Wednesday, July 30, 2014

So Red the Rose, by Stark Young

Stark Young’s 1934 novel So Red the Rose describes the experience of two Southern planter families—the McGeehees and Bedfords--during the time just before, during, and after the Civil War.  It focuses on a wide array of figures in the two families plus their friends and acquaintances.  The novel largely limits itself to the planter class, but its horizons are relatively broad, and we come to understand not simply the members of the two families but their world—their awareness of the impending war and its causes, their differing opinions about the prospects of secession and of Lincoln’s election, the books they read, how they think, their childhood histories, people they know—who extend throughout the South and the North.  Historical figures appear— William Tecumseh Sherman is headmaster in an academy where one character studies, while another character pays a visit to Jefferson Davis (family members disagree over his qualifications to be president of the Confederacy).  The narrative shifts among the thoughts and conversations of various characters so that readers gain a rounded, detailed, fairly insightful sense of the characters and their world.  So Red the Rose romanticizes and idealizes its subject, but it places the people and events it describes within a social and historical context.  This clearly partisan novel takes pains to lay out the indignities suffered by the two families as well as all the arguments in defense of the southern position in the War.  It views the Civil War from the home front, as the two plantation families experience it.

From a modern viewpoint the problematic element in the novel is its treatment of race and slavery.  Several characters oppose slavery, Hugh McGeehee in particular, but that opposition is primarily a matter of principle.  Everyone accepts slavery as a normal part of life.  No one argues for the equality of the races or takes any position other than one that regards slaves as less than human.  Northerners who appear and talk about the equality of the former slaves are viewed as clueless.  The novel’s position is that slavery was a benign and necessary practice.  The Bedford family names all the housemaids Celie so that they don’t have to remember their names.  The families are especially outraged when black Northern soldiers come into their house, take their belongings, and in various ways cause them to feel menaced.  They view former slaves who leave the plantations in search of a better life as ignorant and disloyal.  They regard poor whites as little better.  One of the points made late in the novel is that the loss of the Civil War will turn everything upside down, and that poor whites and former slaves will gain the upper hand.  To the Bedfords and McGeehees, this is the gravest of indignities—the loss of social prominence, of power.  From the novel’s perspective, this means the disappearance of their culture, their civilization. 

The novel gives a convincing picture of what defeat might have been like for Southern planter families in Mississippi.  It makes clear how violated they feel by the invasion of their plantations by Northern soldiers.  It lays out the case in various ways for the virtues it associates with the Southern cause and the Southern way of life.  In doing this, I think it is in fact presenting this information from the viewpoint of a Southerner in 1934, that the attitudes it expresses are more those of a writer looking back on the war rather than of one in the middle of it.  It is difficult for me to believe that families who have watched their houses burned and whose sons have been killed in battle would be so stoic and accepting of the change that has come on their lives.  The characters in the novel take a philosophical view of their loss in the war.  But who knows what it would have been like?  The historical accounts I’ve read—letters, journals—are mostly concerned with the day-to-day necessities of survival.  There’s little philosophy involved.

At times the narrative seems disorganized and meandering, especially in the latter third. In its efforts to make clear the Southern point of view, it sometimes veers towards the didactic.  The novel’s virtues are the fully developed characters, its relative intelligence, its delineation of the social life and the individual lives of the family members, and the ways in which it represents the Southern viewpoint, at least as Stark Young would have it. 



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