"Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty" by John W. De Forest
First Impressions (Pt.10)
This book represents the way in which learning from each other can be a struggle especially in the midst of a war. But, the American Civil War is more than just war politics and a class struggle, it is also about race and slavery and humanity. There is also a great amount of violent language and the exploration I did into this book was to do with the way in which the characters talk about the war and what the reader learns about the view of the war throughout the novel. We get firsthand character judgements and a range of differing opinions to the way in which the war impacts the younger generation - both positively and negatively. When the reader encounters more humane characters, they are in no way perfect or even progressive for our own day, but when it comes to the American Civil War and the other characters who are brilliant examples of the racially insensitive and the racially abusive stereotypes, it makes the progressive characters obviously look more progressive than they actually are. Thus, we have this range of different characters that mostly depend on the way in which other characters too are viewed in the book.
We get a range of progressives on a spectrum, and on the other side we get the racist ones who make the progressives look more and more progressive as the war continues and gets even more violent and bloodied. It is a tough analysis of the novel but, when viewing sections of the war scenes, the reader can definitely see the impact that the war had on the Southern States. Since the vast majority of the worse events happen to characters that are not within our own line of sight as racial progressives, we do not feel much sympathy for them. This does not though, take away from the violence being perpetrated throughout the war but only shows the reader the extent that the war went to in order to give freedom and learning to the races and people who before, did not have access to it because of their positions as the slave-cast of society. War means different things throughout the book and to different characters - all these views of war get underway in the novel and become dependent on the monetary and racial politics that are put-out by the characters.
The one thing that appears a lot within this text is the comparison to other wars, especially ancient ones. There are various allusions to the Trojan War but the one to focus on is the wars of Julius Caesar which the characters talk exclusively about because of the fact that it too, was a civil war. The power struggle though, is not the only thing they speak of, instead, they speak of the way in which the war played out and why Caesar won:
“‘Isn’t it clear that Pompey’s men began to run away when they got within about ten feet of Caesar’s?’…And if Caesar’s men had had long-range rifles, Pompey’s men would have run away at a hundred yards. All victories are won by moral force - by the terror of death rather than by death itself…” (p.29)
The way in which the ancient wars played out definitely makes a difference to the characters and the way in which they attempt, and often fail, to define the war in which they live through. They not only use the ancient wars to define their own but also they use them to allude and relate to their own times. These characters often have grand delusions of themselves as heroes of war, the great suffering is theirs and yet, they are inactive in their war efforts most of the time in comparison to other characters of the regiments. It is a hypocrisy that will cost them dearly in the midst of the text and in their relationships, which become long-distant in some cases. When they define war, it often comes out as a presumption rather than an attempt at reason: “Modern war is founded on the principle that one man is afraid of two.” (p.29)
When it comes to American society, the characters are often hyper-observant from living in average working-class conditions and above. Their observations come from their own personal experiences within their own social class, but when they make an overall judgment of American Society, it comes from the way in which they have seen the war play out. All of this comes back to the idea that some characters are well aware of the damage that the war has done to the community in which they live and the democracy they once believed in:
“At the bottom it is bad. But it is a sad necessity of American Society. So long as we have untrained servants - black barbarians at the South and mutinous foreigners at the North - many American housekeepers will throw down their keys in despair and rush for refuge to the hotels. And numbers produce respectability, at least in democracy…” (p.52)
These characters often understand the way in which society is structured against them with little they can do about it. But these characters also understand that there are other things about the ‘bottom’ that threaten democracy. Be that as it may, they are racially insensitive about the situation and therefore, completely ignorant of what actual democracy is even though the South is relatively republican, to have a democracy gives them the rights they have and seek. But, their republicanism gives them the segregation they also uphold. Therefore, this quotation represents that they are mostly politically confused throughout the entire book.
When the reader proceeds to read about the actual war, the people of the South look to God to protect them but as they make more and more allusions to older wars, they discover that wars also depend on supplies and the amount of money the place that is being ‘invaded’ has. The quotation states:
“‘Just look at this city’ he continued, ‘merely in its character as a temptation to this army. Here is a chance for plunder and low dissipation such as most of your simply educated and innocent country lads of New England never before imagined. I have no doubt that there is spoil enough here to demoralise a corps of veterans. I don’t believe that any thing can be more ruinous to a military force that free license to enrich itself at the expense of a conquered enemy.’” (p.119)
When the reader looks at the way in which these people talk about ‘plundering land’ they can only read it in an act of deliberate irony on part of the American people who went to other lands and plundered them for their own gain - the Southern states supporting that notion for a lot longer than the North did and also why the war broke out in the first place.
When it comes to the breakout of the war, every character seems to have a differing opinion as to how it happened, but the general consensus happens to be about patriotism and nationality rather than human rights and progression, which is what the North believed it was actually about:
“When this war broke out he came home to see if he might be permitted to fight for his race, and for his and my country. He now wears the same uniform that I do, and he is my superior officer…” (p.164)
But, when it comes to the race question, often characters who are progressives stray from the Southern reason for war. This means that they are often ostracised to the sidelines of society, no matter how rich and powerful they are - in this case, a doctor:
“For nearly a century the whole power of our great Republic, north and south, has been devoted to keeping them stupid. Your own state has taken a demoniac interest in this infernal labour. We mustn’t quarrel with our own deliberate productions. We wanted stupidity, we have got it, and we mustn’t be contented with it. At least for a while. It is your duty and mine to work patiently, courteously and faithfully to undo the horrid results of a century of selfishness. I shall expect you to teach all these poor people to read.” (p.227)
In conclusion, it is undeniable that the Southern States are unsure of what they want out of the civil war. Each character represents a different angle of how the civil war may play out and every character seems to contribute differently and out of their own want. As the reader, we remain unsure as to whether the more progressive characters are progressive out of their own hearts, out of their want to subvert the norm that has been inhumane for generations, out of their own want or out of their spite towards other characters. Whatever it is though, the fact that the reader knows that the North wins the civil war - and so whether these characters become completely irrelevant through dramatic irony is a question left entirely unanswered.
De Forest, J.W (2000). Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. UK: Penguin Classics .