Idealism And The Civil War
With its mixture of the heroic and the cowardly, the idealistic and the base, Geraldine Brooks fine novel "March" reminded me of why the Civil War continues, and rightly so, to fascinate many Americans. The novel presents a picture of the ravages and effects of the War upon our country and upon a small family in Concord, Massachusetts. The novel is nominally a sort of follow-up to "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, with a Bronson Alcott-like character as the hero. But this framing of the story is, for the most part, of little relevance to the theme and power of the book.
At the outset of the Civil War, March the primary character of the story, is a 39-year old minister of highly unorthodox religious views. He is also an idealist and an abolitionist who has lost his wealth in support of John Brown and who is a friend of Emerson and Thoreau. The other two primary characters in the story are Marmee, March's strong-willed and proto-modernist wife, and Grace, a former slave. At the age of 18, March had met Grace when he journeyed though the South as a peddler. The two are attracted to each other, and March sees Grace receive a terrible whipping as a result of her efforts in assisting March teach other slaves on the plantation -- Grace is literate -- to read and write.
The book turns on March's war experiences during the first year of the struggle with flashbacks to his early life, including his early encounter with Grace and with Southern plantation life, his unusual courtship of Marmee, his loss of his fortune in support of John Brown and his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau. The descriptions of the intellectual milieu of early Concord, particularly of Thoreau, are among the best parts of the book. Quotations from Thoreau's "Walden" are quietly weaved into the text of "Marsh".
Even though he is 39 years old, Marsh's idealism and commitment to the end of slavery make him rush to enlist and leave his family when the Civil War breaks out. During his period in the service, Marsh sees much that is evil in the conduct of the war and he witnesses slaughter in the small but terrible early battle of Ball's Bluff. He is soon transferred to teach newly-freed slaves at a plantation along the Mississippi River called Oak Landing which has been leased by a young Northerner named Canning. He learns for himself the great difficulties that will be involved in teaching the freed people. Following an encounter with Confederate irregulars, March becomes gravely ill, and Marmee is called to the fetid hospital in Washington, D.C. to which he has been brought for cure. Grace has become a Union nurse and is helping in Marsh's recovery. Ultimately, Marsh returns home to Concord to face his wife and four daughters in what will be an uncertain future.
The book shows eloquently how Marsh's idealism is tested by his experience of combat and by the immensity of the Civil War. Indeed, it shows Marsh's awakening to the ambiguities of the conflict and its causes. The novel also shows well the strain the War put on familial relationships, particularly as they involve Marsh's relationship with Marmee and with Grace. The book also focuses on Marsh and his high expectations of himself, and how he responds when his actions during the conflict often do not comport with his high ideals. A great deal of the complex character of our Civil War -- and the difficulty we have even today in understanding it -- comes through well in this book.
In his prose work "Specimen Days", Walt Whitman observed that "the real Civil War will never get into the books." In spite of Whitman's warning, many Americans continue to try to understand the significance of the conflict in works of history and literature. Brooks's novel, with its portrayal of the conflict and its participants, both of the North and the South, seems to me a good start, in a work of fiction, for the reader to approach and think about the Civil War. The book is thoughtful, both as far as the broad issues of the War are concerned, and in considering the effect of the War upon a freed young woman and upon a fictional idealistic young minister from Concord and his family.