A poetic tale and a writer whose time has finally come
Time has moved in mysterious ways for writer Howard Bahr. It wasn't until 1973, when he was 27 years old, that he became a college freshman at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, "so deeply moved by the writing of Mr. William Faulkner that I wanted to be where he had written about." He then spent much of the next two decades working at Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home, and writing "a real cheap imitation of Mr. Faulkner's baroque prose." He then spent a good deal more time learning how not to write like William Faulkner. And finally, last year, well along in life, he published his first novel, The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War, a darkly radiant work, released this month as a Henry Holt Owl paperback. It blossomed in the shadow of the extravagant success of another first novel set in the South during the Civil War, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.
About these and the other odd turns his life has taken, Mr. Bahr is philosophical. "Nothing happens before it's supposed to," he tells me during a telephone call to his home in Tennessee, where he has lived for the last five years, teaching English at nearby Motlow State Community College. "It just took me all this time to get ready, to prepare, to learn enough to be able to do it."
The "it" in question -- The Black Flower -- is a wonderfully compact novel with authentic emotional power. Set during the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) in November 1864, the novel's action spans barely a single day and ranges over a narrow corner of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War. At the story's center is Bushrod Carter, a 26-year-old veteran soldier from Mississippi, and his two boyhood friends, Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Joining them in the line of battle are two conscripts, the memorably evil Simon Ropes and the dull-witted Nebo Gloster. There is humor in Mr. Bahr's depiction of the friendship of the soldiers, and a terrible beauty in his description of the chaos of battle and its effects on his characters. But The Black Flower only reaches its full force when the armies have moved on and the wounded Bushrod Carter meets Anna Hereford.
According to Mr. Bahr he had always wanted to write "a realistic but pretty Civil War story," working on The Black Flower as a short story for nearly three years. "Then I got to a certain point -- specifically where Virgil C. gets shot in the back of the head -- and I ended it there. But the characters were not finished. They kept clamoring and clamoring. And so I commenced to writing some more, and pretty soon Anna showed up. She's based on a student I had here that I loved very deeply and who was eventually killed in a car wreck. When Anna showed up I didn't have anything but trouble after that. The characters started taking off in all directions, and suddenly I had a novel. Suddenly after three years."
Mr. Bahr's manuscript was rejected -- apparently unread -- by several reputable publishers. He sent it finally to the Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company, a small press that usually specializes in military nonfiction but was seeking first novels about the Civil War and other historical topics. The Black Flower was published with excellent reviews and limited sales, and almost simultaneously with Cold Mountain, the runaway bestseller and National Book Award winner.
The comparisons are inevitable: both are love stories, both take place during the Civil War, both are written by writers with an ear for language.
Mr. Bahr has the formal, gracious manners of the 19th-century South, using "Yessir" and "Nossir" to reply. He refers to writers who have influenced him as "Mister" -- Mr. William Faulkner, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mr. Loren Eisley, Mr. T.H. White, and Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose The Scarlet Letter includes the sentence that gave Mr. Bahr his title, "Let the black flower blossom as it may."
"Cold Mountain is a beautiful book," Mr. Bahr says without reservation. "But the two books are about two different things. His is a journey novel, not a war book at all. His [central] character is much different from mine. He is so much more attuned to nature and the Indians, and he doesn't believe in God. He's an almost New Age person. So while I thought Cold Mountain was a lovely book, I would not trade books with Mr. Frazier."
In fact, Mr. Bahr is entirely proud of his book's authenticity. "I believe it to be a true representation of the human experience, of people in a bad situation finding redemption and love." For its details, Mr. Bahr walked the Franklin battlefield, explored the McGavock house -- around which most of the fictional action takes place -- drew on 20 years of experience as a Civil War re-enactor for his vivid depictions of smells and sounds of battle, and mined his own experiences of the Vietnam War to capture the startling disassociations of battle.
"There is a mystical quality to the experience because it is so awful. When people are in a situation like that, their minds push away from it. The Archbishop of Canterbury [a character who loses his mind on the battlefield] just refuses to accept it and shifts to another identity. And when Bushrod gets into battle, his 'other' takes over. Although I was never in really bad combat, whenever we'd get in ticklish situations, I found that to be true. It was like I was watching somebody else doing it. Only later did I realize, or remember, that it was me."
But the most remarkable achievement of The Black Flower may be the 19th-century sensibility that informs it. This is due to an oddity of Mr. Bahr himself. He is certain that he would have been more comfortable in the last century than his own. He adheres to "what Mr. Robert Penn Warren called the threshold principle: in my own house I have the world the way I want it." That means no television and no computer, something he considers "a great evil." He even has a rotary phone. "But," he adds dryly, "not long ago I did buy caller ID because I realized that it is the greatest weapon against technology I have ever encountered."
"I have never felt comfortable in my own time," Mr. Bahr says. "Now in the late 20th century I sometimes feel like I'm on another planet. But eventually you tell yourself you've got to accept the world you've been given -- because there's no alternative. And I do find plenty of wonderful things in this world."
Lucky thing. Because with the paperback release of The Black Flower, and with a little good fortune, Mr. Howard Bahr's time may have come at last.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to this publication.