CARPE LIBRUM: Discovering history and the world around our natural surroundings

Aug 29 • Books, EXTRA! EXTRA!, FEATURE SIDEBARNo Comments on CARPE LIBRUM: Discovering history and the world around our natural surroundings

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world. 

swampfox“The Swamp Fox, Francis Marion”

by Noel Gerson

Doubleday, 1967, Pgs. 306

“Frankly, if it were historical fiction set in England or France I would put it down,” I commented to Jock. “But, you know, I am fascinated by historical fiction set in and around this area.”

So I persevered.

Francis Marion was one of the heroes of the American Revolution. A South Carolina plantation owner and lawyer, he is also credited with inventing modern guerrilla warfare. That is debatable, but certainly many of the skills he learned hunting the swamps with his Native American friends became useful during the French and Indian wars and later during the Revolution. Gerson picks up Marion’s story before he passed the bar to become a lawyer. He’s impetuous, and far more oriented toward hunting and fishing than studying. Does it sound like any young man you have ever met? Clearly, Gerson is trying to connect with his intended audience. We see Marion get in a scuffle defending a principle and impressing a girl. The audience must fully identify by now.

All joking aside, Noel Gerson wrote over 300 books in his lifetime and many were celebrations of great historical military figures. He also wrote as Donald Clayton Porter and Diana Fuller Ross. The Ross books were the “Wagons West” series about the Oregon Trail, and the Porter books were the “White Indian” books about a white settler child, brought up by Native Americans. Clearly, he had a fluency in American history that enabled him to make the dead live again in people’s minds. Perhaps that is what attracts me to his work. I love hearing Pete Horry speak and watching Marion and Thomas Sumter argue. Andrew Pickens needling Marion in a friendly but concerned way tickles me. All the names are ones we encounter regularly: Horry County in South Carolina (where Myrtle Beach is located) is named for Pete Horry. Pickens, South Carolina, is after Andrew Pickens, and I bet readers can figure out what landmark is named after Thomas Sumter.

One of the issues plaguing most of my adult life is the bafflement at how one can go through daily life in the face of massive historic upheaval? To me, the 1960s are a series of landmark points: Montgomery bus boycott; assassinations of JFK, RFK, Dr. King, and Malcom X; Woodstock; Ruby Bridges’ first day of school; 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; Kent State, etc. How did one still function and have daily life in the face of all of this? What Gerson does really well is illustrate a man who really wants to develop a new strain of indigo to export. That is his focus. The political struggles that threaten his ability to sell that indigo? He seems blissfully dismissive of them.

Gerson does a wonderful job of illustrating how they all were well-educated, well-connected men of wealth and privilege in the colony. That is a double-edged sword: with that privilege comes responsibility to speak up for those who can’t or who are not heard.  That’s part of our discussion still today. Also, however, these men were treated with considerable deference and respect that would not have been afforded a common laborer.  Their social position gave them power to wield and a shield to hide behind. Again, it is still part of our social discussion today.

Gerson does show Marion finding his true calling and purpose in life with his first real battle: A blood lust is unleashed and it is where he flourishes. Obviously, the book is meant to celebrate his military prowess, but it is pretty one-dimensional. Again, I understand it is essentially war-porn for teenage boys. In spite of his feminine pseudonyms, Gerson is much more comfortable writing male characters; so much so, one would think only three women lived in the American colonies, prior to the Revolution. If one is writing for young men, it would be nice to introduce them to the radical idea that women are people and not only make up half the population, but are essential to all aspects of life. I fully accept gender roles were incredibly restricting in the 1700s, but surely a well-connected planter interacted with more women than just his sister and a barmaid outside of the woman he carried a torch for?

Oh, well, we can’t all be perfect.

Honestly, in spite of such drawbacks, the book is incredibly compelling. Folks familiar with the Carolinas and areas discussed will find it intriguing to read about before their development, when nature really did determine daily life and the outcome of our battle for independence. More than anything, Gerson succeeds with “The Swamp Fox” making its audience want to visit historic sites, maybe even canoe the river. Marion’s love of our natural area is stronger than his blood lust. Perhaps, that is the subtext we can hope people will take away from the book: Some things are worth fighting for, and learning more about, and among them is a natural world of boundless lessons and possibilities

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