UNTO THIS HOUR by Tom Wicker


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Unlike Thomas Keneally's Confederates (1980), which focused on a handful of Civil War soldiers to achieve near-Tolstoyan breadth and resonance, Wicker's mammoth closeup of a single battle--Second Manassas in August 1862--is more laboriously panoramic. And though this rich mosaic offers vivid scenes, shrewd historical interpretations, and worthy themes, the hectic fact/fiction blend--including several descents into melodrama--is often more numbing than stirring. The real generals involved receive relatively minor attention: for the South Lee, Longstreet, and Stonewall Jackson make brief appearances; for the North there's Pope--whose ineptitudes are somewhat more fully dramatized. But the lower levels of command provide fictional characters galore: a Northern major who wrestles with his doubts about Pope's orders; manic Southern general Hoke Arnall--smarting from a Jackson reprimand, determined to prove himself, believing that the Cause is God's will (""the men had become nameless, faceless, all as one, in the simple necessity to outfight the Yanks and hold the ground""); Jackson aide Fargo Hart, a dashing cosmopolitan sort who--in the novel's stickiest lapses into pop-formula--falls in love with a local, pure-yet-lusty, ""natural"" farmer's daughter. There's a similar assortment of types and subplots among the fighting men, too: a brave, honorable private who refuses to go on killing; a bitter lout who tries to shoot his own general in the back; plus two Rebs--one brutish, one poetic--who find some idealized homosexual love (a seemingly trendy contrivance). And, in addition to the dozens of soldier-characters, non-combat subplots include: the wife of Gen. Arnall back home, isolated among rebellious slaves, driven to violence and a preachy awakening; the Tobacco Road family of Hart's beloved, complete with rape, murders, miscegnation; and no less than three journalists--including one supercilious Britisher. Wicker is best in the strategy and combat sequences here, deromanticizing both through irony, earthy dialogue, and plainspoken detail; the contrast between war-glory rhetoric and wards-hell horror is always emphatic. Unfortunately, however, while evoking the chaos of countryside battle, the novel is itself chaotic--with no firm framework (other than chronology) for the constantly shifting focus: none of the characters receives enough steady attention to be more than an (often-clichÉd) sketch; and even with some predictable battlefield link-ups in the final pages, there's a lack of overall shape and momentum throughout. Civil War buffs, then, already familiar with the facts, are the only readers likely to find Wicker's all-over-the-map approach congenial. Others will appreciate many of the well-researched, vigorously written vignettes--but may find this dense, uneven, fragmented mixture (history, war-fiction, melodrama, soap opera) more daunting than absorbing.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Viking