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miss ravenel's conversion from secession to loyalty

3 December 2004

John W. DeForest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) is a novel that has stayed just on the edge of American attention: in and out of print but mostly in; in and out of college syllabuses and scholarly discussions, but mostly out. In the mid-20th century, when the canon of the 19th-century American novel coalesced around Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James, DeForest's masterpiece seemed too loose, too rhetorical, too frankly sentimental. In the late 20th century, when looseness, rhetoric, and sentiment regained the field and writers like Stowe, Warner, and Alcott re-emerged, DeForest perhaps seemed politically shallow, a creature and creator of white male prestige, a white liberal who, unlike Stowe, used sentiment as a diversion rather than as the leading component of his rhetoric.

Which is a roundabout academic way of saying that it's easy to like Miss Ravenel but hard to know, at this historical distance, what you like about it and why. DeForest was a Union officer. His politics are unswervingly liberal. His heroes are two Union officers (who in turn, marry the heroine) and an abolitionist doctor (her father). The main plot movement (explicitly Unionist) is foretold in the title. But on social issues, DeForest was no radical. His black characters range uneasily from tough soldiers to shiftless freedmen. His Irishmen are stock Paddies and his women are sensual and inconsistent when not inconstant. And throughout Miss Ravenel, DeForest's tone is arch, metafictional, and softly cynical.

In other words, he's like few other American novelists of his time. He's maybe more like Trollope than any American, but a Trollope who had seen both the horrors of combat and the drudgery of camp duty, and reported on both in a realistic mode that was a precursor of later 20th-century naturalism.

The war scenes in Miss Ravenel are the most famous parts of the novel, the ones deeply admired by Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore (1962) and sometimes, following Wilson, compared to Tolstoy for their intensity. (Rebecca Harding Davis achieves a similar intensity in Waiting for the Verdict [1867], but she did not fight in the War and thus lacks the eyewitness ethos.) The great long paragraph that concludes Chapter 24, where the narrator -- DeForest in his own voice, stepping back from his story -- expresses a paradoxical nostalgia for combat, is unsurpassed in its nuance and gentle deployment of ironic detail.

But combat is only a fraction of Miss Ravenel, just as combat, DeForest noted, was only a fraction of his war service. Almost all the novel is about the domestic context of the War, and to read it for its blue-and-grey passages is to misrepresent it by excerption. The major "through-line" of the plot concerns Lillie Ravenel's assimilation to the Union cause by means of her love for two husbands, the Virginia Unionist Carter and the New England Brahmin Colburne. Both are brave and capable soldiers, but Carter is a drunk, womanizer, and embezzler, even if a somewhat embarrassed one. Lillie marries him first, and after Carter's death in battle, she gravitates toward Colburne, less dashing but the better potential husband. Colburne is an obvious surrogate for DeForest in the story, but DeForest is a separate presence in the novel as observer -- so that the book nicely gets to provide its author with a heroic mirror of himself who also gets the girl, but without too much authorial self-aggrandizement in the process.

Miss Ravenel is frank about sex in ways that make Hawthorne and Melville seem strenuously repressed, not that that's real hard to do. But it also sentimentalizes Lillie's sexual life, clouding her quite vigorous desires in a fog of rhetoric about the Apotheosis of Womanhood which is both sincere and arch at the same time, in DeForest's odd amalgam of tones.

Meanwhile, Lillie's father, the Louisiana abolitionist Doctor Ravenel, exists mainly as a rhetorical mouthpiece. His sentiments, politically radical and unchallenged by any rhetorical counterweight in the novel, are surely DeForest's own (another refraction of the authorial presence), but his actions are feeble and over-idealistic, as when he takes over a plantation and struggles with the indolence of its freedmen. As if unwilling to imagine a new balance of race and labor relations in the south, DeForest sweeps away the Doctor's plantation in a Confederate raid.

It's telling, in fact, that two of the main characters in Miss Ravenel -- three, if you count the converted Lillie -- are militantly Unionist Southerners: precursors of a fictional type that has proliferated down to the present day in Civil War stories. Secessionists barely exist in the novel, except for an opportunistic New Orleans temptress who is inevitably named Mrs Larue. The South is not the enemy here; the Confederacy, barely personified, has no human face, and the Union characters seem to be fighting a force of nature that is briefly embodied in Texas cavalry or Arkansas pickets.

But for all its contradictions, Miss Ravenel remains a tremendous read after almost 140 years, absolutely sure in its narrative sense and prose style. It is back in paperback in a relatively recent edition with introduction by Gary Scharnhorst, from Penguin.

DeForest, John W. Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. 1867. New York: Penguin, 2000.