Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells Absolutely Everything
I’ve wanted to read Allan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All for a long time, probably since the late 80s or early 90s, when I read an interview with the author describing how the voice of his heroine, Lucy Marsden, came to him out of the blue at the Yaddo writers’ retreat, prompting him to hole up and write twenty or thirty pages of it on the spot. What does a book look like that began with that stereotypical bolt from the blue? Now I know.
OLCWTA is a collection of twined stories or recollections, filling over 700 pages. The chief tale-teller is one Lucille Marsden, born in 1885, but right around a hundred years old at the time she spills her stories, Scheherezade-fashion, to a young reporter in her nursing home. Right around 1900, Lucy marries Captain Will Marsden, a fifty-year-old veteran of the war between the states. She bears him nine children, outlives him by decades, and becomes, in her words “a veteran of the veteran.”
Captain Will, reticent in his youth but full of stories by middle age, was deeply scarred by the war. What happened to him in the war figures prominently in the tales, but the stories are less about what happened to him, than what happened to others because of what happened to him — a near-helpless handing-on of hurt and woe.
This may sound like a serious undertaking, and as an undertaking, it’s very serious, but the tone is not serious at all. The book is a collection of tales. Each tale is dominated by the teller’s voice, and far the most outspoken teller is Lucy herself; wisecracking, 5th-grade education, prone to turn every sentence into a jab-a-finger-in-your-ribs question.
Died on me finally. He had to.
Died doing his bad bugle imitation, calling for the maps, died bellowing orders at everybody, horses included. “Not over there, dunderdick, rations go here.” Stayed bossy to the last. He would look down in bed, he’d command the sheets to roll back. They didn’t.
My poor husband Captain Marsden, he perished one Election Day. Children were setting off firecrackers on our vacant lot. Cap believed it was Antietam flaring up on him again like a game knee. So he went happy, yelling March! to his men (all dead) and to me (not dead yet, thank you very much). It’s about what I expected I reckon.
Gurganus’ ability to carry on this voice, for better or worse, for perhaps 300,000 words, is a feat of flabbergasting ventriloquism. I say for better or for worse only because the voice is so strong and particular. Strength and particularity are what you want in a voice, but this one flirts with the risk of shuddering right on the edge of schtick. But you can’t argue much with strength.
Honeymoon ending, I decide: I will do my level best on the local level — I’ll aid the Gateway To The Breadbasket Of et cetera. I will try hiding a rude newfound fact. Finding: You know Falls proper? my home turf and best sidekick? Lucy’s lifelong contract and her single decent subject?— why sugar, Falls won’t even worth writing home about.
LOOK, don’t tell.
The richness and manic pitch are extraordinary, but run a certain risk of monotony, or the merely ornamental. Maybe an inevitable consequence of how the book is structured, as a wound-together trunk of stories. One story is at the heart of it — how the Captain’s best friend, Ned Smythe, a bosom buddy from the same town of Falls, NC, and about the same age of 13 at induction, is killed by a Yankee sniper while swinging at a water hold in the early days of the war. Marsden never recovers, and that hurt plays all the way out to his last day. Politics of the war are not much dealt with, just the experience of a 13-year old boy who sees his best friend shot, grows up at war, sees the war lost and walks home. How later the captain does everything he can for Ned’s widowed mother, and how it’s not enough. How he goes back more than once to search for the water hole where it happened.
But also: how the near-silent young man slowly becomes a tale-teller. How’s Wills’ next best friend in war saved his leg from being sawed off. How Lucy became smitten with him at 15, mostly through wanting to save him from the pain she could see he’d suffered. How they got married, and the gruesome shock (for Lucille) of the wedding-night. How Lucy meets the Marsdens’ longtime black servant Castalia, a lady straight from Africa who raises minks, fancies herself a once and future queen, and loathes Lucille on sight. How they have a silent war at home. How Lucy helps her ply her midwife trade, and they begin to draw together. How the Captain shot a Yankee boy without wanting to, and kept his watch to return to his family, and does so after the war, in person. How Lucy becomes a mother, many times over. How the Marsden mansion was burned by Sherman’s troops, and Will Marsden’s mother along with it, though she survived (“Black, White and Lilac”, a novella-sized tale of a good 40K words or so). Lucy’s own upbringing by one Maimie L Beech, and the accident that befell her sister. About Lucy’s best childhood friend Shirley (another novella, “Why I Say Ain’t”). How the Captain grows older, stranger, collects guns. How Lucy livens up Sunday school. How the captain slowly becomes a celebrity. The brief life of their ninth child. How Castalia’s tribe was kidnaped from Africa, and sold. How the Captain takes his son, also named Ned, hunting against his wife’s will. How Lucy runs away for a while. How their daughter Baby swallows a wedding ring. How Lieutenant Prothero courted Unison Randolph during the war. How the ancient Captain goes back to Ned’s tree one last time. His last gift to Castalia. Lucy goes on.
You either put up with all this, or you don’t. If you don’t have much patience with detours, back-and-forth in time, and various perspectives, the book may not be for you. If you can imagine sitting at Lucy’s bedside, hearing her spin all these tales over days and weeks, it may be.
Some reviewers seem to have taken the book as shedding light on the Civil War more broadly. I didn’t find this to be so. Race relations are essential to the story: the Marsden family servant Castalia, and the stories of how she and her people were kidnaped and sold, then life on the Marsden plantation and finally what happened when the Union came. But there’s no wider lens — the war provides the backdrop for Gurganus’ tapestry, but the situations of the characters seem entirely particular. There is nothing obviously microcosmic about Castalia’s ongoing worship of red birds, or the odd quasi-lesbian interludes between her and Lucille. There’s are sketches of war’s loony senselessness, but no strong sense that the sides were fighting for different things, no sense of what’s at stake except, for the slaves, the chance to run away when the time is right. This is perhaps neither good nor bad, but readers who hope for a “take” of any kind on the Civil War, beyond the obvious Sgt Rockism that War Is Hell, may be slightly disappointed. In fact the characters seem oddly oblivious to every conceivable context except that of the stories themselves. They live in a world in which there is (seemingly) not much US History, only Lucille History, Castalia History, Captain History. The world outside the stream of these stories is faint, evanescent.
Lucy’s manic yet slightly monotone pitch may exhaust a reader after 700 pages. This would be less noticeable if the stories seemed to accrue, to begin to add up to something larger than themselves. But the Captain never moves beyond his first loss. Neither can Lucy, and in the end, neither can we. The Captain somehow succeeds in making the entire tale be about him. This is perhaps the story’s last word on race relations, punctuated with almost excessively-laden directness by the last actions of the Captain’s life. But the stories, in the end, neither took me deeper into the inner lives of the characters, from whom we are walled off by Lucy’s pitch-perfect but arm’s-length intonation, nor deeper into the wider world, to see how these stories might be inevitable harbingers of history. I remained pinned in my seat by Lucille’s verbal performance, able to neither see too far behind the vaudeville curtain, nor hear anything going on in the street outside the theater.
This is a good book, an eye-popping book in many ways — but to me it strays from what it might have done by virtue of its odd retreat from history and its retreat (if that’s the right word) into the tangled stories of lives that seem to be types of nothing but themselves.
I would read more by the author, in fact, I intend to.