Review | Confederado: A Novel of the Americas, by Casey Clabough
Nearly a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy rises again and again in literary forms, gray ghosts still haunting our regional and national imaginations as contemporary writers return to the dark and bloody ground of the most destructive war waged on U.S. soil. Casey Clabough’s debut novel, however, takes our re-remembering of the Civil War in a new, unlooked-for direction, moving us south of South by linking the American South with South America. Clabough thus considers the war’s hemispheric dimensions, envisioning the Confederate South not in isolation, but in connection with other cultures and nations. Confederado tells the striking tale of Alvis Stevens, a Confederate veteran who rode with Mosby’s Rangers. Post-Appomattox, Stevens makes his weary way back to his family farm in Virginia, carrying his wounded father. He finds the place war-torn, an apt descriptor for the protagonist himself. Once home, the father dies from his wounds, and Alvis’s brother, McCain, still suffers the aftershocks of his own time in combat. Alvis commits himself to shoring the fragments that remain, pulling the family and the farm back together, despite the damages, physical as well as psychological, that the war has wrought on the region.
However, a deadly clash with a belligerent federal occupation sergeant marks Alvis as a fugitive from justice and sparks his dramatic exodus to the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo. Brazil offers the possibility of joining up with other “Confederados” who have transported themselves from the American South to South America to establish plantations there.
His motivations for fleeing to Brazil—after a harrowing horse chase to evade a posse of federal soldiers—have little to do with government-sponsored colonization efforts. Instead, Alvis weighs love and death in equal shares. He is a dead man if he stays in Virginia, and he often stares stock-still into the death head’s dark sockets once down in his newly adopted land (e.g., taking charge of a hunt for a giant anaconda in the jungle, being pressed into active service in the Brazilian military’s war against Paraguay, and a blood-spattering knife duel). The novel also incorporates a romance plot, every ounce as alluring as its intersecting adventure stories: Rumor has it that Alvis’s prewar love, Lavinia, has relocated with her family among the Confederados in Brazil.
The narrative grips readers on at least three levels, all interrelated. First, it offers a depth of history. Clabough has done exceptional research, and draws the episodes from life through combing archives in Virginia as well as Brazil. Confederado vividly realizes a claim for the narrative quality of history and the historical quality of narrative. It gives us details, details, details, often gritty: Clabough adeptly fills in the blanks of the buried history of Confederados’ hard-edged lives lived south of the Old South.
Moreover, Clabough threads in a calculated labyrinth of literary and mythical allusions. Often such thick intertextuality becomes clumsy and ill-announced. But in Clabough’s hands, the allusions are subtle, interwoven intimately, bringing back to life characters, images, and episodes from Ovid to Poe to Stephen Crane. For instance, Confederado resounds with Virgilian overtones. Like Aeneas, Alvis bears his fragile father homeward after the wartime destruction of his culture, but he never fully attains his sought-for nostos, from the Greek for “return home.” Alvis wanders through strange lands, haunted by dream-memories of his dead father, like Aeneas reencountering Anchises among the shades. And, after long struggles, including brutal mortal combat with his fiercest rival, Alvis establishes a new home on foreign ground.
Finally, Confederado also has a historical feel. The narrative voice is like reading a nineteenth century work, a willful echo of voices gone. Part of the novel’s emotive force lies in its capacity to intone the past tenses of antebellum literature, as if the past is speaking to us with its own inflections. We hear the novel’s anachronistic tenor in narrative passages:
Alvis drank from the mountainside spring at dawn and watched as the early morning sun, like some great knife of light, gradually pared away the edges of darkness and shadow in the hollows below.
and in stretches of dialogue, such as these lines spoken by the Portuguese sailor El Pinho aboard the ship to Brazil:
Never have I been tempted by the land and its large cities with their illusions of wealth and adventure. The sea is real. It is always before us—like destiny.
as well as Alvis’s own speech:
It seems to me in this life there are those who are pulled toward something as a piece of iron to a magnet, and others who are driven by something which lies behind them, as the bowstring makes the arrow fly. I am one of those kinds of people, or perhaps both.
Not allowing such a style to come off as gimmicky or stilted signals an impressive feat, and Clabough manages to tread this thin edge between lyricism and crafted obsolescence rather brilliantly.
While Confederado stands on its own, it expands on the author’s previous work. Confederado is Clabough’s first novel, although it follows six other books (five scholarly works and one travel narrative) published by the Virginia writer, professor, and farmer—a spectrum of publications all produced before age forty. In particular, the novel’s attention to evocative, yet meticulously detailed landscapes from Virginia to Brazil resonates with his most recent critical study, Inhabiting Contemporary Southern and Appalachian Literature: Region and Place in the Twenty-First Century (University of Florida Press, 2012). Here, Clabough considers how diverse geographic factors condition our physical being in the world as well as more abstract matters of identity formation—individual and collective. The continuing presence and value of place—even or especially amid Alvis Stevens’ hemispheric roaming—recurs in Confederado. Its subtitle, A Novel of the Americas, emphasizes the book’s transnational bent and global South concerns, seen, for instance, in the shared yet diverse topographies from Virginia’s Blue Ridge to Guadaloupe’s peaks:
Dry, gusting winds filled the sun-drenched days of open water as the ship sailed past Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas, and the island of Guadaloupe with its beautiful mountain scenery, like and yet not like that of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the pinnacle of the highest peak gently interrupted by fleecy clouds.
These cross-national dynamics further emerge in the painstaking process of transplantation from Appalachian Virginia (part of a nation being sutured back together in the wake of a massive civil war) to the rough, often deadly work of “civilizing” Brazil (an exercise in nation-building through colonization of native populations and lands).
One can also read Clabough’s novel in connection with much recent literature that focuses on the less glorious aspects of the Confederacy and “The War”: Dave Smith’s Gray Soldiers (1983); Andrew Hudgins’ narrative poem in the voice of CSA vet and poet Sidney Lanier, After the Lost War (1988); Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997); Natasha Trethewey’s account of black soldiers initially coerced into service as Confederates in her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Native Guard (2006). Like these works, Clabough’s novel deprograms the cult of the Lost Cause, ironizing the glorified pathos of defeat and canonization of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart.
In Confederado, we see the Confederate veteran as exile, not pilgrim. Alvis Stevens embodies an endless wanderer who must create some new, distinct code of value beyond the outstripped Southern idealism of his youth. In the Virginia portion of the storyline, Clabough unveils the hard labor that betrays the pastoral atmospherics of the antebellum Southland. He digs up the dirty work of cultivation behind “Old Virginia” culture and exposes the disintegration of the large-scale agrarian economy of the prewar South. The novel, however, keeps chattel slavery on the fringes, something for which readers and reviewers alike may call Clabough to task. But this is an Appalachian tale more concerned with yeoman dirt farmers than with the grand plantations and white-columned expanse of the Gone with the Wind–induced vision of the South.
Perhaps the overarching concern of Confederado is its penetrating examination of the traumatic consequences, yet seeming implacability, of warfare, bearing out, in bleak array, Herman Melville’s aphorism: “War shall yet be, and to the end.” The novel has much to say about what critic James Campbell has called “combat gnosticism”: the notion that combat represents a unique order of experience that is difficult, if not impossible, to communicate to those who have not undergone a nearly identical situation. Clabough’s novel persistently reminds us not only of the gruesome flashpoints of intense violence on the battlefield, but also of the grinding, day-to-day sufferance of a warrior’s life.
We follow Alvis as he claws through days, even hours, rendering a stoic heaviness and pointing up the hard freight of life stripped raw of civilized amenities. Alvis’s combat mentality continues beyond the wars he endures, the psychic wounds of combat shadowing him insistently, creating a death-in-life existence. One particularly memorable articulation of this ethos comes when Alvis recovers from battle injuries in a military hospital in Charlottesville. Drawing on a figure from Poe’s short fiction—Augustus Bedloe from “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844), refigured as the laudanum-addled physician attending Alvis—Clabough proffers the following description of the combatant’s post-traumatic state-of-mind:
“The science of the mind,” Dr. Bedloe said on the morning of Alvis’ discharge from the hospital, “will one day reveal that a man may die, for all intents and purposes, while alive. If and when he comes to live again, he is, in effect, a different man.”
In this, Confederado shares much with recent fiction by Cormac McCarthy and Ron Rash—a “C’est la vie, c’est le guerre” ethic of survivalism in and out of wartime:
Thus [Alvis] witnessed many curious things alone, such as the excursion in the Shenandoah Valley during which he made camp on a night of heavy downpours in a little rundown shack amid a grove of oaks and beeches next to a creek, the trunks of the trees black with rain. When the showers ceased and he emerged with a hollow stomach shortly before dawn, a half dozen partially exposed corpses greeted him in the moonlight, the heavy rains having washed them from their shallow, sandy creek-side graves, revealing the grisly smiles of their skulls in pale lunar relief.
With all this darkness visible, one might think Clabough’s work affirms the philosophy of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, who avers, “It’s no real pleasure in life.” We might imagine that Alvis Stevens falls into pessimism deepening into a cold and valueless cynicism. But, in Alvis’s search for his lost love, we find the best hope for our kind: a willing humility and stoicism. In the intense romance between Alvis and Lavinia, we see that love is the art of sustaining loss; it can provide, if not transcendence, then a Zen balance in living beyond the ego, embracing otherness and reciprocity. This faith in other-directed reciprocity extends to the nonhuman surroundings as well, through Alvis’ totemic kinship with animals and the natural environment. Confederado impresses memorably this connection between human and nonhuman animals through Alvis’s kind and attentive treatment of his horses, and through the brute tale of an Italian settler in Brazil who shoots for dinner a Barbados monkey, a creature whose “eerily human motions and behaviors . . . made Alvis loath to test their culinary attributes”:
When approached by his attacker, the little monkey held out a small palm in defense or supplication, soaked though it was in blood. The Italian settler proceeded to slit its throat and cut off its hands and head before demanding of his wife to prepare it for the evening meal.
The woman, horrified but obedient, shoved it into the oven quickly. Then her fear and discomfort conspired to make her leave it in for too long a time, so that when it was withdrawn it looked like some ancient mummy child, deprived of its hands and head yet bearing still some remnant implication of the bodily motion and mechanics that also serve as our own.
All told, this is a remarkable first novel that promises a great more to come. The depth and breadth of Clabough’s interests to date, which range from scholarship to narrative nonfiction to short fiction to this initial novel, and from Appalachia to Brazil, bid fair for his future endeavors. One presumes the loose, wandering fire of his critical and creative imagination will continue to burn bright.
Casey Clabough is the author of the creative nonfiction work, The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route (University of Tennessee Press, 2007), as well as five scholarly books on Appalachian and southern writing, including Inhabiting Contemporary Southern and Appalachian Literature (University Press of Florida, 2012). He serves as literature editor for the Encyclopedia Virginia and as editor of the James Dickey Review. Clabough is an associate professor of English at Lynchburg College.