Saturday, March 15, 2008

General Order Number Three

I have two things on my mind today, and since they are almost related, I'm going to discuss them. I recently became aware of a book that I want -- The Letters of Major General James E.B. Stuart. I searched the Internet and found a copy for sale. Its cost is $150. That's a hefty price for a book not even twenty years old, but since only 1000 copies of the book were published, perhaps its a steal. But not right now.

I've been obsessing over the contents ever since I've become aware of the book. What hidden secrets await within its pages? What could I learn about Jeb Stuart that I don't know? What will his letters reveal about his struggles, triumphs, and loves? I WANT THAT BOOK! Sorry, my lust for all things Stuart took over for a brief moment.

I've read many books in the few short years since I've become a Civil War enthusiast, but my favorite part has always been when I read a new anecdote about Jackson or Lee that I did not know before. Some insight into their personalities. In reading these little peeks into their lives, I feel that I come to know them better.

Which brings me to the second issue. I am writing a novel, which I hope will be a trilogy one day. I've either done something very brave or foolish. The characters in my books are Jackson, Lee, and Stuart. I've relied on the stories I read about them to help flesh them out in my book. I have them saying words they did not say, in situations they were never in, reacting in ways they never had to before. But hopefully in ways that are true to themselves.

I've been working with a critique group and last week one of the group highly criticized the way I wrote my characters. They wrote me a rather critical email in order to instruct me on all the mistakes I am making. This person wrote that when they read the first two chapters of my book, they saw flags being raised to attention and heard the Star Spangled Banner (I think they meant Bonnie Blue Flag, but I digress) every time one of my noble characters strode onto the pages. It gets worse. My characters were pert near faultless and nothing more than father figures scolding wayward sons. This person, in an attempt to be helpful, searched the Internet and found that some scholars believe that Joseph E. Johnston was a better general than Robert E. Lee. Wouldn't it be more exciting to read about a Lee that was jealous of Johnston and went about trying to undermine him. Then to top it off, this person said that my book wasn't entertaining. Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh my!

Another acquaintance chimed in that maybe I shouldn't be writing about these real life men at all. If I wanted to write about the Army of Northern Virginia, I should kill off Lee and Jackson and bring Forrest from Tennessee to lead the army. Oh, yeah, and invent a brand new character to be my protagonist and keep Forrest in the background.

I said all that to say this. No! I believe the Lee that said "Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less," is far more compelling than a Lee I could invent from whole cloth. I believe a Jackson who was an autocrat to his generals, loved Sandie Pendleton like a father, adored his wife and child, and sought to do the will of God above all things is far more compelling than any Jackson I could create. I believe a Stuart that dared to tease Jackson (he was the only one in the army who dared), loved his beautiful Flora, and sought to live a Christian life in deed rather than words far more compelling than a Stuart I could make up.

To me that is appeal of the novel. So, I will keep writing about Jackson, Lee, and Stuart and keep learning about them as well. And at the end of my book, if the reader hears the faint and melancholy strains of Dixie then perhaps I did my job well. I'm not into deconstructing heroes... and that's what these men are to me. Heroes. So, I am ready to fail or succeed with my manuscript on this point. For me, my love for the Army of the Northern Virginia is based on my admiration of the men who fought under its banner. I don't like it when others degrade Lee, Jackson, and Stuart by making them less than what they were. Why would I want to do so myself?