December 16, 2011

Howl, battle-cry, cheer, and congratulation

Sidney Lanier was 25 years old and living in Alabama when he wrote Tiger Lilies, his only novel. He was living in Macon, Georgia, when he reported to a friend on December 16, 1867:

'Tiger Lilies' is just out, and has succeeded finely in Macon. I have seen some highly complimentary criticisms in a few New York papers on the book, and what was written in illustration of a very elaborate and deliberate theory of mine about plots of novels has been mistaken for the 'carelessness of a dreamy' writer; I would I knew some channel through which to put forth this same theory.

Though better known as a poet, Lanier had yet to publish a book of poetry by this time. In his preface, the author likens a new book to a baby. Unlike a newborn child, however, the book must enter the world fully mature, ready to "grasp swordhilt with chubby fingers" to defend its very existence. "A man has seventy years in which to explain his life," he wrote, "but a book must accomplish its birth and its excuse for birth in the same instant."

According to one contemporary reviewer, Tiger Lilies was "a spirited story of Southern life, beginning just before the war, and closing after the war." Its settings are in the mountains of Tennessee and the battlegrounds of Virginia (where the author himself had served as a Confederate soldier). But Lanier intended it to be a simple book: it is not about crime or murder, he wrote in his preface. "That it has dared to waive this interest," he explains, "must be attributed... wholly to a love, strong as it is humble, for what is beautiful in God's Nature and in Man's Art." Luckily, his method seemed appreciated. Only three months later, he told his friend a second edition was already planned.

Though much of the novel is enmeshed in the Civil War, modern critics are frustrated that Lanier makes little attempt to show the reality of war. In fact, Lanier's book was not as humble as his preface implied: the book was heavily loaded with symbolism (in one scene, a Confederate soldier shouts out a hurrah, before being shot in the mouth), making the comment about being a "dreamy writer" somewhat understandable. Perhaps his most visceral description on the battle field is the scene in which the "Rebel Yell" is presented:

From the right of the ragged line now comes up a single long cry, as from the leader of a pack of hounds who has found the game. This cry has in it the uncontrollable eagerness of the sleuth-hound, together with a dry harsh quality that conveys an uncompromising hostility. It is the irresistible outflow of some fierce soul immeasurably enraged, and it is tinged with a jubilant tone, as if in anticipation of a speedy triumph and a satisfying revenge. It is a howl, a hoarse battle-cry, a cheer, and a congratulation, all in one.

They take it up in the centre, they echo it on the left, it swells, it runs along the line as fire leaps along the rigging of a ship. It is as if some one pulled out in succession all the stops of the infernal battle-organ, but only struck one note which they all speak in different voices.

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