A President Rewrites History
BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN
The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War By Jimmy Carter Simon & Schuster 480 pages, $27
immy Carter began his publishing career in 1975 with a book called Why Not the Best? An exhortation to excellence, it was a campaign pitch that helped put Carter, a Naval Academy graduate with expertise in nuclear energy, into the White House in 1976. The title poses an excellent question, one that American voters have tended to answer by choosing affable mediocrity over wonks who seem too clever or accomplished. In 1980, when Carter lost out to Ronald Reagan in his bid for reelection, he began a career as the best former president since John Quincy Adams. As an international troubleshooter and advocate for health care and human ri ghts, mediating conflicts in Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, and Liberia and monitoring elections in Panama, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and East Timor, Carter earned the Nobel Prize for Peace he received in 2002.
At age 79, he has now become the best novelist to hold the Nobel Prize for Peace since Elie Wiesel, who won it in 1986. The dust jacket of The Hornet’s Nest hails Carter’s debut novel as “The first work of fiction by a President of the United States.” (The most recent State of the Union address probably does not qualify simply because it was not written entirely by George W. Bush.) Carter evidently not only wrote the entirety of The Hornet’s Nest, he also designed its cover, a painting of a frontiersman aiming his rifle through the woods at a group of British redcoats.
“I’ll never lie to you,” Carter promised voters. But if, in Picasso’s formula, art is the lie that tells the truth, a reader might wish that, in writing this historical novel, the 39th President of the United States had felt freer to invent. A didactic document worthy of the earnest man who, even after election to high office, taught Sunday school in Plains, Georgia, The Hornet’s Nest is an attempt to overcome ignorance about the role of the South in the American Revolution.
“Most Americans know very little about major events of the war in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas,” explains Carter at the outset of the book, “and I wanted to present as accurate an account as possible of the complex and crucial interrelationships among colonists, British officials, and the Indian tribes during the twenty years that led to the war’s successful end in 1783.” Add Savannah—where a British victory over the rebels and their French allies left 1,200 killed or seriously wounded, the costliest battle of the war—to Concord, Valley Forge, and Saratoga as stations of the War of Independence. Vietnam is not the only place where American soldiers perished in rice paddies. The Hornet’s Nest begins in Philadelphia in 1763, with the meeting of Ethan Pratt, the son of a shoemaker, and Espey Nischmann, the daughter of a Moravian minister. After marrying, the couple moves to North Carolina and then to Georgia. Hundreds of characters flit in and out of Carter’s episodic epic, but Ethan, returning to his scorched homestead after the truce, fills the final frame. A reluctant warrior who shares with his Quaker neighbors an aversion to violence, Pratt is a barometer of Southern fortunes. When his best friend, Kindred Morris, is killed in cold blood by a British officer, Pratt joins the rebel cause. When his young son, Henry, is murdered by Tory marauders, he vows vengeance against their leader, though he recognizes that atrocities are commonplace, committed by both sides in the bloody struggle.
In fact, The Hornet’s Nest is generated through polygonal geometry; it recounts a many-sided war that pits crown against colony, regulars against guerrillas, Indians against whites, slaves against masters, neighbors against neighbors, in shifting permutations. Personal rivalries as much as military strategies and political ideals determine the outcome of battles. Alliances are undermined by quarreling and even duelling leaders. As much as the Civil War, the southern flank of the American Revolution was a vicious fratricidal conflict, in which non-combatants were prodded into combat and combatants adopted only provisional allegiances.
Though written by a former president of the United States, The Hornet’s Nest is not a chauvinistic tribute to American independence, a literary celebration of the Fourth of July, a date that goes unmentioned in the book. If anything, its deepest sympathies seem to lie with London, which offered freedom to slaves who joined its forces and support for the Creeks and Cherokees against settlers who were poaching on their tribal lands. Many of the rebels are portrayed as reckless, uncouth opportunists, and the most fascinating character, Thomas Brown, leads a guerrilla band supporting Britain. Brown begins the story as the very prototype of an effete English aristocrat who arrives in North America with a deed to land he does not know how to cultivate and a lieutenant’s commission acquired by money not merit. However, in the novel’s most vivid incident, Brown, exposed as a Tory spy, is tarred and feathered and almost killed. Intent on avenging himself against his tormentors, he makes it his business to learn the military craft, and he is soon organizing and leading a ragtag group of backwoodsmen and Indians that proves to be the most potent fighting force in Georgia.
For most of the war, Georgia was so thoroughly Tory that, as Carter notes, the Continental Congress in practice represented only 12 states. The hotheads who tossed tea into Boston Harbor taxed the patience of most South Carolinians, and Florida, recently acquired from Spain, remained a safe base for the British command. In many battles below Virginia, most of those fighting on the side of the crown were colonials loyal to London. Wistful longings for the Lost Cause have persisted long after Appomattox, but are they not only nostalgia for old times in the land of cotton but also buried memory of a time when the South was proudly monarchist?
The Hornet’s Nest derives its title from a small enclave of swamps, creeks, and hills in northern Georgia in which embattled republicans take refuge and from which they launch guerrilla forays against pro-British forces. “I’m talkin’ about like bein’ inside our own hornet’s nest so anybody that messes with us will live—or die—to regret it,” explains Elijah Clarke, the rugged leader of an unconventional militia that is to George Washington’s American army what Brown’s scrappy volunteers are to the redcoats.
Carter signals that Clarke, a cunning frontiersman, is illiterate and uneducated by dropping the gs in his gerunds. But every other character sounds the same. That includes Newota, a 17-year-old Creek who speaks fluent King’s English after just a few months of hanging out with Kindred Morris. The Hornet’s Nest is a minefield of linguistic anachronisms. Clarke employs the barbarous term “irregardless” long before its first recorded appearance, in the early 20th century, and poor pioneers who encroach on Indian territory in northern Georgia are referred to as “white trash,” a phrase first noted in the 1830s. It does not take long residence below the Mason-Dixon Line before Espey Pratt, a newcomer from Philadelphia, is sprinkling her speech with “y’all.” Newota, the noblest of noble savages, delivers lengthy disquisitions on indigenous customs as if he were a comparative anthropologist, not an Indian adolescent with limited experience even in Georgia.
Carter himself furnishes extensive information about shoemaking, carpentry, and farming in the 18th century. As if debriefed in the Oval Office, a character named Reuben Starling comments on commerce between settlers and the tribes when someone poses a leading question: “Mr. Starling, tell us how you came to be a trader, and something about how you do it.” Awkward exposition hobbles the novel, and when, about two-thirds through, the narrative finally gains momentum, pivotal episodes, like the story of an abused slave named Quash Dolly who helps deliver Savannah to the British in return for her freedom, seem sporadic insertions lacking full drama. In his vivid personal memoir, An Hour Before Daylight (2001), Carter evoked a barefoot rural childhood whose greatest pleasure was in plowing furrows straight. Trying to set the historical record straight about his native Georgia and some of his own ancestors, Carter’s first novel is a product of assiduous research if uninspired narrative skills. Experience with Habitat for Humanity allows him to provide a detailed account of how to build a cabin in the Southern wilderness, as he builds his story line by line, methodically. As a presidential candidate, Carter got into trouble for confessing that he had lusted in his heart, and, except for a graphic scene of rape, his novel has trouble portraying relations between men and women. The president who brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and became a roving peacemaker after leaving the White House is evident in his novel’s sympathy for a community of Quakers who remain largely aloof from war. The Hornet’s Nest is a curiosity of presidential history, the 18th book by a novice historical novelist possessed of zestful curiosity. It is hard to imagine the incumbent president, who has admitted that he does not read even newspapers, writing—much less reading—this volume, which despite its flaws, is a studious reminder not to take the South for granted. Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His most recent book, as editor, is Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (University of Nebraska Press).