This is a short (225 pages) historical fiction novel written in 1952 by Shelby Foote. The book is greatness. Foote uses a unique approach to tell the story of the American Civil War battle of Shiloh. He employs the use of first-person perspectives of one protagonists per chapter, Union and Confederate, except chapter six where he uses the twelve members of a squad to give a moment-by-moment commentary of the battle. The novel is divided into seven chapters. Each of the chapters is closely concerned with one of the characters again except for chapter six which gives the views of twelve squad members.

The first chapter takes place the day before the battle and is told by Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe. He is a young aristocrat from New Orleans. We learn a year early he had been a student at the Louisiana State Seminary under William Tecumseh Sherman. He serves as a staff officer under Confederate commander General Albert Sidney Johnston. He watches as the Confederate army marches through the Tennessee countryside in preparation for a surprise attack upon the Union troops at Pittsburg Landing where their “horses will drink from the Tennessee River tomorrow”. His self-satisfaction is evident as he remembers the complicated attack plan he helped draft. He thinks back on the struggles Johnston went through in bringing his army together for this anticipated decisive blow. The Confederate troops are inexperienced and noisy, and some of Johnston’s generals believe the element of surprise has been lost. Johnston says they will fight despite the conditions.

Chapter Two is the story of Captain Walter Fountain, an Ohio regimental adjutant in the Union Army encamped at Pittsburg Landing. He is the Officer on Duty (OD) though he feels he should not have be an OD as he is the adjutant. He spends night writing a letter to his wife. Through his thoughts, we learn about the Union army’s deliberate advance through Tennessee under General Ulysses Grant. Fountain is homesick yet confident that the war will be over soon. As he writes his letter, he notices the birds and animals becoming noisier and more agitated. Suddenly the Confederate soldiers attack the Union troops. The chapter ends abruptly. I was left with the assumption that Fountain is killed in the initial attack.

Chapter Three comes from the viewpoint of Private Luther Dade. He is scared but determined to do his duty. When the fight does come, Dade is disturbed when he realizes the dead bodies of old friends mean no more to him than those of stranger or Yankees. He stresses of combat are too much for him. He does well in combat. He sustains a minor arm wound and is sent to wait for a doctor. Hours pass. He gets no medical attention. Dade’s arm begins to show signs of infection. He moves toward the sound of firing in search of a doctor. He finds himself in a clearing near Shiloh Church. At the church is Johnston’s staff, gathered around their wounded and dying commander. Dade is captivated by the drama of the scene. He begins to pass out from his wound as the chapter ends.

Chapter Four is narrated by Private Otto Flickner, a Minnesota artilleryman. It is now the first night of the battle. Flickner is trembling at the riverbank with hundreds of other deserters. He rationalizes his actions by quoting what a sergeant of his had said, “I’m not scared, I’m just what they call demoralized.” His search for justification leads him to remember the day’s events: the devastating surprise attack, one failed attempt after another to stand and fight, the endless concussions of incoming enemy artillery fire, and finally his running away because “so much is enough but a little bit more is too much.” He and the other deserters are taunted at and called cowards by some reinforcements that pass by. The taunting forces Flickner to realize that a coward is exactly what he has been. He leaves the riverbank roving through the woods searching for his unit. Somehow he comes upon them getting ready for one last stand. His sergeant who witnessed his simply walking away greets him as if nothing had happened. He returns to his old gun.

Chapter Five concerns Sergeant Jefferson Polly, a Texas cavalryman serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest. A former seminary student, sailor, and soldier of fortune, Polly joined the army because “I wasn’t any better at being a bad man than I was a good one.” His mature and contemptuous point of view tells him that the Confederate army, even though successful on day one, is fighting a inadequately planned and shoddily coordinated battle. That night, Forrest leads Polly and his squad on a reconnaissance mission to Pittsburg Landing. While there they see thousands of Union reinforcements disembarking from steamboats. Forrest and Polly try to alert the confederate generals without success. With the coming of the next day he resigns himself to a day of defeat beside Colonel Forrest.

Chapter Six focuses on an Indiana squad. It is under the command of General Lew Wallace. We hear from all twelve members in the squad. They tell of their efforts to reach the battlefield. We learn of the wrong turn that delayed them for a day. We see the contempt that was poured on them by other troops for their slowness. When the battle’s second day begins, the Indianans and the rest of Wallace’s division are at the forefront of the resurgent Union attack. At the end of the fight, two of the Indianans are dead. The ten survivors wonder why they lived and the others died.

Chapter Seven returns to Lieutenant Metcalfe as he staggers down the road to Corinth. We see him as one of the beaten Confederate army. He remembers the death of General Johnston. He recalls how events spun out of control in the aftermath of the general’s death. He reflects on how the disorganized and leaderless Confederate army fell victim to a surprise Yankee attack the next day, how Johnston’s old-fashioned gallantry had been no match for the reality they had met. In the disorder of the retreat he falls in with Forrest and Polly. He participates in their valiant rearguard action at Fallen Timbers. Metcalfe decides to join Forrest’s unit; even as an enlisted man if necessary. His viewpoint changes to believing that any hope the Confederacy has lies with men like Forrest and not men like Johnston. The book ends with Metcalfe tending to a delirious amputee in a wagon. I assume it is Luther Dade.

Writer’s Life: Be Encouraged

One way a writer can become successful is by having a more established writer as a mentor. Writing groups can serve the function of mentor. Let me share an example of the influence a mentor. In 1919 a young veteran returned from World War I. He moved to Chicago moving into a particular neighborhood for the purpose of being close to the author Sherwood Anderson.

The young beginning writer was impressed by the critical praise for Anderson and his book Winesburg, Ohio. He had heard that Sherwood Anderson was willing to help aspiring writers. He worked to met Anderson. The two men became close friends. They met almost every day to read newspapers, magazines, and novels. They dissected the writings they read.

The aspiring writer brought his own works for critique having Anderson help him improve his craft. Anderson went as far as introducing the want-to-be writer to his network of publishing contacts. The aspiring writer did okay with his first book The Sun Also Rises. The aspiring writer was Ernest Hemingway.

Sherwood Anderson didn’t stop there. He moved to New Orleans where he met another aspiring writer. He took the young man through the same steps and paces of the craft. He actually shared an apartment with this young man. He even invested $300 in getting this writer’s first book Soldier’s Pay published. This young author was William Faulkner.

Anderson would later move to California and repeat the process with John Steinbeck. Thomas Wolfe and Erskine Caldwell were also mentored by Sherwood Anderson. Ray Bradbury says Winesburg, Ohio was on his mind when he wrote The Martin Chronicles. He basically wrote Winesburg, Ohio placing it on the planet Mars.

Only Mark Twain has had a greater influence in shaping modern American writing than Sherwood Anderson. Anderson didn’t do too badly, did he? William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck each won the Nobel Prize for Literature and there are multiple Pulitzer Prizes between them.

If you are serious about writing I encourage you to find a mentor or join a writing group. The encouragement of my writer’s group and critique group keep me motivated.

Review: The Sound and The Fury

William Faulkner’s birthday was this past Sunday, September 25. In honor of his birthday I reread The Sound and The Fury. I read it 40 years ago while in college. I wondered if it was as great as I remembered. I must admit I struggled through the first 100 plus pages.

I discovered the look at life through the eyes of the “retarded” Benjamin is still all there. It is a vivid reminder that the past forever influences the present, the decay, and the destiny. The Sound and the Fury is one of the icons of American Literature.

This book is not for the novice reader. Some people may just not get it, but if you love to read, like Faulkner and southern literature, or are just reading through the Nobel winners, it is worth the struggle to dip into this classic.

Summary: Light in August – Chapters Twenty and Twenty-one

As with the second part of the novel, Hightower’s narration stands between the central story involving Joe Christmas and the outer frame story about Lena Grove.

By aiding with the birth of Lena’s child and then by attempting to save Joe Christmas, Hightower has re-entered the stream of life. And even though Hightower failed Christmas, he has achieved a type of salvation for himself. He does not realize this until later on in the evening when he begins to review his whole life. Never before had Hightower examined his own motivations. But suddenly the meaning of his life evolves in front of him.

The use of the wheel image re-emphasizes the essential structure of the novel. The novel itself is seen in terms of circular images, and it is through this wheel image that Hightower sees man cannot isolate himself from the faces surrounding the wheel. Man must become part of the community and must assume responsibility not only for his own actions but for the actions of his fellow-man.

Until the last pages of the novel, Hightower can never bring into a complete unity the two divergent accounts of his grandfather’s death. He delights in the account of his grandfather being shot from a horse while brandishing his sword during Van Dorn’s cavalry raid, but in the more realistic account, he realizes that his grandfather was killed by a shotgun while stealing chickens, and moreover, probably killed by some frightened woman. This last account, given by Cinthy, the Negro slave, finally succeeds in becoming the realistic view as Hightower attains a more rational grasp of life.

In both the opening and closing chapters, Lena is seen on the road. The only difference is that in between these chapters, Lena has acquired a baby and Bryon Bunch.

Since the novel closes with the emphasis on Lena, the reader is gently led away from the horrifying tragedy of Joe Christmas, and the final emphasis is on the renewal and continuance of life in the person of Lena’s baby.

And that concludes the reviews of the twenty-one chapters in William Faulkner’s Light in August.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Nineteen

Chapter nineteen’s narration from the viewpoint of the town. After the last chapter, in which Joe found a certain peace within himself, he then returns to the community and apparently allows himself to be captured. Since none of the action is from Joe’s point of view, the reader must speculate about what caused him to make a break after he had apparently given himself up and decided to accept his punishment.

The first explanation is offered by Gavin Stevens, a new character who functions as a type of commentator on the action. This character, Gavin Stevens, will appear often in some of Faulkner’s later novels, but what the reader should remember is that any new commentator can give only partial reasons and partial motivations for the actions. However, Stevens’ view that Christmas’ actions were a result of the conflicting elements in his blood is to a large degree the correct interpretation. But Stevens is closer to the truth when he speaks of the role played by Mrs. Hines and how she and her husband, old Doc Hines, set peaceful elements into conflict.

In the preceding chapter Joe had realized that he could gain peace only in isolation and could never be accepted by the society as part white and part Negro. Joe no longer rebels against the conflicting elements in his blood until the arrival of old Doc Hines, and then the grandfather’s wild rantings and ravings cause Joe to despair, especially since his own grandfather is the chief person demanding Joe’s immediate death.

It has also been developed throughout the novel that women function as a type of destruction to Joe’s sense of order. Thus, having accepted his destined place in life and having accepted his death, the visit of Mrs. Hines probably set warring elements into conflict again. We must assume that she told him of the Reverend Gail Hightower, since Joe did go there when he escaped from the sheriff. Through Mrs. Hines, Hightower’s house functions as a type of haven for Joe where he can find some type of sanctuary from the influence of women.

Whether Joe knows of Hightower’s past tragedy with women is not important, since Joe does feel drawn toward this man who has also suffered at the hands of the community. At Hightower’s, Joe’s failure to fire the pistol and his submitting to the horrible atrocity show that he accepts his death in Hightower’s house as an escape from the destructive forces of the society and of women. It is as though Joe wills his own death in a sanctuary away from the influence of women.

Hightower’s attempt to help Joe Christmas by saying that Joe was with him on the night of the murder represents High-tower’s re-entry into life. Previously, he had rejected life and wished to live in total solitude. But he has just delivered Lena’s baby that day and has seen how great life can be, even for an old man; thus, his attempt to save Joe is his recognition of his responsibility to life and is also his hope to help another isolated person (Joe) discover the same thing.

Even this close to the end of the novel, Faulkner introduces a new character in the person of Percy Grimm. In later years, Faulkner commented that he did not realize at the time that he was creating a little Nazi Hitler. But the way Faulkner develops these secondary characters attests to his greatness. Grimm, as his name suggests, represents the horrible atrocities which man can commit against his fellow-man.

But Grimm is also another person who stands outside the mainstream of the community. Even though he was able to get some men to follow him, no one seems to be as cruel as he. His enthusiasm for his perverted aims far exceeds any normal reaction. After his castration of Joe, one of the men with him becomes sick and vomits, suggesting that even the average man who condescends to follow Grimm cannot withstand the brutality of his last act.

Summary: Light in August – Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen

This is a “two-for” as I have included two chapters, seventeen and eighteen. Earlier in his life, Hightower thought that he had won for himself the freedom of remaining uninvolved in life. But gradually, since the appearance of Lena, he has slowly been drifting back into the stream of life. His re-entry into life is seen through the activity of Byron. Even though in chapter sixteen he rejected Mrs. Hines’ pleas to help Joe Christmas, he does allow himself to go out to help Lena with the birth of her child.

The act of giving life to Lena’s child becomes symbolic of Hightower’s return to life. Immediately after this act, he walks back to town thinking that he will be unable to sleep. This is still an unconscious bitterness of being drawn back into the stream of life, even though the aid that he gave to Lena was voluntary. Thus, when Hightower does sleep peacefully, we can view this as being symbolic of Hightower’s regeneration as a human being. This is also seen in the fact that he notices for the first time the peaceful serenity of the August morning. He even realizes his own reawakening when he recognizes that life and involvement are still possible. He views the birth as a good sign and as an omen of goodwill. Therefore, this act of involvement and responsibility has restored Hightower to the human race. Another connection between Lena and Joe is presented when Joe’s grandmother aids Lena during childbirth. Lena even becomes confused as to the paternity of the child and begins to think that Joe Christmas is the child’s father.

Chapter Eighteen acts as a type of comic interlude with Byron arranging for Lena to meet Brown. In the midst of a novel dealing with Joe Christmas’ tragic plight, this chapter reminds us of the basic incongruity of humankind. It shows Byron’s dedication and love for Lena and prepares us for his last action of following Lena. Yet the action is detached and comic partly because of Lena’s dogged determination to follow Brown when he leaves, and because of Byron’s absurd behavior. In juxtaposition to the comic are the tragic implications at the end of the chapter when Byron hears that Christmas has been killed.

Only three chapters are left.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen presents Joe’s birth and the death of his mother. But whether he actually has Negro blood is left undecided. It was thought that his father had Mexican blood, but old Doc Hines and the circus owner both assert that the father actually had Negro blood.

We also find out that it was the dietitian who found and gave Christmas his name. This is ironic, since later his episode with the dietitian formulated his actions throughout the rest of his life.

Again those looking for the religious symbolism could view old Doc Hines as the Godhead. If so, then his rejection of Christmas makes man the complete victim of a hostile force. This analogy carries through with God demanding, requiring, or allowing the death or sacrifice of Christ.

We must remember that part of Joe’s conflict came from his wish to escape the emasculating influence of the woman. He had always felt that the woman had tried to destroy his individuality. Here then we see another woman, Mrs. Hines, attempting in some way to change Joe’s decision to face the responsibility of his own actions. Mrs. Hines’ interference will become a motivating force in Joe’s attempt to escape in a later chapter.

Hightower’s refusal to help Mrs. Hines is not merely a refusal to utter the lie she requests, but more important, it is a refusal to become an active participant in the community and thus become involved in responsibility again. Thus, his impassioned refusal is his last futile but passionate effort to retain his isolation.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Fifteen

Chapter fifteen gives us an excellent presentation of a religious fanatic. By presenting him as the town sees him, Faulkner gives “Uncle Doc” Hines  character qualities of a freak, a fanatic, a vile type of segregationist, and a pathetic weakling.

Even though old Doc Hines is not identified in this chapter as Joe’s grandfather, the reader should at least recognize him as the same man who worked in the orphanage for five years between twenty-five and thirty years ago. He was the one who stole Joe from the orphanage and who called the dietitian’s actions “bitchery and abomination”–the same thing he mutters at the end of Chapter fifteen.

On a realistic level, old Doc Hines’ hatred of Joe is a result of his general hatred of the Negro race. Thus this chapter goes into a long presentation of his unreasonable dislike for the Negro race and his absurd interference with the Negro church services. Therefore, old Doc Hines’ want for his grandson’s death can be taken on one level as the desire of a typical fanatic for white supremacy. But his fanaticism also functions on another level. It becomes significant when applied to his own grandson because this emphasizes Christmas’ isolation from society; he can never be accepted when his own grandfather rejects him.

When Hightower hears the news of Joe Christmas’ arrest, he becomes terribly agitated and begins to cry. Hightower has remained alone and isolated so long, has lived without human contact and knowledge of his fellow-man for so long that now, as he hears of the suffering of another person, his compassion is intense. He feels even by hearing the story that he drawn back into the difficulty and strain of everyday life.

He reminds Byron that he is an isolated figure and no longer a man of God because the town forced him. Thus, Hightower seems to be suggesting that he is not responsible for his present situation and that he is not therefore capable of helping another person. But in actuality, Hightower does not want to assume the responsibility connected with living a normal life again–he prefers his own isolation without responsibility.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Fourteen

Since Joe Christmas felt the need to kill Joanna out of a need to keep his individuality and since he could no longer run from his own self, it is now significant that after the murder, he makes no attempt to escape. He never leaves the surrounding countryside through which he wanders trying to come to terms with his conflict, and since his is an inner conflict, there is no need for Joe to leave the immediate neighborhood of his crime.

The murder occurred on Saturday, and on a Tuesday, Joe is seen in a Negro church cursing God. After this dramatic episode, Joe begins to come to terms with himself. Some critics have viewed this as the day of the Holy Week when Christ cleansed the temple. But in terms of Joe’s conflict with his two bloods, this episode suggests that the black blood can no longer stay pacified and must express itself in violence. This is his last futile attempt to deny his black blood.

His acceptance of his black blood comes when he exchanges his shoes for the Negro’s shoes. Basically, this is done so that the bloodhounds cannot trail him, but in accepting the shoes, he also seems to struggle no longer with himself. It is as though he spent all of his energy cursing God in the Negro church and now is ready to accept his heritage.

As soon as Joe accepts his black blood, he finds a sense of peace and contentment for the first time in his life. Joe realized that to have peace, he must accept full responsibility for his own heritage and his own actions. It is now that he realizes he must return to society and face the consequences of his earlier acts. With this decision and with his acceptance of his responsibility, he then finds that long-sought-after peace and contentment. This is represented by his becoming unified with nature and his surroundings: He breathes deep and slow, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair.

Note that as soon as he comes to this recognition and this acceptance of self, he performs a symbolic cleansing ritual by shaving in the soft, cold, spring water. He even uses the Negro’s shoes to sharpen his razor and prepares himself for his return to town to assume responsibility for his actions.

It is only when Joe comes to the realization that he can never escape from himself and therefore accepts his Negro heritage that he breathes quietly for the first time in his life. He also realizes that he is no longer hungry. It will be remembered that Joe has always been in search of food and his sudden recognition that he is no longer hungry becomes significant in terms of his earlier struggles against hunger. Symbolically, when he accepts his destiny, he becomes at peace with his tormenting hunger, and sleeps peacefully for the first time.

Notice the difference in Joe’s actions before and after his acceptance of himself. In the scenes which immediately precede and follow Joe’s self-realization, there are different responses to Joe. In the first scene, Joe approaches a Negro to ask him the day of the week. The Negro is terrified by Joe’s appearance and flees in utter horror. Then comes the scene after Joe has accepted his responsibility, and he approaches another Negro who quite naturally and nonchalantly offers Joe a ride into Mottstown. During the ride, Joe feels that he has accepted himself, and he realizes that he is no longer exhausted or hungry.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Thirteen

Chapter thirteen handles the town’s reaction to the crime before we see, in the next chapter, Joe’s own actions following his crime.

Hightower’s reactions in this chapter are central to understanding his character. Notice that when Byron Bunch discusses Lena’s fate with him, Hightower refuses to offer his house as a refuge for her. He feels that he has suffered too much in the past and does not want to become involved in life again. Then after Hightower hears about the sheriff’s finding Joe’s trail, he feels some identity with Joe and is afraid that he is being drawn back into the stream of life. Even the fact that he feels something other than indifference to the fate of another person indicates that he is becoming involved with life again.

But he doesn’t want to become involved, and even though he resists, Hightower is slowly being drawn back into life. At the end of the chapter, he reminds Byron to engage a doctor for Lena and casually offers to help if there is anything he can do. Thus through Byron Bunch, himself a person isolated from the community, Hightower is being drawn back into the stream of life even though he resists it at every turn.

In this chapter, it becomes apparent that Byron is falling in love with Lena Grove. Hightower still has the perception and sensitivity to recognize this fact and knows that it will only bring sorrow to Byron. So he tells Byron to leave this town, which he calls “this terrible, terrible place.” Hightower has firsthand information as to how cruel and terrible the town of Jefferson is, and he fears for both Byron and himself. He prefers his life alone and has seen Byron live a life isolated from other people. He therefore fears that Byron is opening himself to terrible anguish and pain by becoming involved with a woman who is not accepted by the town.