In 'Varina,' A Confederate Contemplates Her Complicity

Apr 10, 2018
Originally published on April 10, 2018 9:34 am

Charles Frazier used to think he'd said enough about the Civil War. In Cold Mountain, he'd written an acclaimed novel that became an Oscar-winning movie.

"After Cold Mountain, I never thought I wanted to write about the Civil War again," he says in an interview. "But as the past three or four years have shown, it's not done with us — as a country, as a culture."

We still have competing visions of America. And Charles Frazier's new novel Varina offers a fictional version of a real-life Confederate.

Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, and Varina Davis was his wife — the Confederate first lady. It's Varina who caught Frazier's attention. His novel depicts Mrs. Davis long after the war, when she's a widow and moves, as Varina did in real life, to the North. She tries to remake herself as a writer, though the past keeps returning to haunt her.


Interview Highlights

On what drew Frazier to write about Varina

I was very interested in this figure who was peripheral to all of those enormous, destructive, horrible elements of American history who continued evolving in her thinking. She was never perfect, and to my mind, it's only really the greatest heroes who are able to rise totally above the values of their culture, and she certainly wasn't that. But I really liked the idea of a character struggling to move forward, to stay engaged with the world. And she, at some point, said: I'm not going back to Richmond, to the South, until it's feet-first in a box. ...

And the thing that kept pulling me in is her continuing to examine the lead-up to the war, her complicity, that sense of the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, those kinds of things.

On the real-life inspiration behind the fictional James Blake, a mixed-race character who Varina first knew as a boy

There's a photograph of him that would have been made in a photographer's studio in Richmond, and some of her children were photographed at the same time with some of the same props. And this little boy left Richmond right before the fall [of Richmond], and traveled with her until they were captured in South Georgia. ...

There's a little bit of record of him for about a year after that, and then he disappears from history. He would have been about 6 at the time. And I wondered what a reunion of Varina and that little boy, now a middle-aged man, would be like — and what questions he might [have] asked her about his past and her past.

On Varina's views on slavery

She, in later age, said very clearly: The right side won the war. She also would sometimes make retrograde statements, like: Gosh, I wish we could all go back to the time when we took care of each other. And James Blake [the character] very quickly challenges her on that.

On if Varina's fictional description of how the war changed the South for 'generations to come' match the author's own

V thought about how the landscape would never be the same after this war even if the blasted battlegrounds healed with new green growth and burned farms were either rebuilt or allowed to rot into the dirt. The old land had become all overlain with new maps of failures and sins, troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair. Slave quarters, whipping posts, and slave market platforms. Routes of attack and retreat. Monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon, and also lonesome mountain burials with one name knife-cut into a pine board, weathering blank in ten years and rotted into the ground in twenty. The land itself defaced and haunted with countless places where blood — all red whoever it sprang from — would keep seeping up for generations to come.

It is certainly the way I see it sometimes. Dealing with the commemoration of those kinds of things — we certainly need to remember, and we need to remember the causes, and we need to remember that part of the reason the Civil War keeps rearing its head is because we never resolved the issues that rose from the ownership of human beings: the issues of race, dealing with aftermath of slavery, all those things that we're still carrying with us.

Danny Hajek and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Charles Frazier used to think he'd said enough about the Civil War. He wrote an acclaimed Civil War novel that became an Oscar-winning movie.

CHARLES FRAZIER: After "Cold Mountain," I never thought I wanted to write about the Civil War again. But as the past three or four years have shown, it's not done with us as a country, as a culture.

INSKEEP: We still have competing visions of America, and Charles Frazier's new novel, "Varina," offers a fictional version of a real-life Confederate. Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, and Varina Davis was his wife, the Confederate first lady. It's Varina who caught Frazier's attention. His novel depicts Mrs. Davis long after the war when she is a widow and moves, as Varina did in real life, to New York, to the north. She tries to remake herself as a writer, though the past keeps returning to haunt her.

FRAZIER: I was very interested in this figure who was peripheral to all of those enormous, destructive, horrible elements of American history who continued evolving in her thinking. She was never perfect, and to my mind, it's only really the greatest heroes who are able to rise totally above the values of their culture. And she certainly wasn't that. But I really liked the idea of a character struggling to move forward, to stay engaged with the world. And she at some point said, I'm not going back to Richmond, to the South, until it's feet first in a box.

INSKEEP: Well, not perfect - that's all of us, of course. Needing to improve - that's all of us.

FRAZIER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But in this case, you have someone who was the first lady of the Confederacy, an attempt to found a nation that was based on slavery, that was based on racism. Did you have any qualms as a writer about spending so much time with a Confederate icon?

FRAZIER: Yeah. Well, yeah - and the thing that kept pulling me in is her continuing to examine the lead-up to the war, her complicity, that sense of the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, those kinds of things.

INSKEEP: What drives the plot of this novel is that Varina Davis is in upstate New York late in life, changing her life as you say. And she's visited by a figure from her past, a man - a younger man of mixed race who it is said that she looked after, that she cared for, during the Civil War itself. Did anything like that happen in real life?

FRAZIER: It did, yes. There's a photograph of him that would have been made in a photographer studio in Richmond. And some of her children were photographed at the same time with some of the same props. And this little boy left Richmond right before the fall and traveled with her until they were captured in South Georgia.

INSKEEP: I guess we should state for non-Southerners, when you say right before the fall, you mean the fall of Richmond.

FRAZIER: Yeah. And he - there's a little bit of record of him for about a year after that, and then he disappears from history. And he would have been about 6 at the time. And I wondered what a reunion of Varina and that little boy, now a middle-aged man, would be like and what questions he might asked her about his past and her past.

INSKEEP: What were Varina Davis' views about slavery?

FRAZIER: She in later age said very clearly the right side won the war. She also would sometimes make retrograde statements like, gosh, I wish we could all go back to the time when we took care of each other. And James Blake very quickly challenges her on that.

INSKEEP: James Blake, who's this younger man that she...

FRAZIER: Yes, is that child grown up.

INSKEEP: On page 210, you have this paragraph in which your main character, Varina, is thinking about the land and how it's changed or how its meaning has changed by what's happened on it. When you read some of that?

FRAZIER: Sure. (Reading) The old land had become all overlain with new maps of failures and sins, troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair, slave quarters, whipping posts and slave platforms, routes of attack and retreat, monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon and also lonesome mountain burials with one name knife-cut into a pine board, weathered blank in 10 years and rotted into the ground in 20, the land itself defaced and haunted with countless places where blood - all red whoever it sprang from - would keep seeping up for generations to come.

INSKEEP: So I hear you speak that, and I think about a drive that I just took through a good part of the South, including your home state. And all the way up Interstate 95, you got those brown signs for historic battlefields. And three or four occasions, you've got huge flagpoles with huge Confederate flags. Is Varina Davis' description of the South the way you see the South today?

FRAZIER: It is certainly the way I see it sometimes. Dealing with the commemoration of those kinds of things - we certainly need to remember, and we need to remember the causes. And we need to remember that part of the reason the Civil War keeps rearing its head is because we never resolved the issues that arose from the ownership of human beings, the issues of race, dealing with the aftermath of slavery, all those things that we're still carrying with us.

INSKEEP: Very late in the book, not to give away the ending, but there's a line in which your main character, the younger man who remembers Varina Davis, says he remembers saying to Varina, someday you'll be forgiven for all this, yes? What's her answer?

FRAZIER: No.

INSKEEP: What's that mean?

FRAZIER: That the fundamental sin of slavery is something that she benefited from for the first half of her life and that she thinks that that may be an unforgivable sin.

INSKEEP: Is that true of just the person or is it true of the country?

FRAZIER: Well, I think there's an argument to be made for both, that it pertains to both.

INSKEEP: The novel is called "Varina." The author is Charles Frazier. Thanks very much.

FRAZIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.