In the development of modern realistic American fiction, few nineteenth century novels are more significant than MISS RAVENEL’S CONVERSION FROM SECESSION TO LOYALTY. In this brilliant Civil War novel, William De Forest explores issues and problems—war, political corruption, marriage, sex—with a realism and candor that would hardly be seen again in American literature before the turn of the century.
Most immediately impressive is De Forest’s presentation of the war. Writing in simple, direct, but restrained language, selecting his scenes and details carefully, he conveys the futility, horror, violence, and weariness of battle with a vividness rarely equalled in American literature at least until after World War II. Avoiding descriptions of mass combat, De Forest concentrates on those lulls in battle when the terrible effects of combat can be seen in the actions of a few sharply described individuals, such as soldiers pretending normalcy in the midst of sudden death, or medics performing assembly-line amputations.
The novel is perhaps even more impressive as a study of individuals caught up in the sweep of historical events. As the title suggests, the book centers on the “conversion” or education of Miss Lillie Ravenel. Her father, Dr. Ravenel, a Southern gentleman and self-converted “loyalist,” supplies the moral idealism requisite to her growth. Yet it is her involvement with two lovers, Colonel John Carter and Edward...
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