Cold Mountain: A Novel
By Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press; 356 pages; $24
Cold Mountain is sincerely plausible. It is a solemn fake. You will not hear this from the readers and judges who have helped make Charles Frazier’s Civil War tale probably the most popular novel about that period since Gone With the Wind. (Since its publication in June, Cold Mountain has sold more than a million copies; in November, it won the National Book Award.) The book is so professionally archaeological, so competently dug, that one can mistake its surfaces for depth. But it’s like a cemetery with no bodies in it. All the records of life are there, the facts and figures and pocket histories, pointing up out of the ground, but what’s buried there was never alive.
Most people don’t want novels to be, in the deepest sense, unreal. They want them to obey the conventions of current realism. Thus John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has said of Cold Mountain that it is “utterly convincing down to the last detail.” And he’s right. But Cold Mountain is utterly convincing in an unreal way.
Frazier has written a stirring story of bloody simplicity and epic power. As a storyteller, he hardly ever errs. This is a remarkably tremorless first novel. It is the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier who is wounded in 1864 and briefly hospitalized, and who then deserts to find his way home. He travels raggedly from Tennessee to the mountains of North Carolina where he had grown up. There, near Cold Mountain, waits his sweetheart, a woman called Ada Monroe. The daughter of an upper-class Charleston, S.C., minister who has died just before the book begins, she is struggling to make her old farm profitable. The novel alternates Inman’s story and Ada’s story. She waits; he travels.
Inman is silent, good, and strong–one must imagine a Confederate Clint Eastwood. He is metaphysically alone, as the conventions of adventure dictate: “He wished not to be smirched with the mess of other people.” But messes just keep on smirching him. He goes through a shower of picaresque trials: Three men set on him (he single-handedly beats them off); he saves a pregnant woman from death, and another woman from a band of renegade federal soldiers; various men try to recapture him; he is seduced by a woman whose husband, discovering the couple, tries to shoot him. Inman’s conversation, in late-20th-century writing-school style, is intelligently starved (“It is still a cloudy matter to me if I did the right thing, letting you live”), and his inner life is carefully rationed. He is a Homeric foot soldier–Frazier has said he had Odysseus in mind–and quite unreal. The novel’s unreality flows from Inman’s unreality.
Cold Mountain rolls the brougham of itself from episode to episode, until Inman reaches home. A puff of sentimentality is exhaled at the end of the book: Inman is reunited with Ada, only to be shot down at the last minute. But the tragic couple was permitted a night of passion, and a moist epilogue shows a happy little girl, the product of this union, frolicking with her mother some years later: the happy end of a happy ending.
Frazier is a good writer: calm, for the most part unsentimental, often rich. But the novel is a refined exercise. It is worth bearing in mind that Frazier was, until recently, a professor of English, although the jacket copy omits this fact, preferring us to believe that he and his family merely “raise horses” in Raleigh, N.C. Cold Mountain is in fact a willed pastiche of Stephen Crane–that is, modern prose with occasional attacks of nostalgia. “There was not moonlight nor the prick of lantern light from some welcoming home. The town of Cold Mountain was ahead, but they knew not how far.” Or this, as Inman battles the three thieves: “[H]e eventually smote the three down to their knees in the dirt of the street so they looked like those of the Romish faith at prayer.”
Such prose, if not quite antiquarian’s dust, is the carbon of something once fiery. It is not a living 19th-century prose, or a living contemporary prose, but rather a 20th-century reduction, living off the alms of the 19th century. Frazier does the opposite of writers such as Melville or Woolf, who historicize the language by shaking its roots. Linguistically, he is not in search of the historically rejuvenating but the historically plausible. But most great historical fiction–George Eliot, Stendhal, Tolstoy–is not written in “historical” prose. Crane, in The Red Badge of Courage, wrote in 1895 about the Civil War, but it would not have occurred to him to write in anything but the living language of his own age (which, admittedly, was closer to the earlier period’s than Frazier’s is).
To compare Crane and Frazier is to compare a genuine, fibrous style with academic tissue. Frazier controls all his similes so that they stay ruly. His similes–there is at least one per page–are either trimmed for historical plausibility (like the thieves Romishly at prayer) or, more frequently, made to involve an animal, the idea perhaps being that in simpler times, a homely, rustic simile would have come to mind. So we have a man’s tongue “grey as the foot of a goose”; a catfish “the size of a boar hog”; a man who gets ready to take a blow “like a cowed dog”; a night as dark “as the inside of a cow”; an old man whose dugs “hung down like those on a sow hog”–an entire farmyard of likenesses. Crane, by contrast, lets his similes go everywhere: In battle, one man has a shoeful of blood: “He hopped like a schoolboy in a game.” A corpse is seen, and Crane describes the dead man’s beard moving in the wind “as if a hand were stroking it.”
In short, Frazier sacrifices aesthetic life to historical life. The result is that while one continues to believe Cold Mountain on the surface, one stops believing it at any deeper level. There is a false consciousness to a late 20th-century writer’s efforts to evoke a 19th-century man in a language that belongs to neither. When Inman is seduced, for instance, he places his hand on the woman’s leg, high up. Frazier writes, of the woman’s genitals, that to Inman they “seemed extraordinarily fascinating though it was but a mere slot in flesh.” The reader realizes instantly that a deserting soldier would never think like this–that he would never use these upholstered words. The private language of a man like that would be both simpler and more strange, more original, than Frazier’s ecclesiastical English. Instead, we have Frazier’s fancy, plausible idea of how a vagina might have been described in 1864 had this been written down. But Inman is not writing anything down–he is being seduced, he is speaking to himself. One sees that Cold Mountain is condemned to be a literary approximation of an already literary idea of reality.
Henry James complained to Sarah Orne Jewett in a letter of 1904 that the historical novel had “a fatal cheapness.” Although the novelist might be able to render well all sorts of facts and dates and general furniture, she could never truthfully render the “old consciousness.” The great historical novels are always about contemporary consciousness. This inability to convey the “old consciousness” was not a matter of inaccuracy but of bad faith. It would always be the new consciousness imagining what the old consciousness was like–forcing it to be “old.” “And even then,” James added, “it’s all humbug.” Cold Mountain is advanced humbug.