Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Remember the Civil War?

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."--Abraham Lincoln
I have ancestors that fought on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. My mother’s kin fought for the Union and my father’s for the Confederacy. Generations later, both families made it to California, one via Kansas, the other by way of Oklahoma. Both came to the Golden State during the Depression, and it was this historic event that I heard the rumbling echoes of as I grew up. The tales of my childhood were of how my great-grandmother, a widow, would have starved if my grandfather hadn’t sent her money home from the WPA camp. And how my grandmother, an independent woman working as a nurse until she was in her thirties, proudly saved a sizeable sum of money before she was married.

 If there were stories about battles in my family, they were about my grandfather’s stint on Okinawa (horrific.) I knew nothing of Manassas or Fredericksburg, and I only grew aware of Gettysburg when required to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school.  (Thank you, Lincoln, for keeping it short!) Remarkably, I covered the American Revolution four times in my academic career, but never the Civil War. I had a vague notion that the South had slaves and that the slaves escaped on railroads. Since slavery was bad, the North had been in the right and so of course won the war.

Exodus isn't just a book in the Bible
I was six and a half when I heard “a king” had been killed (I asked what country he was king of), a murder shortly to be followed by that of Bobby Kennedy. It was the same year my parents continued their own parents’ migration by leaving California for Washington State. San Francisco’s summer of love in 1967 had been too much for them, and they fled for the calmer climes of suburban Seattle. Little did they know that a mere three years later the bottom would drop out of Boeing and the Seattle economy, creating a exodus so enormous that a billboard near Sea-Tac airport read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle, turn out the lights.” That economic recession colored my entire childhood and, in a way, shaped most of my twenties, though at the time I was relatively unaware how history could be an active participant in a person’s destiny.

Dress like Martha
Ah, history.  We can’t do anything about it.  It’s dead.  It’s gone. Doesn’t remembering just evoke pain and recrimination? Why not live and let live, go forward afresh and new? This year, 2011, is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It is nothing compared to the bicentennial of our country’s founding.  Now that was a party.  1976—seems like yesterday. Stars and stripes were everywhere, on every product, in every ad. Schoolhouse Rock had Saturday morning cartoons about it, and people even sewed their own Martha Washington dresses from Butterick patterns.   
"I'm just a bill . . ."
The Declaration of Independence was an unequivocal milestone in human achievement, and our war of revolution (unlike the recent humiliation in Vietnam) was one we could all feel good about.  We won. We were right, and through our courage, fortitude and wisdom, we established a precedent for the world to follow.  The French fleet who’d really signed the deal for us weren’t mentioned much, and Loyalists who bet on the wrong horse and had to leave everything behind to flee to Canada weren’t brought up at all. The subsequent near annihilation of the native peoples of the continent didn’t get much play, nor did how the legitimization of slavery by the Constitution and our Founding Fathers was a betrayal of the country's founding precepts, not to mention it left a huge mess for following generations to resolve. No, the American Revolution was crystalline in its fife and drum purity and unambiguous goodness.

Sesquicentennial Splendor
Compare that national extravaganza to this year. Now, it’s true that a sesquicentennial is fundamentally less exciting than a bicentennial—heavens, the word itself is a pain to pronounce.  So what we have are a few new books out, some magazine and newspaper articles on the Civil War, some low-key, local events.  But I would posit that this is at least partly because we’re not sure how to view this war anymore. What used to be clear is murky these days. The South’s bitterness has mellowed and developed a different patina; the North’s righteousness has turned into something more ambiguous and wistful. Yes, the Civil War ended slavery, but we’re starting to remember that that had not been its original intent. Yes, the war saved the Union, but if the Constitution had been a contract, both sides had violated its terms, and who was to blame that there was no exit clause?  And we’re more aware these days that in every battle, one side’s victory meant the others side’s death and maiming, and as such they can’t be celebrated, only mourned.

Dead Americans
618,000 Americans died in the Civil War war, 68,000 of them African-American. That was the cost of that war. Though few understood it at the time, those 618,000 husbands, sons, and brothers were consumed by an epic battle of industrialization wrestling agriculture for the reins of the North American continent.  Which is not to say the Civil War was not about slavery—it was.  But it was also about the deal that had been brokered by the Constitution that had been unraveling for decades. It was about changing technologies and energy sources, and how society necessarily had to evolve as a result. It was about immigration and conflicting, competing economic models.  And, like most wars, underneath it all it was about money and power and who would possess them.  

Soldier and family
In the end, the South chose to dig in its heels rather than adapt to the moral, economic and technological pressures demanding it change. In the end, the North couldn’t allow a powerful, hostile country to stretch all the way across its southern border. If they didn’t fight the Confederacy after Fort Sumter, they would’ve inevitably fought them a few years later over control of the western territories. For its security and future wealth, the North had to both defeat and crush the South to remove it as a threat. That this would impoverish and embitter a future third of the country for the next century was either not taken into account or considered an adequate price to pay.

 The Civil War is valuable to remember as an example of what happens when patched-together compromises can no longer hold.  It’s what happens when adaptive small changes—often known as reforms—are resisted, forcing large changes—often known as revolutions or collapse—to come all at once. It’s what happens when, in the face of historic forces, a people says its way of life is non-negotiable and then finds out that, indeed, history does not negotiate.

There is value in remembering people and events in all their complexity--their good and their bad, their dark and their light. We gain when we comprehend the entirety of a person or an era (or as close as we can get to it) rather than a sanitized, one-sided version. The Civil War, with its suffering, loss, and heartache, should make us sad and even uncomfortable.  And it’s important to acknowledge that our leaders, even the ones we most admire, had failings as well as strengths.  This approach doesn’t make for a good party.  There’s no basking in any nostalgic, rosy glow.  But an honest look back lets us embrace both the wonder and the warts of our history and let us know ourselves—our own virtues and our own failings--better because of it. In this way the mystic chords of our nation's memory, dissonant though they may still be, can slowly grow in harmony.

Pearl City Control Theory, a Novel Available as Ebook $2.99

Pearl City Control Theory, a novel of city Buddha-mind walking, love and breaking free is available as an ebook on both Nook and Kindle for just $2.99.  

It's a modern comedy of manners set in urban San Francisco, very different than Beaufort 1849!  Here's the description:

When Sara’s husband, Mark, goes to the East Coast for law school, Sara stays behind in her beloved San Francisco. Their marriage will be BCDR -- bi-coastal, dual rental. It’s only for three years, Sara tells herself. An admirer of efficiency, she intends to keep loneliness at bay by moving in with her erratic sister, Amanda, and by staying busy at work in her newly promoted position as a manager for a large consumer products manufacturer.

But Sara’s tightly controlled world starts to crack when she accepts the help of an inscrutable mentor and begins volunteering at a domestic violence shelter on the weekends. As mercurial Amanda does her best to disarray the order of Sara’s life, challenges at work and at the shelter test Sara’s resolve and illuminate the fissures in her careful structures. To top it off, Sara finds her mentor far too helpful when she knows she shouldn’t be seeing him at all . . .

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Win a free copy of Beaufort 1849!

I am guest blogging for the next couple days at author Suzanne Adair's blog.

Suzanne Adair's Blog--The Improbable Story of Robert Smalls

Leave a comment on this post at her blog for a chance to win a free copy of Beaufort 1849!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Between the Wars

Roaring through the twenties
I’ve been on a jag lately of immersing myself in the culture of upper-crust Britain in the decades between the world wars. Though I’ve long been a fan of P.G. Wodehouse and Mrs. Dalloway, now, from re-watching Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisted (oh so good), to reading Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, to tearing through a number of lightweight Georgette Heyer period mysteries, the twilight of the British aristocracy has been on my mind.  Ah, the details that no other era can match! Mannish women wearing monocles, the plover eggs at an Oxford luncheon, snobby countesses in tiaras, bathtubs full of newts. Who can forget Poirot in his white spats, or Bertie chasing his cow creamer while his faithful Jeeves rescues him from a dreaded Aunt or two? In this manic world, Cedric and Lady Montford prance together in their jewels, Sebastian laments about the bad mood of his teddy bear Aloysius, and the butler never does it but gets killed instead.

Lloyd George--no fan of lords
It’s an odd literary flowering that documents this period of frantic parties and still opulent displays of wealth. The first World War, the great one, had finished this particular group of people off, even if they hadn’t realized it quite yet. But the changes had been raining down for a while, working to erode centuries of privilege stretching from the Middle Ages. One could say it began with the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1846 that allowed cheap grain to be imported into Britain from other countries, lowering domestic agricultural profits.  Others might say it was the invention of the spinning jenny and the cotton gin that created a capitalist-mercantile class, a class that spent most of the nineteenth century fighting to expand its wealth and influence at the expense of its more refined brethren.  The aristocracy, however, not without a trick or two themselves, fought back and hung on. As late as 1880, these seven thousand families owned four-fifths of the land in Britain. They dominated government and social prestige, controlled the Houses of Parliament, and filled the ranks of the army, church and civil service with their second and third sons. In 1884 another blow was struck with a series of reform measures that allowed nearly 60% of the male population to vote. (Gosh, sounds radical.) And then in 1913 Lloyd George, a Welshman no fan of landlords, pushed through his “Land Campaign” with higher taxes for landowners, government control of rents, and higher wages for laborers.  The coffin for the aristocracy had been built and the grave dug, but the body was still kicking.  Then came the war.

The dead left behind in France
The young men of this class and era, schooled at Eton and Harrow and Cambridge and Oxford, had been groomed to lead and rule, so when war with the Kaiser came, they promptly volunteered to command troops for king and country.  But it turned out to be a different kind of war than anyone expected, and in France and Flanders men died or were maimed in horrific numbers.  It was a bloodletting that diminished all of Britain but impacted aristocratic young men in disproportionate numbers.
Party time

The war also brought an abrupt end to many repressive Victorian mores, and when  the armistice finally arrived, the freedom was exhilarating. Still, even in the midst of parties and gaiety and cocktails and flappers, the landed gentry sensed something was wrong. Already financial troubles were knocking at the door even if they did their best not to listen. Already the older generation raged at the assaults on their wealth and prerogatives, or worse, resigned to their fate, sold off millions of acres of inherited land--one of the largest transfers of territory in British history--just to stay afloat. Country houses and London town homes soon followed until the landed class had no land to pass onto their children.  With the corpse in the coffin, the twenties and thirties were a glorious two-decade wake. 

The final, most undignified blow followed the second war.  After a hefty increase in taxes to pay for debt brought on by the war, and a hefty increase in wages for the average worker, no one could afford servants at all.  Without chambermaids, valets, gardeners and cooks, estates couldn’t be maintained, dinner parties couldn’t be given, and being an Earl or Duchess grew suddenly irrelevant.  It took Hitler and WWII to hammer down the final nails in the British aristocratic coffin, and then that class was buried into obscurity and irrelevance for good.

Though there is art and architecture from these decades that evokes the style and exuberance and wild social change of the era, I think it is literature that captures it best. This is true even if the novel or story was written slightly later and tinted by nostalgia for something that can be revisited in memory but never regained.  Was this lost world a paradise? Well, it was certainly nice for those seven thousand families. Should its passing be mourned? A harder question to answer.  Yes, something has been lost, and the world is still missing it. But dead bodies have to be buried. No one wants to live with zombies in tiaras and spats.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Aiken-Rhett House: Take a Ride on the Roller Coaster of History

I like grand old houses, their craftsmanship, their whimsy, their attention to detail. A fine house can charm the senses and even, on occasion, uplift the soul. But best of all is when a house has a story to tell. 

Aiken-Rhett house in 1865
 Often a century or two of renovations muddy the narrative or even lose the storyline altogether in favor of central air and indoor plumbing--modern conveniences that are understandable enough, I admit. However, to my delight, in Charleston, South Carolina, there exists a house where the whispers of history are abundant, where layers of generation upon generation are still plainly in view. It is a house that depicts the rise and fall not only of a family but of an entire civilization. It is the Aiken-Rhett house.

The house was built by Charleston merchant John Robinson who, with the fickleness of early nineteenth century fortunes, lost it soon afterwards. It was then bought by William Aiken, Sr., a prosperous Irish merchant, to be used as rental property. (Pretty grand rental property, even back then!) When Aiken Sr. died in a carriage accident (notice a theme of reversals?) the house was left to his son, William Aiken, Jr. He promptly moved in with his bride, Harriet Lowndes, the beautiful and well-educated daughter of a South Carolina political grandee. She spoke four languages and was destined to become one of Charleston’s leading hostesses. This son of an immigrant had truly made his way into Charleston society.

Grand Entryway
Slave quarters and other outbuildings
Time for renovations! The house was expanded and upgraded into one of the most magnificent residences in Charleston, a city not lacking in resplendent abodes. Aiken himself became a big cheese not only in Charleston, but the entire state, elected both governor of South Carolina in 1844 and a member of Congress in 1851. Owner of a number of plantations, he was also one of the largest slaveholders in the state. At the back of the Charleston house were outbuildings where the ten to twenty house slaves that worked there during the antebellum years could often be found—in the kitchen, laundry, stables, carriage house, and in their living quarters in the upper parts of these buildings.

In the 1850’s the price of cotton went sky-high. Time for more renovations! The interior was redecorated and an art gallery was constructed for the collection of paintings and sculptures that the Aiken’s brought back from their extensive tour of Europe.

We’ve ridden the roller coaster of history up for the Aiken-Rhett house. Fasten your seatbelts for the ride down.

Remembrance of things pas
Though a slave owner, Aiken was a Unionist and did not support secession. However, like most Southerners, after Fort Sumter he supported the Confederacy, tying the fate of his family to Confederate fortunes. During the bombardment of Charleston, many of the grand houses were pounded into rubble, but this house escaped due to its placement further up Charleston’s slender peninsula. However, when Charleston fell to Union forces in 1865 the house was looted and Aiken arrested and taken to Washington for trial. He was later released due to the intervention of northern politicians he’d made friends with during his political heyday.

Dining Room
Though their house had been looted, abused, and most of its valuables stolen, the Aiken family managed not to lose their home to federal taxes like so many in Beaufort did. They hung on and stayed on, as did most of the old families in Charleston. Too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash, as the saying goes. In the Aiken’s case, this meant wallpaper peeled, and carpets grew threadbare. It meant fabrics and plaster began to disintegrate, and in some places dry rot set in. With little money for wood or coal to heat large spaces, grand rooms were shut up entirely. It meant multiple generations lived together, paying expenses as best they could. Harriet Lowndes Aiken lived in the house until her death in 1892, the grand ballroom becoming her bedroom. Her daughter, Harriet, and her son-in-law Major A.B. Rhett raised their five children in that house. Their descendants occupied it until 1975.

Over the course of a hundred and fifteen years, remarkably few alterations were made. Electric lights were bought to some rooms. Heating panels were added to the dining room. The slave quarters were left nearly untouched. The brilliance of the Historic Charleston Foundation that now owns the house was its choice not to restore the house according to one period or another of its long history. Instead, with one or two exceptions, they’ve preserved the house just as it was when they received it, in all its decaying grandeur.

Walking through the grand double parlor with its fragments of wallpaper and full-length portrait of Harriet Lowndes Aiken, we sense the soirees to which the fashionable elite of Charleston flocked. Waltzes echo in the mirrored ballroom; on the piazzas we almost glimpse the young ladies in wide skirts laughing with their beaux. In the dank basement warming-kitchen, we sense the constrained lives of the slaves; in their painted and plastered living quarters in the outbuildings, we discern the slaves’ hierarchy in status as well as their chance for privacy and camaraderie. We can even admire the pleasant life the Aiken horses must have led in their rather elaborate stables. And then we feel the years rain down on the impoverished household, taking their toll in roof shingles and rooms left purposely shut up and untouched. Even in its last stages of decay, the dining room still must have been grand. And even as plaster fell and gardens became riddled with weeds, the Aiken-Rhett family clung to the house out of survival and proud testament to what once was.

Like a ballgown found moldering in the attic the Aiken-Rhett house conveys more in its shambles than a reproduction would in pristine counterfeit. It tells us that as a civilization prospers, so do its dwellings. And after that civilization collapses, the buildings are often all that remain, silent narrators of a story distant and sad, whispering to us from across the centuries as the roller coaster of history glides on.

(Govenor Aiken makes a brief appearance in Beaufort 1849, but, sadly, his house does not, except in as much as it influenced the conception of the Birch home in Beaufort, Villa d’Este. All photos above are via the Library of Congress.)