THIS is an American historical novel on the grand scale, 1514 pages of closely written narrative, comparable in size, at least, to War and Peace. Length alone does not make a great novel, as we learn from such examples as Gone With the Wind, but 1500 pages certainly allow an author almost unlimited scope to develop his characters and his story and to achieve a kind of cumulative effect. This Mr. Williams has done with very considerable success. The book is a novel of the Civil War and of a Southern family deeply involved in the fortunes of the slaveholding class. It is closely documented, the result of careful and patient research.
Aside from its theme as a novel, the effect of the war on the various members of the Currain family, a theme which the author handles with sustained skill, it contains two historical theses which will challenge students of the Civil War: first, a sympathetic and skillful defense of the author’s great-uncle, General James Longstreet, whose support of Lee, particularly at Gettysburg, has been often criticized; second, a theory as to the failure of the Confederacy. Mr. Williams presents and presses the point that the doctrine of the right to secede and the exaltation of states’ rights carried in themselves the seeds of inevitable dissension, of incomplete and divided war effort on the part of the Confederacy. He seems to attribute the economic failure of the South rather to the black-market corruption and inefficiency of selfish interests than to the blockade of Southern ports and the economic superiority of the North. The military failure, he constantly implies, was due in great measure to the unpopularity of the war among the poorer white Southerners and to the selfish withholding of manpower and military support by various governors of seceding states who believed primarily in the right of each state to defend itself with its own militia.
With both of these propositions this reviewer is entirely sympathetic. Longstreet was a noble, wise, and loyal soldier, terrible in battle, and wiser in strategy than the Lee apologists are willing to grant. The great central military picture of the book concerns the battle of Gettysburg, and there I think the author is sound in presentation and interpretation. Lee was ill served in that battle by some of his “lieutenants" and he was unwillingly but honorably served by Longstreet. Only the most unswerving supporters of General Lee can deny (what he himself generously admitted) that he was, for once, the victim of a fixed idea — that his army was invincible — or that he discarded Longstreet’s wise council of a “strategic offensive-defensive" and a march by Meade’s left flank for an all-out gamble in a frontal assault.
Similarly Mr. Williams is sound in his analysis of the destructive forces inherent in the Confederacy. He may harp too constantly on the corruption prevalent among the hangers-on in the government and the einbusqués of all sorts who evaded military service and lined their own pockets. These profiteers were in such sharp contrast to the gallant and long-suffering Confederate patriots that there may seem to be more of them in House Divided than was actually the case. However, Mr. Williams is a more careful and sensitive historian than are the vast majority of novelists. One may safely recommend this book as a fair and studious exposition of a confused period in our history.
Space does not permit a digest of the novel nor a study of the leading characters in its enormous dramatis personae. The various members of the Currain family seem to me well drawn, with Cinda and Travis Currain quite brilliantly presented. The novel holds together in the integrity of the characters and their relations with one another. The author has, however, dragged in a “plot" which is unconvincing and unnecessary. Tony Currain — the grandfather of the Civil War Virginia Currains — had, as an adventurer in “the West,” an affair with a native girl, Lucy Hanks. Their daughter, Nancy, married Tom Lincoln, and their child was Abraham. I bus in the middle of the war the proud Currains discover that they are cousins of the frightful ape or baboon in the White House who epitomizes all that they hate and despise. The effect on all of them is profound and in some instances disastrous. But the whole episode and idea strike a false note and in no way assist the sincere and tragic progress of the story.
This is the only real failure or inadequacy which I find in the structure of this honest, strong, and “important" novel. Time will tell us how important it is, but the reviewer, almost overwhelmed by its sheer, solid bulk, is in no ease to assign it a definite value or rating. It is incomparably the best historical novel which I have read this year. It may be many years before we read a better one.