From the Dust Jacket:
For dramatic impact, imaginative power, vividness of characterization and emotional intensity, there are few American novels that compare with this remarkable story in which the American past and present are so brilliantly blended.
This big strange book is the record of young Lee Harrington’s ancestors—chief among them his heroic great-grandfather Rome Hanks—as recreated by Lee from what he saw and was told. The characters are men and women of both North and South who lived and fought through the Civil War and then struggled for a livelihood in the impoverished South or the little towns of the West. Lee began to brood about the lives of these people when nettled by the beautiful Christa Schell’s bored responses to his reminiscences—“I am sure your grandfather must have been a fine old Southern gentleman!”
All the memories of the Civil War and of the years afterward up to Lee’s birth, gathered largely from a loyal friend and admirer of Rome Hanks, Thomas Wagnal, formerly surgeon in the 117th Iowa, and from others who fought, are sifted through Lee’s mind and given a new quality by it, and are set down as they come, without chronology. They are chiefly about the heroic Romulus Hanks, Captain in the 117th, cheated of advancement by the politician, Clint Belton, who, though he groveled under the bluff at Pittsburg Landing while the Battle of Shiloh raged, became Colonel and ended a Brigadier.
Another main source of Lee’s information was the old North Carolinian, his great-uncle Pinkney Harrington, “Uncle Pink,” who began his account of that blazing walk across the field of Gettysburg with the words, “We ate roast pig the morning before Pickett’s Charge.” And another was his grandfather, Tom Beckham, of the Zouaves, who fought in the Seven Days and was photographed by Brady as he lay among the wounded outside a field hospital. But no less impressive than the Civil War years are the pictures and episodes of Midwestern America, especially Kansas, up to 1900 or so.
In thinking of the past, and of those from whom he is descended, Lee Harrington realized how strange is the individual, the result of such a concatenation of antecedent traits. The whole story is bound together as if with a golden thread, by recollection of the lovely, goddess—like Christa who has become for Lee a kind of Beatrice Portinari. The many episodes the book contains blend to make up the background of Lee Harrington’s life, and the character of his mind is revealed in his narration of them. As the layers of time are stripped off in his brooding, the reader sees that this is one of the curious books that appear perhaps once in twenty years—a true work of genius. All the episodes recounted-such as they charge at Gettysburg—are suffused with that indefinable sadness—because they happened long ago and are forever gone-that pervades the Iliad.
The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters is an ambitious novel to say the least-an attempt by the Joseph Pennell to compile and process and preserve his own family stories from the Civil War. And while there are brilliant and vivid passages throughout the book, it does occasionally tend toward pretension at times. This is apparent before the novel even starts, in a note to the readers, where Pennell writes, “The devices of omission of quotation-marks and the running-together of several characters’ speeches in one paragraph are designed to make the narrative flow from one alembic without entailing either too much cloudiness or clarity.” Perhaps this shows some of my own reading bias, coming from a time when punctuation is more regularly adapted or left out, but the inclusion of a note justifying his style seems a little unnecessary.
However, the novel takes off running almost from the start, just barely teasing the narrator’s story, which serves little purpose except as a framing device for the narrator learning the stories of his paternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather, who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War. And after the briefest introduction to Lee Harrington, descendant of the soldiers whose story the novel really revolves around, the book jumps immediately into the frenzy of gunfire and combat at Shiloh, recounted with vivid detail. It is in the battle scenes that Pennell is most successful with his style and storytelling, and I found myself often wishing there were more of those scenes included in the book, as some of the other passages seemed to fall flat, unable to maintain the tempo and the poetry that works so well through several passages in the book. In the jury report, John Chamberlain wrote that the book “has brilliant passages but […] the excellent lines are drowned in mediocre filler.” And while I somewhat agree in that the novel is not consistently well-crafted, the passages that shine are hardly drowned by the rest of the novel. Maxwell Perkins, editor for Ernest Hemingway, wrote to Pennell about his passage describing Pickett’s Charge, saying, “I really do not believe I ever saw a war piece that excelled it, not forgetting Tolstoi.” So, though Rome Hanks may not be a perfect novel, it does have moments of genius.
While the book may not have remained a literary masterpiece in public consciousness, it is still read and regarded by Civil War history buffs for its gritty realism and description of the battle scenes, and because the novel is a thinly-fictionalized account of Pennell’s own family history, pieced together by first-hand accounts Pennell heard growing up. And though the framing narrative is frustrating at times, and once or twice difficult to follow, there is a sense about it that reflects the way memories are recalled, and stories pieced together bit by bit. Although, due to the almost autobiographical nature of the story, the framing narrative tends toward pretension at the end of the novel, which describes the narrator’s birth early in the morning on the 4th of July, delivered by a doctor who just before was treating a prostitute who was likely to die after attempting to force a miscarriage. A bit heavy-handed, and lacking in any of the subtlety that is found in most of the rest of the novel, the end of the novel is perhaps the weakest part of the book. However, despite the flaws, there is still something raw and real and elegiac about the novel, something still worth exploring.
There was a little ridge on the ground there, and, with another of the bandsmen who had got it and several dead Rebels we made another breastworks. Newton stood up to plant our flag. The staff broke in his hand and blood spurted from the palm. I saw him pull out a thick sliver two inches long. The boy cut a sapling, tied the flag to it and shoved it in the ground with the lead flying all around him. The Crimean let out a high scream of defiance; we all cheered; and some Rebels near the tents yelled and fired their ramrods. We could see them quivering like featherless steep arrows in the sunlight through the trees.
I heard the Crimean begin talking to the breastworks as he fired and bit cartridge, and, in the gaps which were beginning to open in the musketry, I heard the breastworks answer in a weak voice—I remember thinking in that moment that it was proper for a breastworks to answer.
Why you should read it:
If you have much interest in the Civil War, this is a must-read novel, but even without much interest in the Civil War, there are moments of literary brilliance worth checking out, although with its flaws, perhaps shouldn’t be put on the top of your list right away.
Currently reading: A Bell for Adano by John Hersey.