhere and was standing beside Dan, combing a thin beard and dusting off his shiny lapels.

“Daniel. Indeed. So you’re Daniel! I am the Reverend Solt. I was your dear grandfather’s pastor. I respected him, sir, and loved him as a true servant of the Lord…vineyard…arms of our Saviour…funeral at two o’clock…do not know how many Masons…and music; the chaplain will…and God our Heavenly Father, so we must not grieve for the departed.”

“Yes,” Dan said. Yes. Yes. For God’s sake, what do you want of me? Oh, I’m sorry. You mean it. You cannot help yourself; there are so many people like you in the world. You cannot help—”

You mean it. I think I like that line best of all. It shows better than anything else the currents that Dan Bale’s mind typically runs in, and how he has to be pulled out of them in order to relate to the God-fearing folk around him.

The Reverend continues…

“Daniel, I came to you feeling that you might find comfort in a moment of prayer.”

“Very well,” Bale told him wearily.

They left the fragrance of the outside shade and went into the house. Reverend Solt hesitated at the closed parlor doors.

“Not in there,” Dan said, sharply.

They moved into the library across the hall. Reverend Solt put his flat hat on Pentland Bale’s desk, and slid down on his knees, facing a narrow Windsor chair. He looked questioningly at Dan, knotting his creased, farm-worn hands together. He had not been a minister all his life.

Dan said, “I’m sorry, Reverend Solt. I do not wish to offend you or my grandfather’s memory, nor do I wish to be a hypocrite. During these years, my ideas— If you will feel satisfied, praying for me instead of with me, please go ahead.”

The minister’s eyes filled with tears. He bent his forehead against the hard edge of the chair; with one hand he motioned rapidly for Dan to kneel beside him. He began a hasty, full-hearted chant which was wholly honest and passionate, and yet which he must have uttered many times before: “Oh, Lord, our Father, our Heavenly Guardian and Redeemer of all, we come to Thee in a midnight of sorrow and loneliness. We beseech Thee to shew us that our way is not Thy way, that we have not Thy all-seeing wisdom to understand when the pangs of desolation strike at our hearts. Oh, Lord our Heavenly Father, in Thee is our only refuge, in Thee we trust when we come thrice cast down. Oh, Lord—”

After a few minutes Dan felt rather absurd, standing there behind this man with his struggling, hot, clasped hands and his wet bald head. He went down on his knees as quietly as possible; no doubt the Reverend Solt would be happy at last when he turned and knew that Dan, too, had been kneeling.

How often have I felt this way while others were praying? Too many to count. And what comes next for Dan Bale? After deriving as much observational knowledge as he can from the scene, watching exactly the way an anthropologist watches the rituals of an aboriginal culture? Quite naturally his thoughts turn inward.

Bale squinted at the pink-and-tan pattern of the faded carpet. Of course he was thinking of her. It seemed unreal, even to have knowledge of such a woman. For the first time in his life he was aware of the desire, the plan and hope to do willful evil, something without remorse and never to be eradicated.

And who is this woman? This woman that has captured Bale’s desire and has him contemplating evil even while a minister beside him prays over the departed soul of his grandfather? Why, she is the wife of one of his childhood friends, now grown like him to manhood and, unlike him, about to go off to war.

Love and War

Kantor’s depiction of war in Long Remember has no fondness associated with it. This is as close as it gets—a mother’s idea of war as she watches her son go off to it.

He lived in a tent, as did all other soldiers. The tents were snow-white, they stood in even rows, mile after mile. Pennons flapped from their ridge-poles. Tyler sat at a rude desk writing letters home, writing orders, writing despatches. Sometimes a bugle blew. He went out, then, to oversee a drill. The army filed past, rank on rank, glistening steel, garish buttons, pristine gloves. The army saluted Tyler. He sat his horse, rigid, stern, young… Still her boy, her boy. “Captain, the rebels are advancing.” “Convey my respects to General Hooker, sir, and inform him that the rebels are advancing.” Cannon began to boom in measured, spaced billows of sound; there was the “roll of musketry.” Smoke became thick and white. Far away sounded the rebel yell. Advance, friends, and give the countersign. Forward, march! Present arms! Fire! … Tyler rode up to the rifle pits of the enemy; he unsheathed his sword and waved it gallantly. Forward, men, onward and forward and onward and take them in the flank, take them in the rear, for the sake of Old Glory … Wait. Stop. Halt! The captain’s hit. Are you struck, sir? Yes, General, I’m afraid I’m severely wounded. My boy, you’ve done noble work today. Take him to the hospital at once… Your wound is not fatal, I trust, sir. The nation needs men like you. Pennsylvania is proud of you, Captain Fanning… And even when the boys come home, the mothers still have no sense of what it is they have done and the things they have experienced. Then, inexplicably, he had come home on furlough, very sour-faced and thin and yellow, and had thrown up a whole stomach full of veal broth and barley. War, she understood, was a ghastly and hateful business. People were wounded, and they ruined the best hooked rugs in their mothers’ houses. And had to ride back to Hanover Junction with a lot of pick-axes and Irishmen.

Tyler Fanning is a real character in the book. He is the childhood friend of Dan Bale whose wife Bale falls in love with. Her name is Irene, and she has somehow become trapped in a marriage she thought would be her liberation but in fact has become a kind of prison. Fanning is not abusive to her. He dotes on her. But the war-torn world in which they live has expectations for husbands and wives that Irene dreams of abandoning.

The wisteria vine hung close to her window. She had loved to think that it was tropical, a female cat-creature more animal than vegetable, holding some watery mystery in its pointed little leaves. All the pendulous orchid tufts were long gone, and now it was a clambering jungle of solid green. The gray snakes of its trunk were hidden below the porch roof; the vine came up without reason or support, the only daring thing which could put its soft paws near Irene Fanning’s window. It was not like the rest of Pennsylvania, she knew. Not like the small, tight town with good people doing good things, and a very few bad people doing bad things. Nothing was compact or regular or disciplined in its nature… All about her was an oppressive, interlocking existence, and so she loved the vine more than she could say.

And in her wistfulness, Irene finds Dan Bale, and she falls for him as equally as Bale falls for her. For a good portion of the novel, the illicit relationship that develops between these two misplaced souls comprises a compelling narrative. The reader comes to care for them as much as they care for each other, all the while realizing that a clash of titans is descending on their tiny Pennsylvanian hamlet and knowing, that in the morality of their time, their affair cannot last.

I don’t know if they ever made a movie out of Long Remember, but I would imagine it much like James Cameron’s Titanic, with Jack and Rose replaced with Dan and Irene, and the foreboding sense of doom that the inevitable sinking provides replaced with the pending disaster that is the Battle of Gettysburg. In many ways, I think I might’ve even preferred this imagined Long Remember to that Titanic, because while the two historical events are equally catastrophic, the impact Gettysburg has on Dan and Irene is somehow more satisfying. There’s no romanticism or Celine Dion music. There is just hard choices and the reality of life.

Here’s how it plays out. Bale’s vocal opposition to the war doesn’t sit well with some townsfolk, and one sends a letter to Fanning, informing him that Bale has been conducting an illicit affair with his wife. This informant does not, in fact, know this. He has made it up in an attempt to smear Bale, and with the hopes that Fanning will come back to kill him. But it prompts both Irene and Bale to realize that they must end their relationship and confess themselves to Fanning. To do this, Bale must risk his own life to wander through the final two days of the battle, looking for Fanning among the thousands of Union troops. He gets caught up in various famous episodes during on the battle, and is forced to take up a rifle and kill and Confederate soldier at one point. But he eventually finds Fanning, where else, but at the Bloody Angle after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

You could see a soapy gray remnant sliding back toward Codoris’, guns still popping, but most of the mass had lain down or gone staggering to the rear. Ty, Bale said. Where in damnation. He can’t be dead. He started to look around. Guns near at hand had all stopped their crackling. He yelled, “Fanning! Fanning!” and there came some kind of a responsive drooling. He climbed across the retching, gargling pile. Tyler leaned back, his face chalky, his shoulders against the cannon wheel. Here, he whined. He saw Dan and blinked at him. The devil, he said at last, and then lifted his wet hands and made a foolish gesture--he had been caressing his thigh and it was all soaked and purple.

Dan got down beside him. Was going to tell him something, he thought: what? I had to see you … the dustant, stubborn volleys fought to take his words away from him. Tyler rolled his eyes this way and that … what-you-doing-in-the-army-ahhh, he said.

I came through the lines to see you I was here--

The pale eyes went around again. Had to tell you, Dan railed at him--it’s not true. You see, it’s not true. That letter … Tyler said , Bluhhh, and his lips went away from his teeth … that letter, Ty, it’s not true, not a word of it, it was all a fabrication, I was here and killed somebody--he was middle-aged--I shot a man, just to tell you--I tell you, I shot him--you God damn dirty son of a bitch, do you hear, do you hear, do you hear?

He has decided to lie to Fanning--not so he and Irene and continue their affair in secret, but so Tyler can accept Irene back as his faithful wife. He is giving Irene up in a way that preserves both her position and his friendship with Fanning. But Fanning is severely wounded.

Fanning slid lower and began to vomit.; his lips were fish-gills. He mourned, Tell me what’s not true...Bluhhh.

Your wife. Fanning opened his eyes, and closed them, and opened, and closed. Aw, he sighed with the yellow dripping from his chin. Aw, that.

Do you believe me? I killed a man just to--

What? Yes. Of course, I--, my Christ.

It’s an effective ending--disappointing to some, perhaps, but true to the era and to the characters. Fanning loses his leg but survives, and Bale winds up joining the Union Army, leaving Gettysburg, presumably, forever. For the humanist that initially intrigued me, it is the opposite of everything he desired.

No comments:

Post a Comment