Monday, June 02, 2008

Eloquence and envy...

My old classmate Blakeslee has a song called "Opiates and Envy," but this is probably a little different.

This is a writer's lament.

Well, assuming it's fair after assorted journalistic endeavors, a college degree and a direct-to-DVD movie to call myself a writer.

Sometimes, as a reader, you hit a passage in a book or story that just sucks you in. Just insists you must, must read more.

Perhaps he scarcely cares for fame, though he will do his full duty. He has lost both wife and child and finds himself the last of his line. He goes on a difficult mission down the ridge of South Mountain, where he lacks adequate support, and he does not come back.

It's a wonderful feeling, if occasionally costly (in terms of tracking down, say, the full-length biographyof someone mentioned fairly briefly in another work).

This is Douglas S. Freeman, the famed Civil War historian.

His two claims to fame - besides Douglas S. Freeman High School and Freeman Hall at Richmond University, of course - are his seminal biography of Robert E. Leeand its follow-up, the magnificent Lee's Lieutenantsabout the Army of Northern Virginia's subordinate generals.

(Blatant off-topic mention: The University of Richmond, home of Freeman Hall, is also the alma mater of brand-new Oakland Raider Arman Shields.)

He is alloted a glorious day on Groveton Heights, and then he has a narrow escape at Sharpsburg. After that, at Fredericksburg, there is a wound, an affecting interview with Stonewall Jackson, and the long, long silence.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah, Lee's Lieutenants.

Let me tell you why I love this book, for more than just its fascinating history.

I love it for the writing. Not just the overall scholarship and eloquence, but for the little bits. The little moments, phrases, expressions that draw you in, as a reader, and make you - demand - you read more.

With them, under Jube Early, he goes to the Shenandoah Valley, and there, at a moment when he did not know the battle was lost, he leaves unanswered the question whether he would have realized fully his promise as a soldier.

Why the envy?

Well, obviously, as a writer... I hate this man. Well, not really. For one thing, he's dead. For another, it's not so much hatred as...


See, I often say that there are few things quite so pretentious and cutthroat as a college creative writing class. Of which, I might add, I survived more than a few, with the psychological scars to prove it.

But one thing I never quite got the hang of, was why writing need meaning. Could writing as entertainment not serve its own purpose? That being, of course, to entertain for entertainment's sake?

This, perhaps, is why my fiction so often got shredded in workshops. But the point is, my writing was often aimed at bringing out an emotion in my readers, something visceral and fundamental.

Be it fear, laughter, love, whatever.

As the army enters Pennsylvania, this new major general tries to relieve the concern of his young wife that the Lord will not bless the Southern cause if the Confederacy does more than defend its own territory. He knows, as a trained soldier, that a whole-hearted offensive often is the most prudent defensive. The campaign must be fought. So run his letters. Then, abruptly, they stop.

And one of the best ways to do that, I've found, is an eloquent turn of phrase. You can capture a character in an action novel in a well-crafted paragraph, and make you care in that moment whether this man or woman lives or dies over the course of the next 500 pages.

It's one of the reasons Ice Stationis my favorite action-fiction novel. Matt Reilly makes you care about his characters, even as he blows them away a few pages later. A quick phrase, a paragraph, even a short chapter, and you want to see one soldier survive even as another dies.

Freeman's work, though historical nonfiction, has that essence. That way of catching your eye, exciting your mind, making your heart race just a little faster.

Ramseur has the promise of something dearer than military distinction. One day, when a battle is in prospect, he hears that the crisis is past and that the baby is born. More than that he never learns.

Remember Starship Troopers when that voiceover keeps asking, "Would you like to know more?"

That's what a great phrase is, that voiceover that makes the answer "yes."

Freeman does it over and over again in Lee's Lieutenants.

And yes, as a writer slogging through Novel No. 1, I'm jealous. In so many ways.

Editor's note: If you're curious, every one of these quotes was from the introduction of the Dramatis Personae that opens the book. That's right... they're not even from the meaty part. The descripions are of, in order:

• Samuel Garland, killed at South Mountain
• Maxcy Gregg, mortally wounded at Fredericksburg
Robert Rodes, killed at Third Winchester
William Dorsey Pender, mortally wounded at Gettysburg
Stephen Dodson Ramseur, mortally wounded at Cedar Creek

1 Comment:

Stewie said...

It often amazes me how different writing can affect different people.

Like those passages you wrote do nothing for me. In fact, I don't want to read the book at all because I dislike that style of writing (I couldn't even tell you why, there's just something about it that bugs me.)

But it goes back to what I first said. It's just interesting that it will draw you in completely, but turn me away, and yet we still enjoy (basically) the same type of books.

Go figure.