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Charles Frazier’s hauntingly beautiful first novel, Cold Mountain, demonstrates once again that the Civil War is a source of inexhaustible fascination for Americans. In a carefully crafted, meticulously authentic tale, Frazier recounts the epic story of W. P. Inman, a Confederate war veteran who tries to make his way home to the western North Carolina mountains in the midst of the social chaos of the Civil War. Set mainly in North Carolina, Cold Mountain recounts Inman’s numerous adventures and close scrapes with death during his three-hundred- mile trek on foot from a war hospital in Raleigh to his home in Cold Mountain, west of Asheville.

The themes of love, war, and homecoming give Frazier’s novel an epic quality reminiscent of Homer’s The Odyssey, but Inman is no favorite of the gods. An ordinary mortal, badly wounded in the battles of Petersburg and Fredericksburg, he struggles with physical hardship and despair during his long trek homeward. His sweetheart, Ada Monroe, must struggle as well to learn how to manage a mountain farm after her father’s death. Their two parallel stories and poignant reunion create an unforgettable story of mythic dimensions.

Frazier’s novel is carefully crafted in language, character, and style, with an almost palpable sense of place. Starting with the use of Cold Mountain (elevation 6,030 feet), a real place, Frazier creates an uncanny sense of time and place through close attention to physical details and a rich, archaic sense of authentic language and dialect, with many regional turns and phrases of speech. Himself a native of the North Carolina mountains, Frazier has a sense of geography and place that is unfailingly accurate, creating a sense of being in the physical world of nineteenth century America. Indeed, the novel evokes an almost an elegiac sense of loss of traditional American culture and regional distinctions. Cold Mountain gains additional authenticity from local history and family stories passed on by Frazier’s great-great-grandfather. The novel also is interlaced with white and Cherokee mountain folklore and traditional folk music motifs, which create a regional sensibility. Frazier acknowledges the influence of Appalachian “Jack Tales” on his narrative style.

Like the stories of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s The Odyssey , Frazier’s stories of Inman and Ada are related in parallel, alternating chapters that gradually converge with Inman’s homecoming at the end of the novel. Theirs are stories of adaptation and survival: Both must use their wits to survive in a harsh, unforgiving world of cultural change. Ada has grown up in the comfortable, sheltered world of antebellum Charleston society, shielded from economic realities by her father’s tobacco, rice, and indigo investments. Her mother died in childbirth, and Ada was raised as an only child. On his doctor’s advice, Monroe, a well-to-do Charleston minister, seeks the higher, drier climate of western North Carolina for his tuberculosis and settles in the Cold Mountain community as a minister. Despite their cultural differences, Monroe and Ada gradually are accepted by the local community. With her father’s sudden death, Ada inherits investments made worthless by the economic ravages of the war years and is left alone to manage a two-hundred-acre mountain farm. Her cultured, indolent lifestyle has not prepared her for the realities of subsistence farming. Ruby Thewes, a poor but resourceful local mountain girl, moves in with Ada and becomes her teacher in all the practical, manual skills and chores of running a farm. Ada gradually changes from a haughty, aloof Charleston-born belle to a rural Appalachian farm mistress. She overcomes her class consciousness and prejudice against the local mountain culture and learns to cope with the rigors...

(This entire section contains 2008 words.)

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of rural self-sufficiency and a barter economy. Ruby gradually teaches Ada the discipline of earning one’s own living, Ada having previously lived rather thoughtlessly on the labor of others and having taken that work for granted.

Inman, too, has become hardened and transformed, nearly to despair, by the savagery and brutality of the Civil War. Feeling that he has had enough of war, he suddenly decides to leave his Raleigh hospital rather than be sent back to the front. He sets out to walk home, wandering through a hostile Piedmont landscape of Home Guards, armed vigilantes and gangs who patrol the roads and highways looking for Confederate deserters, outliers, and escaped Yankee prisoners. Weakened by his wounds and having to forage off the land, Inman repeatedly is ambushed and waylaid, bushwhacked, shot at, tricked, and captured by the local posses. His episodic adventures force him to survive, like Odysseus, by his resourcefulness and wits, but without the protection of the goddess Athene. Nature, too, is his adversary, as Inman is forced to cope with extremes of weather, exposure, insects, and harsh terrain. He leaves Raleigh during the height of summer and does not reach Cold Mountain until winter. During his wandering, he turns for comfort to a battered copy of William Bartram’s Travels, purchased in Raleigh during his recuperation.

Some of the local characters he meets during his trek homeward and the stories they tell are so grotesque as to be truly unforgettable. There is the sorry minister, Solomon Veasey, who made a local girl pregnant. He has drugged her and is planning to drown her when Inman runs across the pair. Inman saves the girl and returns her home, tying Veasey to a tree with a note detailing his behavior. After Veasey is run out of town, he tags along after Inman and becomes a constant source of trouble. In a temporary idyll, Inman finds sanctuary among a group of traveling Irish gypsies, horse traders, and medicine show entertainers who show a kindness and tolerance entirely lacking in Piedmont rural society. It is hard to imagine a more benighted state of ignorance, indolence, viciousness, and vice than among the Piedmont country folk Inman encounters in his journey home. Inman realizes in disgust that this was the society he volunteered to defend as a Confederate soldier.

Perhaps Inman’s worst experience occurs in the western Piedmont, beyond Salisbury. There, under the guise of hospitality, he is made drunk and entrapped by a country slattern, Lila, whose husband, Junior, turns him over to the Home Guard for a five-dollar bounty. Inman is bound and tied to fifteen other miserable men, from grandfathers to young boys, who are marched eastward without food or shelter until the Guardsmen tire of their cruelty and decide to shoot the men and bury them in a shallow grave. Twice wounded in the scalp, Inman awakens with dirt in his face, confronting feral pigs who are feeding on the remains of the other men. The bestiality and cruelty are reminiscent of the worst of the Bosnian War. The Home Guard are the same kind of masked cowards who later became Klansmen, terrorizing freedmen and Union sympathizers after the Civil War. Inman’s spirit is almost broken by his encounters, but for his dogged determination to return home to Ada. He warns her in a terse, undated letter, sent after the Battle of Petersburg, that she will not find him the same man he was before the war. Throughout his journeys, although he is hunted down by Confederate sympathizers, men so brutalized by slaveholding that they have lost every vestige of their humanity, Inman is aided by slaves and women.

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, late in the fall, half starved and weakened by his wounds, Inman meets a tiny, wizened old woman, a mountain root doctor or herbalist who lives by herself in a small, goat-drawn caravan, sustained by her small goat herd, which supplies her with milk and cheese. She collects native plants to concoct herbal remedies. The goatwoman offers Inman warm food and lodging, and she nurses him back to health. They swap stories, and Inman marvels at her austere, hermitlike self- sufficiency, her journal writing and artwork, and her indifference to human society, a life that appeals to him as an alternative to warfare and cruelty.

Later that fall, he meets Sara, an attractive eighteen-year-old widow, left to fend for herself on a mountain farm after her husband was killed in action in Virginia. Inman, fed and dressed in her husband’s clothes and feeling compassion for her helplessness, is briefly tempted to stay to help with her winter hog-killing in return for lodging. He honors her request to sleep with her and listen to her story without touching her, until he is rousted early the next morning by the threat of the Home Guard. The intruders turn out to be three Federal irregulars, who threaten Sara and her baby and ransack the cabin, hoping to find something to steal. They take her hog, which Inman retrieves by ambushing the three hapless soldiers and shooting them with little remorse. Several days later, at another mountain cabin, Inman builds a coffin for a grieving woman’s unburied daughter, dead of dysentery. In a lonely mountain cove, he comes across three skeletons hung from a hemlock branch by strips of hickory bark, the bones turning and rattling in the breeze. Long before he reaches home, he seems to carry the sorrows of the world on his shoulders, his trek home like a mournful mountain ballad.

In counterpoint to Inman’s apparently endless hardship and suffering, there is the cautiously hopeful story of Stobrod, Ruby’s father, whose worthless life is partially redeemed through his mastery of the fiddle. Stobrod discovers the satisfaction of music and the pleasure he can offer others through his fiddle playing, and he gradually accumulates a sizable repertoire of fiddle tunes. He wanders about as an itinerant mountain musician, playing with a banjoist and guitarist, until he is ambushed and left for dead by the Home Guard.

Though not suffering like Inman, Ada gradually thins and hardens from the rigors of physical labor, mowing fields, plowing, splitting wood, tending livestock, and harvesting crops. She learns to be free of possessions by selling her prized piano to buy provisions. She gradually loses her former genteel tastes for reading and drawing, partially from the physical exhaustion of her daily labors.

Inman’s and Ada’s long-anticipated reunion, all too brief, occurs in an abandoned Cherokee village during a snowstorm, after they stumble on each other in the woods almost without recognition, Inman gaunt and emaciated by the war, Ada thin and hardened by work. They feast on wild turkey and enjoy a night of bliss while Ruby tends her wounded father. They must soon acknowledge that with the Home Guard searching for deserters, it is too dangerous for Inman to remain home until the war ends. He has three bleak alternatives: stay and be hunted down, return to duty, or surrender to the Federals over the mountains and sign a loyalty oath. He chooses, but not before the fates intervene one last time.

All these stories—Inman’s, Ada’s, Ruby’s, and Stobrod’s—converge toward a heartbreaking and unforgettable ending to this saga of human endurance and resiliency, an all-too-brief reunion of lovers, a slow healing from war, a hard-learned discipline of self-reliance, and the salve of forgiveness. Cold Mountain may well become the great American Civil War novel, displacing Gone with the Wind with a harder, truer, and less romantic account of the human impact of the war that divided families and changed lives forever. Drawn from Frazier’s family’s stories and his detailed knowledge of North Carolina mountain history and culture, this is a modern American classic.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, June 1, 1997, p. 1656.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, April 1, 1997, p. 503.

Library Journal. CXXII, May 15, 1997, p. 100.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, November 20, 1997, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, July 13, 1997, p. 14.

The New Yorker. 73, June 16, 1997, p. 104.

Newsweek. CXXIX, June 23, 1997, p. 73.

People Weekly. 48, July 21, 1997, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, May 5, 1997, p. 196.

Southern Living. XXXII, October, 1997, p. 76.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 14, 1997, p. 25.

U.S. News and World Report. CXXII, June 23, 1997, p. 14.

Historical Context

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The Civil War and the Battle of Petersburg
The U.S. Civil War, lasting from 1861 to 1865, broke out between the northern states (the Union) and the southern states (the Confederacy that seceded from the Union). The causes of the war were complex and involved political, economic, and social forces. The South had increasingly tried to separate itself from the North since the Revolutionary War, a movement that escalated sharply after 1820 when the newly formed western territories began to consider the question of slavery. This coupled with the rise of the abolitionists in the North caused the South to worry about maintaining equal status in the national governance of the country.

Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 prompted South Carolina to secede immediately from Union, a move soon repeated by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The war began on April 12, 1861, when P. G. I. Beauregard led an attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Soon after Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee joined the other Confederate states. Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) became commander of the Confederate Army and Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) led the North.

Inman is wounded during the battle of Petersburg, one of the most protracted and bloody of the war. Petersburg is located on the Appomattox River in southeast Virginia, near Richmond, which became the Confederate capital during the war. Confederates and Union soldiers fought each other at Petersburg from June 15, 1864 to April 3, 1865. Entrenching his troops there for months, General Lee refused to give up Petersburg since it offered protection for Richmond. Each side continually tried to break the other’s lines. On July 30, 1864, Union soldiers exploded a mine under a portion of the Confederate encampment, an incident depicted in the novel. Union soldiers swarmed into the crater and were mowed down by the Confederates. Grant’s army, however, was better supplied and so was able to outlast Lee’s. The city finally fell on April 3, 1865, one week before Lee surrendered at the Appomattox courthouse, officially ending the war although combat continued in remote areas of the southwest.

The Home Guard
Captain Albert Teague and his Confederate Home Guard, officially organized in 1863, terrorized outliers, deserters, and families who lived in the North Carolina mountain area. Frazier’s research led him to the story of the Home Guard and the ruthless Teague who killed a fiddle player and a mentally handicapped boy. The Guard had asked the fiddler to play a song before his execution. The two, the inspiration for Stobrod and Pangle in the novel, were found buried together on Mt. Sterling in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Another story involved a retaliatory strike by the Confederates after a Union raid in 1863. One woman, who would become Sara in the novel, was tied to a tree while her baby was placed naked on the cold ground in an effort to get information from her about the raid. In another incident, the Home Guard executed a group of fifteen men and boys, only five of whom belonged to the raiders. Frazier fictionalized different pieces of the story in his descriptions of the executions carried out by the Home Guard in the novel.

Frazier explains in an essay he wrote for Salon that the stories of these dead men intrigued him, understanding that none of them “could have had much to do with either of the warring sides, no strong ties to slave agriculture or industrial capitalism.” He assumes that they were Scots whose ancestors had immigrated in the eighteenth century, “existing in the seams between the two great incompatible powers.”

Frazier’s Connection to the Novel
Frazier’s great-great-uncle, W. P. Inman, enlisted at the beginning of the Civil War and was engaged in some of its fiercest fighting in Virginia. After suffering a serious wound, Inman decided to desert and walk home, back to the North Carolina mountains. He was subsequently shot and killed by the Home Guard at the close of the war. Frazier knew very little about his relative, and in the course of his research about him and the era, he began to imagine what he and his journey might have been like. The fictionalized Inman evolved from that research and his imaginings.

Karen C. Holt, in an article on the legends behind the novel, concludes: “By superimposing the life of his great-great-uncle on the life of the fictional Inman, Frazier has united them in a single grave, the stories inseparable from the landscape where the victims are buried.” In this sense, then, “the graves of North Carolina have become the graves of Cold Mountain, entombing a sense of place, and the setting, for which Frazier searched.”

Literary Style

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Literary Allusions and Connections
A literary allusion is a brief, sometimes indirect reference to a literary character, event, place, or work that encourages readers to make connections between literary works that will enrich their understanding of the present work. Many critics have noted the similarities between the novel and Homer’s Odyssey, focusing on plot and character details: a warrior must make a long and difficult journey back home where he hopes to be reunited with the woman he loves. He must rely on his cunning and intelligence as he continually faces severe impediments to his goal. The woman at home who waits for him confronts her own troubles. Both face internal as well as external struggles that present physical as well as spiritual tests. Frasier also makes two specific allusions to Homer, one in the initial hospital scene in which the man in the bed next to Inman translates Greek passages from the epic and the second when Ada reads the Odyssey to Ruby.

Both the novel and the epic are structured episodically, which heightens the focus on the importance of the journey itself. Inman recognizes that “this journey will be the axle of [his] life.” Ada keeps the cabriolet when Ruby comes to the farm because of “the promise in its tall wheels that if things got bad enough she could just climb in and ride away.” She held “the attitude that there was no burden that couldn’t be lightened, no wreckful life that couldn’t be set right by heading off down the road.” The Gypsies that offer Inman aid during his journey regard the road as “a place apart, a country of its own ruled by no government but natural law” and consider that “its one characteristic was freedom.”

Frazier uses traditional elements found in literature about journeys. He describes the idealistic beginning of Inman’s trek: “all the elements that composed [the scene] suggested the legendary freedom of the open road: the dawn of day, sunlight golden . . . a tall man in a slouch hat, a knapsack on his back, walking west.” But Inman soon faces the reality of his time and place when Frazier includes wasteland imagery. The Civil War landscape here appears to echo the modern landscapes of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land, which was written post–World War I. Inman’s “first true vision” during his journey is of a fence that appears as “some foul variety of brown flatland viper” slithering through the “trash trees” and later of broad ditches that were “smear[s] on the landscape” along side streams clogged with “balls of yellow scud collected in drifted foamy heaps upstream of grounded logs.” In response to this desolation, he wonders how he ever thought this was “his country and worth fighting for.” Here the real landscape of his journey echoes his own internal wasteland as he feels “all his life adding up to no more than catfish droppings on the bottom of this swill trough of a river.” When Frazier makes these connections between the novel and other literary works, his characterizations gain more depth and complexity and he gives readers another vantage point from which to discover meaning.

Literary Techniques

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The alternation of chapters between Inman and Ada establishes these characters as co-protagonists. It also builds suspense, at first about the nature of their relationship and finally about the future of it. When the characters are reunited in the eighteenth chapter, "Footsteps in the Snow," the alternation ceases and Inman and Ada share three chapters, as they share three days in the deserted Cherokee village. The only chapter that belongs neither to Inman nor Ada is the sixteenth, "Naught and Grief," the chapter in which Pangle and Stobrod are shot by the Home Guard. This chapter's singularity underscores the crucial importance of its action and foreshadows the final gun battle.

However, the most striking technique in Cold Mountain is its unique diction. Cold Mountain's prose bristles with unfamiliar nouns (harls, passway,jemson, snath, cullions, internalments, barns, spurtle, rindle), unusual verbs (frabble, rare, frail, way, row), and strange adjectives (moiled, mackled, awander, malandered, misgrown, withy), many of which cannot be found in a standard dictionary. The effect is not to baffle readers, but to transport them to a different time, a time when presumably people had detailed knowledge of the particular things, actions, and qualities referred to. Frazier creates the texture of a life that is palpably different from ours. His concrete language draws the reader into a particular world of weight and substance; his diction, for all its strangeness, convinces the reader that this is a vividly real place, rather than a vaguely imagined one. This technique supports Cold Mountain's theme of the overwhelming significance of the physical. A number of Frazier's words or their meanings appear to be invented by the author, but in fact this is true of very few of them. Even the well-educated reader often does not know them either because the things they refer to are no longer widely used or because they refer to parts or conditions of things that now only antiquarians or specialists need to know. Some words are regional or dialectical. Some are simply rare. Some words have obvious meanings, but are now obsolete. Some are perhaps anachronistic (judder?), born too late to have been used by the characters in the novel—and yet seem right for the paradoxical effect of exotic mundanity Frazier is seeking.

Frazier's use of the French dash for direct quotation serves at least two functions. Like his use of unfamiliar words it distances the text, suggesting patterns of living and thinking somewhat different from out own. It also allows Frazier at times to blur the distinction between direct and indirect quotation where conventional English punctuation would be required to clarify it unambiguously. This is useful to a writer who wants to create the texture of a strange, but vividly palpable world without attributing implausibly large or precise vocabularies to his characters, some of whom have little or no formal education.

Frazier's use of an omniscient point of view allows him to enter into numerous characters' minds and to interpret their thoughts and reactions without being hampered by the largely ineffective locutions the characters would themselves use. In a novel with so many characters, the omniscient point of view also helps to create a certain unity of diction and tone. But there is some modulation. The language associated with Ada is more literary, at times more abstract, than that associated with Inman. But both speak and think in a language that is somewhat strange to late twentieth century readers, without being quaintly "historical."

Cold Mountain uses symbols skillfully, in a conventionally paradoxical though deft manner. Its crows and ravens are simultaneously reminders of death and hardy representatives of life. The neck is that which connects the spiritual to the physical, the head to the body. The neck is where Inman is wounded. It also where he longs to kiss Ada—and finally does. It is therefore a symbol for both the horrifying fragility of the body and the enchanting beauty of the body. It is a symbol of mortality and as such a symbol of both death and life.

Of course the novel's title presents Frazier's central and most profound symbol. Cold Mountain is the literal geography for which Inman longs. But it is also an emblem of the physical world that Ada learns to love and live in. And it is a symbol of the inevitable death that awaits Inman. It is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a "true symbol," one by which the creative imagination "reconciles opposites": creation and destruction, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, past and future. The mountain is no happy Emersonian or Wordsworthian dream any more than it is a mere gigantic lump of matter. It and the range of which it is a part are the staging areas for equally inexplicable acts of human cruelty and human kindness. It is, finally, a symbol of the whole of Frazier's world, of the mystery of existence. Cold Mountain is not simply the "physical" world. It is the "natural" world—that is, the spiritualized physical world.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Cold Mountain has impressed reviewers as well as the reading public, Civil War buffs as well as readers antagonistic to Civil War literature, hawks as well as doves. Its overarching simplicity of situation embraces a remarkable complexity of incident and detail that can provide rich material for group discussions. Readers are moved, charmed, and disturbed by Cold Mountain, and are usually eager to talk about its characters, meaning, and effect.

1. Which do you find more interesting, the story of Inman's journey home or the story of Ada's struggle for survival? Why? Is Cold Mountain more a "man's book" or a "woman's book"?

2. Is there any significant sequence to the episodes of Inman's journey? Must Frazier tell these things in this particular order or could the events be reordered without any significant change to the novel?

3. Cold Mountain is a novel about a handsome couple separated by war. The man fights his way back to the faithful woman he admires, but he always takes time to help and protect the innocent. The couple is joyfully reunited, experiences perfect physical love, and produces a child. How does this novel successfully avoid sentimentality? Or does it?

4. Do you detect signs that the author of Cold Mountain is trying to be "politically correct"? How might the novel have been more sensitive to the feelings of blacks or women?

5. Are there any elements of the novel that seem anachronistic, more appropriate for a novel about people in the late twentieth century than for a novel about people in the mid-nineteenth? Would any such elements be a strength or a weakness in the novel? Why?

6. Cold Mountain takes place in an era when most Americans claimed to believe in a paradise beyond the grave. What does Cold Mountain seem to say about the afterlife? Would an overt statement of belief in an afterlife (by Inman, Ada, or the author) change the effect of the ending? Why or why not?

7. Does the "Epilogue" balance the novel's tragic ending or simply contradict it? What negative elements can be found in the "Epilogue"? What positive elements can be found in the final chapter ("Spirit of Crows, Dancing")?

8. Is it true that Inman kills only in self-defense? Does it matter?

9. At the end of the novel, why does not Inman simply kill Birch? Is his hesitation a sign of suicidal wishes? If Inman had been faced with such a youthful adversary early in the novel, would he have hesitated? Why or why not?

10. Cold Mountain, like Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936; see separate entry), is a historical novel written by a Southerner and set in the time of the Civil War. How are these novels different? Are the differences between the social classes of the characters significant? Why or why not?

11. Compare the hesitation scene, the one in which the main character looks closely into the face of the person who is about to kill him, to the parallel scene at the end of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1955). What similarities do you find? What happens in the minds of these main characters just before they are shot?

Social Concerns

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Certainly, a major undercurrent of Cold Mountain is that of nostalgia, a yearning for a time when most men and women lived closer to the earth, paid closer heed to the cycles of the seasons, knew the names and properties of plants, noticed the habits of animals. This aspect of the novel has led at least one reviewer to accuse Frazier of escapism, of a failure to create a living art, an art that grows out of its author's own time and experience. And some of Frazier's own comments have lent support to such criticisms.

One can partly answer the charge of escapist nostalgia by pointing to details in the novel which show clearly that not everything about the past was superior to the present. For instance, the goatwoman's forced marriage to an old man who worked his wives to death like abused farm animals is a situation far more likely to have occurred a hundred years ago than today. Ada's frustrated desire for something we now take for granted, the ability to record musical performance, also points to shortcomings in Ada's times compared with our own.

Still, it is true that Cold Mountain implies a protest against the mass culture of our era. Frazier offers the reader an alternative vision of life, an alternative "lifeway," to use a word the author has used elsewhere. It is important to note that he in fact has chosen to celebrate a way of life that was already becoming marginal in American society in the mid-nineteenth century. The inhabitants of sheltered Black Cove, the Swanger farm, and presumably the Inman place are neither members of the doomed Southern slave owning class nor members of the "metallic future" of the encroaching Northern industrial class. But they are living a pattern and texture of life that has not yet, even in our own time, passed entirely from the earth, living a way of life that has continued to persist for thousands of years. Frazier writes about it partly to show what most of us have lost and partly to show what is still possible. In other words the book implies that a life more in tune with the ageless cycles of plant and animal life (without which none of us could survive, no matter how indirect our present connection with such processes) is still possible. The irony of the traumatized soldier's cheer at the sight of massive clouds of now-extinct passenger pigeons ("at least that much remained unchanged") must not be misunderstood: Frazier is not so much lamenting the loss of the good old days as warning us that all of nature's details are not eternal. In this oblique way Charles Frazier can be said to evoke contemporary environmental and ecological concerns.

Frazier wrote his book in a late-twentieth- century America rife with competing sexual, ethnic, and racial agendas and grievances. Without being programmatically "politically correct," he has produced a book that should offend none but fatuous romanticizers of the antebellum South and of the so-called "Lost Cause." Cold Mountain is a tremendously egalitarian book. Like its main characters Inman and Ada, it approves of simple virtues and spiritual equality. It is, in fact, a remarkably decent book that also manages for the most part to avoid triteness.

Frazier's portrayal of Ada and Ruby suggests a sensitivity to contemporary women's issues while attempting to be true to what the author understands as the norms for the mid-nineteenth century. One would be hard pressed to find a more competent female character in literature than Ruby—and than Ada becomes under Ruby's tutelage. Ada is warm; Ruby is tough. And in the course of the narrative each woman in effect teaches her dominant virtue to the other. Ruby has whipped a number of men in her short life, and Ada shows that she can kill a turkey on her very first try. When Ruby says to Ada, "We don't need [Inman]," she is saying that women can survive, indeed prosper, on their own. When Ada replies, "But I think I want him," she is acknowledging emotional and physical needs that in no way compromise her spiritual independence.

Frazier's portrayal of his male characters is somewhat more traditional. Inman is in most ways the stereotypical rugged male hero. Although we understand him to be a perceptive and competent man, what we see him do best in the novel is kill the villains and protect the innocent. His responses to visual, musical, literary, and pictorial art are generally perceptive and open-minded, if somewhat baffled. But his plans for an unconventional marriage with Ada ("They would do as they pleased"), for a life of books and music and creating watercolors turn out to be, sadly, nothing but lovers' dreams. Inman ends his life in a whirlwind of killing.

The novel finally shows more admiration for the endurance, sensitivity, and nurturing of women than for the killing power of men. But it would not be fair to say that Frazier is simplistic or sentimental (or anachronistic) about the relative virtues and characteristics of men and women. He is careful to populate his book with admirable and deplorable characters of both genders and with creative and sensitive men as well as tough and capable women. Inman's sensitivity to the natural world, Balis's translating of Greek, the "yellow slave's" creation of cartographical art, Stobrod's extraordinary gift for music—these are just a few elements that show that Cold Mountain's world includes at least some men who can do something more constructive than slaughter or exploit their fellow man.

The novel's portrayal of African- Americans, like its portrayal of women, strives to be historically plausible and at the same time acceptable to contemporary sensibilities. Frazier is writing Odyssean adventures about the slave-owning South before the end of the war, and the narrative and the stories told by characters within the narrative more or less accurately reflect those socially unjust and cataclysmic times. There is a beautiful, helpless slave girl who is loved by one white plantation owner but victimized by another; a gigantic, confident, attractive, ruthless black prostitute; kind, loyal slaves who help their vulnerable masters flee the invading Federals; black men numbered among the murderous Home Guard; a compassionate, thoughtful, educated slave who shelters Inman and nurses him back to health. Like most Southerners of the time, the main characters own no slaves, and none of the sympathetic characters are given words or actions that suggest support of the institution of slavery.

There is one failure in Frazier's otherwise successful navigation between the Scylla of novelistic necessity and the Charybdis of contemporary ethnic touchiness. The author's portrayal of Native Americans, specifically the Cherokee, is reverent to the point of sentimentality. Toward the end of the narrative Frazier evokes the spiritual wisdom of the Cherokee with two of the novel's few unconvincing elements: Inman's relationship with bears and his belief in a paradise beyond Cold Mountain's Shining Rocks. Inman's feeling of a mysterious connection with bears, his solicitous attitude toward an attacking mother bear, and his guilt at eating bear meat are simply out of character. And Inman's dietary guilt combined with the belief in the Shining Rocks leads to some totally unconvincing fasting by this pragmatic (and starving) man. Perhaps Frazier is attempting to push his warrior protagonist through the mystical stages of purgation, illumination, and union; at any rate, the material is poorly integrated into the narrative. Fortunately, Frazier quickly drops the Shining Rocks fantasy, and the reader can simply ignore the bear material without loss to Cold Mountain's powerful and artistically appropriate ending.

Literary Precedents

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Cold Mountain is a historical novel, an adventure narrative, a naturalist essay, a love story, and a tragedy.

Since the backdrop of Cold Mountain's action is so obviously historical, one might expect its most significant literary precedents to be those of the historical novel, a genre launched by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 with his book Waverly. Like most historical novels from the lowly costume romance to Tolstoy's unsurpassed War and Peace (1865-1869), Cold Mountain mixes fictional and historical figures, with the latter playing negligible roles. However, Cold Mountain's central aim is not that of the purely historical novel. Although it does aim to present a society under the impact of momentous events by showing the effect of those events on the personal lives of fictional characters, this is not its central aim.

Another literary precedent for Cold Mountain is Homer's Odyssey (circa 800 BC), a book Ada reads to Ruby in the evenings after their work. Inman is an American version of Odysseus who, like the Greek king of Ithaca, wants only to return to his harsh and isolated land. Like Odysseus, Inman suffers exotic adventures involving the temptations of women and the dangers of capture and death. Near their final destinations both Odysseus and Inman find welcome shelter among kind animal herders, Odysseus with the loyal swineherd Eumaeus, Inman with the reclusive goatwoman. When these men finally reach home looking like beggars, neither is immediately recognized by the faithful woman who represents everything for which he has returned. At the end, both heroes slaughter a crowd of homegrown adversaries. (Inman's killing of the four Home Guard is fully as impressive as Odysseus's killing of the one hundred and eight Suitors.)

Cold Mountain clearly borrows The Odyssey's episodic plot of wonders and dangers strung along the thread of a journey. But differences between Inman and Odysseus are far more significant than similarities. Inman hates war, and he is a far more reluctant adventurer than Odysseus. In the novel's final chapter, Inman finds himself faced with a conflict that Odysseus would never feel: to kill another or to risk dying himself. Inman feels this only fleetingly and only, perhaps, subconsciously— but Odysseus would never feel it at all. Inman has none of Odysseus's hearty, aristocratic arrogance. He is no pagan king, no leader of troops, no hero protected by the gods—neither by Odysseus's Athena nor by Robert E. Lee's Almighty.

As does James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Cold Mountain borrows Homer's basic plot partly for relatively unimportant structural purposes and partly for highly significant thematic purposes. Frazier's hero is in fact Odysseus by way of Hesiod. Hesiod was Homer's near contemporary and the author of the didactic poem Works and Days (circa 735 BC). Precisely as did Hesiod's Works and Days, Frazier's Cold Mountain sets itself deliberately against the Homeric world view. Inman, like Hesiod's virtuous and wise man, is uninterested in conquest or plunder. He stands for justice, hard work, and survival, not adventure and glory. Inman, like his co-protagonist Ada, wants only to live decently and fully in the natural world, to turn survival, if possible, into celebration.

Inman's, Ruby's, and Ada's attitudes toward physical labor owe more to the tradition of Hesiod than to that of Homer, which expresses an aristocratic scorn for such lowly activity. And Inman's and Ruby's knowledge and Ada's increasingly precise observations owe even more to the work of such naturalists as Henry David Thoreau and John Bartram, the latter an eighteenth-century author quoted several times in Cold Mountain. Bartram is the author whose work Inman carries in the "scroll" that gives him such comfort. But the Bartram- Thoreau tradition is finally not held up as a source of ultimate truth about the natural world. Such writing, for all its extraordinary precision and accuracy, is finally too Romantic. It cannot encompass the "dreadful but quiet war of organic beings" acknowledged by the Charles Darwin epigraph at the beginning of Cold Mountain and by the harsher aspects of the novel itself. Bartram and Thoreau, like Monroe's beloved Emerson, seem incapable of recognizing the reality of such bestial nightmares as Cold Mountain's episode in Junior's tilting house. However, an author whose work does acknowledge this "war" yet still manages to evade despair and embrace joy is the Southern novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren. Warren's long poem Audubon (1969) is perhaps one of the most important works that have shaped Frazier's view of remote America. Its protagonist is, like Bartram, an American naturalist and epic wanderer. In Frazier's nineteenth chapter (entitled "To Live Like a Gamecock") one can detect echoes of part II of Audubon, in which the title character suffers a dreamlike experience of foulness and treachery in a backwoods inn and is delivered from death by a chance occurrence that seems almost miraculous.

Cold Mountain's love story owes something to the most famous one in American literature, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850; see separate entry). Like Hester Prynne, Ada Monroe grows from a beautiful ornament into a decisive figure of considerable consequence. Adversity brings out her potential for action and judgment. Her emotionally and spiritually ravaged lover suffers the fate that has been inevitable from the novel's beginning, and she must live alone with their child, quietly cherishing his memory. From The Scarlet Letter Frazier seems to have learned not only how to delay the longed-for, temporarily happy ending but also how to conclude plausibly the inevitable frustration of the lovers' plans for a future together.

Thus, Cold Mountain is also a tragedy, and in terms of climactic effect a tragedy similar to King Lear, a narrative whose villains and innocents are similarly polarized almost to the extremes of melodrama. Like Lear and Cordelia, Inman and Ada are joyfully reunited after truly horrendous trials—only to be immediately ripped apart again by death. Many readers have reacted to the ending of Cold Mountain with considerable fear and pity. Some have found the ending nearly intolerable. As in Shakespeare's play, evil is destroyed in Cold Mountain, primarily by the scourge figure Inman. But the price for such destruction is so high as to cause the characters, and some readers, considerable grief, a grief only slightly alleviated by Frazier's "Epilogue."


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Reports indicate that United Artists has purchased the rights to Cold Mountain for $1.2 million and that plans are in the works for Anthony Minghella to direct. Minghella directed the highly acclaimed The English Patient (1996), an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's novel of the same tide (see separate entry).

Media Adaptations

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Anthony Minghella directed and wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed and commercially successful film version of the novel. Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and Nicole Kidman starred in this 2003 production. As of 2006, the film was available on DVD.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide