“In my beginning is my end.”
Pat Lang’s three-volume novel is a vast work that has real genius. It speaks with what Yeats called, “the living voice.” What makes it remarkable is the astonishing breadth of the canvas on which he paints, the dazzling sweep of the characters and scenes and the variety topics. The force of his narrative, the delicate mental reactions and subtle emotional calculations of the characters, along with Lang’s thorough mastery of the Civil War, make the book an amazing and praiseworthy performance.
There is a chiseled quality, a hardness and clarity in the way Lang sees things. In the book, you find that there are sexual tensions, personal rivalries, and strategic dilemmas in abundance. Lang’s world is a complicated and dangerous world. There are two supreme loyalties for a man – one is loyalty to his country, and the other is loyalty to family. Since the family loyalty is more personal, it is also the stronger.
Claude Devereux, a Confederate agent, is also man of tortured self-doubt (at one point he observes that ‘the people who doubted him most, are the people he cherished most”) and he is also a man ambitious of achievement, liking to pit his resources against superior odds, liking to be in places where he is liable to be killed. His mission forces him to perform exploits to validate his sense of his own worth. He is condemned to a perilous life of constant re-assessments, constant vigilance and wariness, always scanning the ground around him to avoid his own destruction. Claude is one of those who has to know when to be silent, to know just how much to say, to be truthful and yet to mislead, how to drop casual observations as a kind of test of a person’s acuteness, how to sense what others mean or know even if they don’t say it. He has to be able to know that someone is planning a secret meeting even though he says the exact opposite; he has to know that a person who appears to have real influence has in fact lost it; he has to know that another is a wire-puller, and yet a person from whom you can have anything you want if you simply present the right face and hit the right note.
In the end, Claude is destroyed by the very events he has set in motion, destroyed by his own inner demons. In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot used the line, “In the beginning, is my end.” That is Lang’s plot in a nut shell.
Reading Pat Lang’s novel has also changed the way I viewed the Civil War. It is a novel about patriotism, discipline and comradeship, but it is also about honor and the values of civilization. There is too much vindictive animosity about popular depictions of the South in the Civil War. In too many books, the South is pictured as a static, agricultural land directed by men of a refined culture that was marred by the ownership of slaves. Men of the North were men of the cities. By necessity, the liberty of the individual in the North was submerged into the preponderant weight of the mass. The mixed nature of the population demanded amalgamation. That was the source of the North’s strength. It was a gross strength, the strength of massed and limitless numbers.
By contrast, the South was an old civilization, one of luxury and refinement. In Lang’s book, you will discover that the gentlemen of the South were men of social graces and tradition. To the Greeks, nobility was the prime mover in forming the nation’s culture and the Confederate men are very Greek in their ideals. In the South, culture was shown in the whole man -- in his external appearance, conduct, and in his inner nature. The Southern cavaliers lived by ancient commandments—“Honor the gods, Honor your father and mother, Respect the stranger.”
High civilization in history springs from the differentiation of social classes. The upbringing of those classes aims at producing a man the way he ought to be. It unites nobility of action with nobility of mind. In the South, a man measures his own nobility by the regard he enjoys in other’s eyes. Men do what they do in order to ensure their own worth. Heroes treat each other with constant respect and their whole social system depends on such respect.
The culture of the Confederacy prized physical prowess and spiritual harmony as the highest goods attainable by a successful life. A sense of honor prevented men from committing any gross action, and they were driven by an enormous drive to obtain honor by performing some great deed. Men did what they did to ensure their own worth. The man’s job was to forget himself in the service of the honorable duties demanded by his country in the while avoiding doing anything base. This was the foundation of the whole system of southern ethics. Honor was universally valid. You could not forget your country. Its values were universal and timeless and your service to them never ended.
Behind the cavaliers of the South stood the Southern women. Respect for honor lurked at the point of every sword. The men were chivalrous and enacted a gallantry that wasn’t false or artificial. Women in the South were worshipped as fit companions for the cavaliers. All this emerges as you read Lang’s narrative.
People like to cite Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a kind of mechanical homage to what they haven’t really read. I recently began W&P for the ninth time, and I can say, without flattery, that Lang’s work echoes in many ways Tolstoy’s masterpiece.