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The Marble Man: The Guns of the South, The Lost Cause, and Harry Turtledove

Gary Oswald

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I don't often post negative reviews, I want authors to feel comfortable working with us and for our site not to feel hostile. Harry is someone we respect and who has been kind to us.

When I get one submitted, I think very carefully if I want to publish it. I felt in this case that the review was spontaneous (I did not ask for it to be written), it was fair (it critiqued the work not the man) and it was aimed at a piece of work significant enough to take criticism (this is not going to be the first google result for the book or convince a novice writer to stop writing).

I haven't read the book in question so I do not know if I would agree with the review but I felt it was a legitimate attempt to talk about the book.
 

ChrisNuttall

Active member
I have mixed feelings.

On one hand, some of the critical remarks are justified. On the other, some of them are quite unfair to the historical characters and to Turtledove as an author.

Chris
 

Gary Oswald

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I have mixed feelings.

On one hand, some of the critical remarks are justified. On the other, some of them are quite unfair to the historical characters and to Turtledove as an author.

Chris
It's a matter of opinions Chris. Like I said above I haven't read the book myself, so I can't judge it, but I fully expect for different readers to come to different conclusions.

I will say, I am glad you phrased it as 'Turtledove as an author', because me and Monroe went back and forth with various revisions and one of the things we tried to get across was this a critique of writing choices, we did not want at any point to imply they felt Turtledove was himself a racist or that he was writing with an intentionally racist or lost cause agenda. Monroe felt as an author Turtledove had made decisions that had unfortunate implications that Turtledove as a man would never wish to imply.

So I am glad at least that it has come across as being unfair to Turtledove the author rather than Turtledove the man.
 

ChrisNuttall

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It's a matter of opinions Chris. Like I said above I haven't read the book myself, so I can't judge it, but I fully expect for different readers to come to different conclusions.

I will say, I am glad you phrased it as 'Turtledove as an author', because me and Monroe went back and forth with various revisions and one of the things we tried to get across was this a critique of writing choices, we did not want at any point to imply they felt Turtledove was himself a racist or that he was writing with an intentionally racist or lost cause agenda. Monroe felt as an author Turtledove had made decisions that had unfortunate implications that Turtledove as a man would never wish to imply.

So I am glad at least that it has come across as being unfair to Turtledove the author rather than Turtledove the man.
I think there are some points that need to be taken into account.

Turtledove does not put forward a strong ‘Lost Cause’ mentality - he does point out that the CSA was (is, in GOTS) a slave-owning nation, that slavery was practically part of the fabric of that nation and that slavery was EVIL. He makes no bones about it and part of the book involves the characters coming to realise that yes, they’re on the wrong side (at least when it comes to slavery.) It is very easy to think there’s nothing wrong with evil things if one does not have one’s face rubbed in the fact that [whatever] is evil, either by seeing it in a new light (GOTS) or by becoming a victim oneself (Farnham’s Freehold).

Linked to this, it is also quite easy to believe that one is on the right side - and that one is going to win - even if, objectively, the tide turned quite some time ago.

From a writer’s POV, it is a great deal harder to sympathetise with a character who is openly evil. Turtledove tried to show us a Lee who was forced to come to grips with the problems of independence, the fact that victory would not put an end to the South’s issues ... a Lee who was forced to realise that his country had a pretty major flaw AND that his descendents loathed his cause (even if they didn’t loathe him personally). Lee growing up into someone who realised that slavery had to be abolished was, for me, one of the better parts of the book.

It is easy to say ‘slavery should be abolished.’ No one in our time would disagree with this statement. But grappling with the problem of abolishing slavery in a post-victory CSA would be incredibly difficult, even if the government realised it had to be done. The BREXIT issues would seem minor, compared to getting rid of slavery.

The truth, I think, is that there were a lot of people in the CSA and its army who thought slavery was right - and, also, a lot of people who signed up because they felt it was their duty to defend their state/country. Turtledove chose to present a grey issue, rather than painting them all as monsters, and the book is all the stronger for it.

TL/DR: A book that covers people learning better, and then trying to make things better, is stronger than one that imports modern attitudes into the past.


Chris
 
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David Flin

A house of larks and owls
Yeah, but ...

This is a Lee who owned slaves and who pontificated about this being problematic while doing nothing about the slaves that he did own.

This is a Nathan B Forrest who is completely unrecognisable from the historical version. A man who experienced financial loss due to abolition, and reacted by violence and what would now be called terrorist tactics.

It's one thing to have a learning process. It's quite another to twist characters from what we know them to have been and create what is in effect a tabula rasa, where just the name remains the same.

The truth, I think, is that there were a lot of people in the CSA and its army who thought slavery was right - and, also, a lot of people who signed up because they felt it was their duty to defend their state/country. Turtledove chose to present a grey issue, rather than painting them all as monsters, and the book is all the stronger for it.
It's strange how in re-enacting circles and in Alternate History books about the period, the former are almost entirely non-existent among the central characters, and the latter are ubiquitous.

Turtledove chose to portray Lee (and Forrest, for crying out loud) as Noble, Chivalrous Men oozing nobility and etc.

Robert E Lee wrote in 1856: "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race."

Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published 4 years earlier.
 

Japhy

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I think Moth did a great job with this piece deconstructing it. And talking about how Turtledove was writing in his own time. The Marble Man/Shelby Foote version of the "Progressive" Lost Cause ("They were fighting for their states because it was their CoUnTrY!!!!"/"We fought because y'all came down HeRe!!!!") And the myth of the Kindly, Personally Anti-Slavery Lee. Thats what the discourse was from the 1970s up until the end of the Millennium and coming only just after the 1890s-1950s period of the High Lost Cause of old. The debate of the 1950s and 1960s had for a time been pushed back and shut down. When that is the historiographical background of what you are researching the fundimental conclusions that Turtledove made aren't off base. with 30+ years perspective we can say he was wrong but he was doing the best work he could with what he had.

Turtledove was asked about this in his recent interview, and he was right that he wrote with what he had when he had it. I don't think its fair to say an AH author should be doing primary source research tbh. So this is the price we pay. But as @moth concludes, its up to us to consider what we do going forward.
 

ChrisNuttall

Active member
Yeah, but ...

This is a Lee who owned slaves and who pontificated about this being problematic while doing nothing about the slaves that he did own.
To be fair, Lee did free the saves at the end of the book and, unless we assume he wrote a line that said 'President Lee gets to keep his slaves' we can be reasonably sure his slaves got freed to.

This is a Nathan B Forrest who is completely unrecognisable from the historical version. A man who experienced financial loss due to abolition, and reacted by violence and what would now be called terrorist tactics.
Yes (I think - Forrest isn't one of the guys I studied intensely), but - again, to be fair - THIS Forrest ran for an election on a platform of 'keep the slaves,' lost a fair election and got a slap in the face when the AWB resorted to terrorist tactics themselves, which might have taught him a lesson or two. Turtledove tried, I think, to present a Forrest who had a different life from OTL.

It's strange how in re-enacting circles and in Alternate History books about the period, the former are almost entirely non-existent among the central characters, and the latter are ubiquitous.
I'm not surprised. No one wants to admit they're on the wrong side.



Turtledove chose to portray Lee (and Forrest, for crying out loud) as Noble, Chivalrous Men oozing nobility and etc.

Robert E Lee wrote in 1856: "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race."

Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published 4 years earlier.
Uncle Tom's cabin was dismissed as Yankee agit-prop. In OTL, Lee never learnt what his descendants thought of him. In ATL, he did.

I think the point is, Turtledove would have had to make a great many difficult choices. And I think, by and large, he did reasonably well.
 

David Flin

A house of larks and owls
Yes (I think - Forrest isn't one of the guys I studied intensely), but - again, to be fair - THIS Forrest ran for an election on a platform of 'keep the slaves,' lost a fair election and got a slap in the face when the AWB resorted to terrorist tactics themselves, which might have taught him a lesson or two. Turtledove tried, I think, to present a Forrest who had a different life from OTL.
OTL Nathan B Forrest and GOTS Nathan B Forrest are only connected by name. A politician loses a fair election and decides that this is a sign that he was wrong, not that the electors made a mistake? Not just a politician, but one who had a notoriously strong opinion on the subject?

Now, Mosby, that's someone I could believe going through that transition. Forrest becoming some sort of Chivalrous Noble who accepts defeat with grace? Nah. I could write a story in which Margaret Thatcher witnesses the disturbances caused by the 1984 Miners' Strike and this converts her to Socialism, and it would be equally nonsense, although I could point to different experiences etc. Extraordinary changes to a personality require extraordinary explanations, and: " he lost an election and saw his tactics used against him" simply doesn't cut it
To be fair, Lee did free the saves at the end of the book and, unless we assume he wrote a line that said 'President Lee gets to keep his slaves' we can be reasonably sure his slaves got freed to.
OTL, Lee never freed any slaves when he had the opportunity to. He was notoriously equivocal when it came to doing so - even to the point of not abiding by the terms of his father's will that the slaves be freed. On the one hand, we have a Lee who ignores his father's Will and keeps slaves; on the other hand, we have a Lee who chooses to free slaves because of what history says of him (and when said history practically deifies him).

Turtledove was asked about this in his recent interview, and he was right that he wrote with what he had when he had it. I don't think its fair to say an AH author should be doing primary source research tbh. So this is the price we pay. But as @moth concludes, its up to us to consider what we do going forward.
This. So much this. When Turtledove wrote, it was not unreasonable (Forrest aside - that's unforgivable at any time). One can give Turtledove a pass for writing with the historical evidence of the time. To try and say now that he got it right is somewhat more of a stretch.
 
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Redolegna

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OTL, Lee never freed any slaves when he had the opportunity to. He was notoriously equivocal when it came to doing so - even to the point of not abiding by the terms of his father's will that the slaves be freed. On the one hand, we have a Lee who ignores his father's Will and keeps slaves; on the other hand, we have a Lee who chooses to free slaves because of what history says of him (and when said history practically deifies him).
His army not only captured runaways slaves in the campaigns in the North, it also enslaved free people of color. I've never read that he did anything to stop his soldiers doing that or felt even slightly bad about it.
 

Japhy

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I will offer as a counterpoint to Lee and Forrest becoming morally improved people that I would say the best comparison to GOTS on that front is Fatherland when the Detective is reading a report on the Holocaust that notes that cold weather crews for U-Boat Crews were stuffed with the hair of those killed in the Final Solution. A former U-Boat Skipper, a mediocre Nazi and a fundamentally decent man in an evil world his reaction is disgust, panic and rushing to vomit. The Book established that he was a fundamentally good man and a "bad" Nazi from the start but there was the benefit for Harris that his detective wasn't a real person.

I think there's a way for Lee to turn his course with what he learns in GOTS but I think he needs to do a ton more to get to that point. I think there needs to be revulsion and panic and disgust and fear. I think Turtledove used him because at the time "Lee was Anti-Slavery" was a line getting tossed around a lot (Ignoring that his "anti-slavery sentiment" was a belief that Christian Slaves would be freed when Christ returned.) but we know that the man would not simply shrug and move to end Slavery. A story where Lee works hard to even come to the conclusion might have been less exciting but also more reasonable and I would say because of that, more satisfying.
 

ChrisNuttall

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OTL Nathan B Forrest and GOTS Nathan B Forrest are only connected by name. A politician loses a fair election and decides that this is a sign that he was wrong, not that the electors made a mistake? Not just a politician, but one who had a notoriously strong opinion on the subject?
Well, in this case (to be fair, again), GOTSForrest would have lost an election, seen AWB show a terrifying disregard for the rule of law (insofaras it existed within the CSA) by launching a terrorist attack against the President and his cabinet. It's quite reasonable for him to think 'OMG! WTF have I allied with? I must redeem myself by leading the war against them!" Or "OMG! I've been implicated! I must make a massive show of loyalty by leading the war against the b******s so no one can question me when the poop stops flying!"

The more serious point is this - the GOTS characters got a slap in the face from reality, their future, that oviously never happened in OTL.

And, from a writer's POV, historical reality often comes second to using names people will recognize (Lee and Forrest), presenting them as people who might legitimately have realized they were wrong, and generally trying to appeal to both AH fans (such as you and I) and the general public. From that POV, Turtledove did very well.

Chris
 

David Flin

A house of larks and owls
Well, in this case (to be fair, again), GOTSForrest would have lost an election, seen AWB show a terrifying disregard for the rule of law (insofaras it existed within the CSA) by launching a terrorist attack against the President and his cabinet. It's quite reasonable for him to think 'OMG! WTF have I allied with? I must redeem myself by leading the war against them!" Or "OMG! I've been implicated! I must make a massive show of loyalty by leading the war against the b******s so no one can question me when the poop stops flying!"
That's exactly what I mean. If one starts from the OTL Forrest, we see certain traits; a willingness to massacre surrendered prisoners, a willingness to defy social norms in order to make a fortune, a willingness to set up a terrorist organisation with the specific aim to terrorising opponents (including White People of Standing who opposed him - such as Republican George Ashburn.

In the spring of 1867, Forrest and his dragoons launched a campaign of midnight parades; 'ghost' masquerades; and 'whipping' and even 'killing Negro voters and white Republicans, to scare blacks off voting and running for office' (Andrew Ward).

These are the known traits from OTL Forrest. That is the starting point of the character. To get from that to the GOTS Forrest requires a little more than "he lost an election fair and square, and saw someone else doing something he was happy to do himself." He needs to go on a journey, not a piddling little single toddler step.

OTL Forrest resigned from the KKK because they weren't disciplined enough and because they weren't active enough in terrorism.

To change Forrest in this way on so pathetically flimsy a piece of justification is poor writing. It's not as if there weren't alternatives - Mosby, for one (who did, in fact, undergo OTL this journey).

I'm inclined to quote GK Chesterton:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

I can believe that time travellers from the future come back and give the Confederacy modern arms and the wherewithall to use them; it may be silly, but I can suspend disbelief for that. What I can't suspend disbelief for is that Nathan B Forrest, because of a few token views, becomes a completely unrecognisable person. A Nathan B Forrest of Noble Chivalry who accepts being defeated in a fair election? Gimme a break.
 

Japhy

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Well, in this case (to be fair, again), GOTSForrest would have lost an election, seen AWB show a terrifying disregard for the rule of law (insofaras it existed within the CSA) by launching a terrorist attack against the President and his cabinet. It's quite reasonable for him to think 'OMG! WTF have I allied with? I must redeem myself by leading the war against them!" Or "OMG! I've been implicated! I must make a massive show of loyalty by leading the war against the b******s so no one can question me when the poop stops flying!"

The more serious point is this - the GOTS characters got a slap in the face from reality, their future, that oviously never happened in OTL.

And, from a writer's POV, historical reality often comes second to using names people will recognize (Lee and Forrest), presenting them as people who might legitimately have realized they were wrong, and generally trying to appeal to both AH fans (such as you and I) and the general public. From that POV, Turtledove did very well.

Chris
Instead of just digging in again to yet again wind up defending monsters like the first major leader of the KKK have you considered you don't know anything about this subject and might need to try doing some readings and maybe consider reevaluating your perspective?
 

OwenM

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Oddly I think this is done less badly (though it is obviously still pretty problematic) in TL-191, which has a worse reputation overall. Longstreet's conversion is portrayed as for cynical reasons rather than idealistic ones, and he did support Reconstruction for similar cynical reasons OTL.
So it's definitely a stretch, (and I don't think Turtledove portrays it as cynical enough from memory - it's kinda "I don't care much, we might as well do this" rather than "this is terrible, but if we don't at least pretend to do it, it'll be even worse" as it would be if it somehow did happen) but it's less of a problem than him thinking he can actually push it through without a coup against him or the coup failing so he can.
 
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Japhy

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Honestly Longstreet going for token manumission in 191 always worked find for me. Jackson not considering joining Hampton's Putsch is another matter entirely / I think the coup failing or succeeding would have worked fine if included in the story. I actually like how it shows the conflict between the two senses of Southern Aristocratic self, one placing itself as a critical component of a globalized world (We need to maintain our alliances and appease Paris and London), the other as lords supreme of their own domain (We don't care what London thinks this is our way)
 
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