The 19th century will forever remain at the center of our history, yet, to most people, the period is a mystical realm of nostalgia and romance, as alien as the mountains of the moon.
Especially in the South, where we are still enthralled (or claim to be) by a vanished, if imaginary, civilization, we have transformed the world of our distant kin into a cloudy romance, and in so doing, we forget the reality of their suffering, their flaws and their triumphs.
Lee Smith is one writer who declines to forget. In her latest novel, she presents that old world as it really was: misogynistic, shabby, unsanitary, tainted by violence and racism, haunted by madness and death. In this way, she has done us a better service than those writers who capitalize on myth. Whatever was honorable and noble in our forebears can only be revealed against a landscape of truth, and the truth is often darker than we would like.
On Agate Hill moves forward in a series of long-buried diary entries, letters, testimonials and reminiscences by the characters. The discoverer of these relics, Ms. Tuscany Miller of Atlanta, a graduate student at “Carolina State University,” submits them piecemeal to her erstwhile professor of documentary studies in an effort to reenter the program. But the novel’s principal character is Molly Petree, and its principal setting is the world to which she awakens.
Early in the book, Smith’s fractious protagonist proclaims that “I live in a house of ghosts.” This is true not only of Agate Hill, the ramshackle plantation where Molly has been orphaned into the care of her aged Uncle Junius Hall, but of an entire culture that the Civil War has brought down to ruin. The inhabitants of this agrarian House of Usher are all wounded in some way, mentally and physically, and Molly’s girlhood is riven by death and loss. Indeed, death is a constant presence for Molly: her father and brothers lost in the war, her mother, her beloved Aunt Fannie whose child dies a-borning, are apparitions more real to her than the living. Yet, even in the midst of death, there is an affirmation of life, represented by the scheming and sensuous housekeeper Selena and her wayward daughter Victoria. The black characters–Washington, Romulus, Diddy, Old Bess–carry on the tradition of indomitability and strength that all great Southern writers since T.S. Stribling have celebrated. The life of Junius Hall mirrors the tragic decline of his world. Each of these characters is deeply flawed, and each bears his own guilt. In their complexity, however, the denizens of Agate Hill move in a real world. They transcend imagination and become ourselves.
The narrative follows Molly Petree from Agate Hill to a girls’ boarding school, where she encounters a headmistress who is at once reluctantly fecund and tortured by her “black soul” and repressed sexuality. Molly, whose refusal to conform is her greatest strength, moves thence to various adventures as school teacher, wife, accused murderer and, finally, a woman who has outlived her time. In the background lurks the figure of Simon Black, her father’s old comrade and Molly’s benefactor.
Simon Black’s appearance opens the door to this book’s great flaws. Once the narrative leaves the plantation and the guileless diary of Molly Petree, it succumbs to Gothic predictability. Simon, who sweeps on stage bearded, booted and spurred, in a swirl of cape, with a shadowy, rootless past, is interchangeable with a score of dark heroes from Victorian literature. Mrs. Mariah Snow, the headmistress at Gatewood Academy, is suitably cruel and spiteful. Her sister Agnes, who befriends Molly, is idealistic and naïve. Mariah’s minister husband, Cincinnatus, is goatish and repellent. And they all speak and write in maddeningly formal language that bogs down like the autumn mud of the Piedmont. These are characters we have met too many times before, and not even their strenuous perversities can redeem them.
The narrative is further cluttered by irrelevant scraps, including the Calvinist infant catechism; Eugene Field’s poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”; a list of the faculty and students at Gatewood Academy; and that institution’s daily schedule. These are ostensibly the product of Tuscany Miller’s feverish research, but as narrative tools, they are annoying and superfluous and bound to be skipped over by the impatient reader.
Then there is the language. Certainly, 19th-century patterns of speech and writing were different from ours, but in a contemporary narrative they have the same effect as Uncle Remus’ dialectic tales. They distract rather than illuminate, and they challenge the author’s credibility. We are asked to believe, for example, that Miss Agnes Rutherford writes a dense nine-page letter to her sister Mariah–her “First Impressions” of Molly–while riding in a carriage over the rough roads of 1870s North Carolina. How, one asks oneself, was she able to dip her pen? Mariah’s own journal entries offer titillating revelations (each one bears the heading “For No One’s Eyes”), yet are tedious.
Smith’s technique is to develop the story through the observations of her characters, but the result is forced and artificial, as if each writer, each speaker, were instructed beforehand just how much to reveal.
The most puzzling conundrum of Smith’s novel is her choice of Tuscany Miller’s letters to her professor as a framing device. Ms. Miller, who has a “background in pageants,” is ditzy and clueless (her original thesis was “Beauty Shop Culture in the South: Big Hair and Community”), and her personal history (her father “outs” himself, we are told) seems profoundly irrelevant. Perhaps it was Smith’s intent to contrast this pampered cheerleader with the hardscrabble lives of her 19th-century subjects. If so, the attempt falls short, and Smith succeeds only in belittling her mouthpiece. Tuscany Miller is, in every sense, a stereotype, and thus unbelievable, patronizing and insulting.
One wishes that Smith had stuck to a conventional narrative and let Molly Petree tell her own story rather than succumbing to the outworn tradition of the epistolary novel. Too many voices come between us and Molly, and thus between us and the truth of time and place.
Nevertheless, I would recommend On Agate Hill to anyone interested in the lives of a vanished era. So many things that are important about that time and place are revealed in spite of the rhetoric, the distractions, the gimmicks. Lee Smith is an honest and capable writer, a consummate craftsman. She need not play tricks to engage us. God bless thee, Molly, and farewell.
Howard Bahr is the author of three novels about the Civil War: The Black Flower, The Year of Jubilo and, most recently, The Judas Field. He lives in Fayetteville, Tenn.