A Blessed, Companion is a Book.
Marching On, by Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1927. 12mo. vii+ 424 pp. $2.50.. New York:
IT is no coincidence that up to the present there have been so few good novels written about the Civil War. Histories, memoirs, and military studies we have had a plenty, but few novels, and none, certainly, so good as Marching On by James Boyd. Clearly it took years for rancor to subside, for wounded memories to heal, and in the interval those of the immediate generations, in the words of General Lee, ‘felt no desire to revive any recollections of those events.’ But the sixty-six years since Sumter are, as it were, a telescope permitting us to see that far time with understanding and detachment. By focusing the glass on his home country, by his striking interpretation of history and reminiscence, Mr. Boyd, a Southerner, has brought to light a novel as free from animosity as it is full of character and movement.
It is the democratic fashion to-day to write histories of the peoples of selected epochs, distinguishing the rôle of the common man from that of the politicians, warriors, and merchants
the leaders who influenced his career. This perspective appeals to Mr. Boyd: he chose it for his first novel. Drums, and he employs it again to better effect in Marching On. The pictures of the Old South which occupy the first half of the book are seen through the eyes of a farmer boy; the campaigns of the war are those experienced by a buck private. This perspective, for all its colloquial humbleness, gives us a far livelier sense of participation than if we had been closeted with fictitious cabinets and commanders.
The story opens in the Cape Fear country of southern North Carolina, with young James Fraser, son of an impecunious Scotch farmer, working at his chores, striving against poverty (his family own no slaves), and watching with shy, envious glances the glamorous life that flows about the big plantation of Colonel Prevost, with whose only daughter James has presumed to fall in love. The situation is too trying to be borne, and in a fit of pride James leaves home for Wilmington, the port, where in the railroad shops he serves an apprenticeship. As leisurely as a ’Local’ the narrative runs on, pausing frequently to allow the entry of new characters whose refreshing qualities compensate the reader for his impatience. While this slow passage is disproportionate, it does succeed in making one aware of the growing James and of the complexity of his love affair, which without some extraordinary reversal of circumstance must be hopeless. Fortunately for him the war breaks out, and he enlists, not to defend Slavery, not to aim a blow at the Union, but, like the rank and file of the South, ‘because it seemed a fine thing to chase the Yankees.'
In the account of James’s service with the Army of Northern Virginia the narrative reaches a level unsurpassed in our fiction. The dazed actuality of the fighting, the deaths, the insane entombment in the prison camp — these flashlights are made memorable by the personalities involved, men whose characters appeal most strongly under duress. From this passage comes the title. Marching On, for James’s regiment, a part of Stonewall Jackson’s command, marched and fought and marched and fought through a tormenting eternity, familiar to those who took part in the Allied advance of 1918. Humor is not missing: wry as the army rations, it is revealed in a score of scenes — the Frasers’ visit to the rookies’ camp: old Clubby Jordan, their Colonel, who took his horsehair chair to war; the talks of love when the men rolled up in their blankets. Even more searching is the observation of James’s mental experience: how, as the war wears on. contempt for the Yankees changes slowly to respect, and thence to a loathing for ‘the whole fool business,’ until he is shed of all hatred.
In the later chapters one marks the symbolic dissolution of the Old South; the wreck of the plantations, the extinction of ’family,’the flight of the slaves, all traceable to the advancing Yankees, are final episodes in the passing tragedy. Here if anywhere recrimination might appear. But Mr. Boyd keeps to his irenic purpose. Thus James Fraser, a paroled prisoner, infuriated by the invaders’ destruction, comes upon three Yankees who have escaped from Libby Prison, from the very hell he had suffered in the North. Rage gives way to pity and, sending them toward the Union lines with food from his own pocket, James goes home in peace. By virtue of such touches as these, the novel becomes a tribute not only to the South, not only to local, but to national, greatness.