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First published: 1893

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: 1860's

Locale: Four Corners, New York

Principal Characters:

Abner Beech, a farmer

Hurley, his hired man

Jeff, his son

Esther Hagadorn, Jeff's sweetheart

Jee Hagadorn, a cooper and Esther's father

Ni Hagadorn, his son

Jimmy, an orphan

The Story

Abner Beech was a stalwart, shaggy man, who had often been supervisor of his district. Jimmy, who was an orphan, went to live with him when he was six or seven years old. Abner was a town leader, a great reader, and he owned more books than most people did in Dearborn County, located in Northern New York State.

For some reason, Abner Beech violently hated the Abolitionists. The first Abolitionist in Dearborn County, as far as Jimmy knew, was old Jee Hagadorn, but now nearly everyone except Abner Beech shared the old man's sentiments. Because the anti-Abolitionists were attacked from the pulpit every Sunday at church meeting, Abner and Jimmy finally stopped going to church. Then someone spread the rumor that Abner's milk had not been accepted at the communal cheese factory because he had put water into it. At that time, Abner's household became real outcasts in Four Corners.

One day in August, Abner came home early from the field. He was furious because he learned that Jeff, his only son, had been seen walking with Esther Hagadorn, the daughter of his enemy. Abner sent Jimmy to call Jeff home. When Jimmy found Jeff and Esther, the young man gave the boy his fishing pole and told him to tell Abner that he was going to Tecumseh to enlist in the Union Army. When Jimmy relayed Jeff's message to their parents, they took the news calmly. They had already guessed his intention, for on that same day, an entire group of boys from the area had gone off to enlist.

Abner's hired man also enlisted, and Abner hired an Irish widower, Hurley, who had been doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. Hurley was also an anti-Abolitionist, the only one in the area besides Abner. It was understood in Abner's household that Jeff's name should never be mentioned, and Abner refused to show regret over the departure of his only son.

In late September, Hurley and Jimmy went to Octavius to buy some butter firkins; Abner refused to buy firkins from Jee Hagadorn, who lived close by. In Octavius, Hurley and Jimmy learned of the terrible battle at Antietam, in which a number of the boys from Dearborn County had taken part. Hurley got into a fight when some of the citizens taunted him for being a Copperhead, a Northerner who sympathized with the Southern cause in the Civil War.

On the way home from Octavius, Jimmy went to see Jee Hagadorn. Jimmy found Esther there, worrying about Jeff. Jee came home elated because Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

A fortnight later, the Beech household learned that Jeff Beech and Byron Truax had been reported missing after a battle in the South.

The work on the farm continued. Warner Pitts, Abner's former hired man, came home on furlough as an officer. A hero to the townspeople, one day he called Abner a Copperhead. Ni Hagadorn, Jee's son, did not like Warner Pitts, and so he went to Abner's house to tell him that he was going south to try to find Jeff. Abner refused, however, to give Ni any money to help him on his journey.

The local citizens were beginning to feel that the North was not carrying on the war as vigorously as they expected. On election day, November 4, Jimmy accompanied Abner and Hurley to the polls. Abner voted proudly, but the inspector said that Hurley's naturalization papers were not in order and that he could not vote. When a fight started, another inspector then said that Hurley could vote. A few days later, it was learned that the Abolitionists had lost in that congressional district. Abner was overjoyed, believing that this defeat would lead to peace and an end of what he considered murder. To celebrate, Janey, one of the hired girls, made a big bonfire.

The next day, Jimmy was in bed with a cold. To the amazement of everyone, Esther Hagadorn came in and asked to speak to Abner. When Abner came home, he was civil to Esther and asked her to stay to supper. Esther said that there was a rumor to the effect that Copperheads were spreading clothes that had smallpox in them and that the local citizens were fearful and angry. She said that Abner's bonfire to celebrate the voting results had made them even angrier and that they were planning to come for Abner that night. Esther then accepted Abner's invitation to remain and have supper with them.

The townspeople arrived to tar and feather Abner and Hurley and to ride them on a rail. Abner, however, stood firm, a loaded shotgun on his arm. Suddenly, Jimmy realized that the house was afire. He fainted.

Jimmy regained consciousness later that night. It was snowing, and the house had been completely burned. With some of the furniture that they were able to rescue, Abner and his wife, M'rye, had improvised a home in the cold barn. Esther, still with them, had regained the friendship of M'rye, since they were both able to talk about Jeff again.

Jimmy, unable to sleep that night, overheard Esther talking to Abner. Abner said that he believed that the townspeople had started a fire for the tarring and feathering and that, because of the strong wind, his house had caught fire accidentally. Esther said that Abner was really liked and respected by the townspeople but that they could not be expected to behave reasonably because so many husbands and sons were now involved in the war.

At that point, Jee Hagadorn arrived in search of his daughter. Abner pulled off Jee's wet boots and gave him some warm socks. They had breakfast in near silence. Suddenly, Ni Hagadorn appeared. He told M'rye that Jeff had been only slightly hurt and was due home any day. M'rye suddenly ran out of the barn, where she found Jeff returned from the war after having lost his left arm.

While everyone was welcoming Jeff and offering condolences, an unexpected visitor arrived. He was Squire Avery, who wanted, on behalf of the townspeople, to apologize for the events of the previous night. Hoping to let bygones be bygones, he asked Abner to send milk to the cheese factory again. He also wanted to have a house-raising bee for Abner's new house and to lend him money if he needed it. Abner, filled with the spirit of forgiveness, said that all of these kindnesses were nearly worth the house burning. He and M'rye expressed the hope that Jeff and Esther would marry.

Critical Evaluation:

A Copperhead was a Northerner who sympathized with the South during the Civil War. The integrity of Abner Beech, the Copperhead of the title, and the pressures upon him, are the subjects of the novel. Beyond the main theme and plot, however, is the impact of the events on the young narrator, Jimmy, and how they change him. Jimmy matures during the course of the novel, as he learns that human motivation is not as simple or obvious as it might appear. The importance of public opinion and its power stand over the book like a shadow. In those days of intense and bitter political convictions and violent tempers, the gossip at the general store and post office could lead to disastrous consequences. Jimmy sees all of this and, young though he is, understands the significance of it. In a simple, unpretentious narrative, he conveys this to the reader.

Technically, the novel is an impressive achievement, a first person narration told by a character who does not participate in the main action, and yet a book with great sweep and dramatic power. The novel is perfectly designed and flows effortlessly from beginning to end, building to a dramatic climax and then settling into a brief denouement. The tone is controlled, with no sense of hysteria or undue passion, although the book deals with irrational and hotheaded individuals. Harold Frederic has maintained such an even tone that perhaps the narrative might even seem too dispassionate. Certainly, he leaves the conclusions of the story to the reader.

In its modest way, this novel is as perfect as ETHAN FROME and THE GREAT GATSBY. In less than two hundred pages, it encompasses a world and finally transcends it. Frederic is writing about honor and morality in this story of the civilian side of the Civil War and about the beauty of ordinary things in a violent world. Although Harold Frederic deplores the irrationality of society in time of stress, the true significance of the theme lies in the thought that it is impossible properly to judge, much less condemn, a man for his political views unless one comes to understand the personal motivations of the man himself. The local descriptions are vivid, and a sense of realism is carried by the heavily flavored dialects and regional locutions of the farmers who live in the community of Four Corners.