Friday, November 17, 2023

"The General and Julia"

Jon Clinch is the author of the acclaimed novels Finn, Kings of the Earth, The Thief of Auschwitz, Belzoni Dreams of Egypt, Marley, and The General and Julia. A native of upstate New York, Clinch lives with his wife in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The General and Julia and reported the following:
A curious browser opening to page 69 of The General and Julia would be plunged straight into dialog, which is kind of a tough place to get your footing. That said, it turns out that the conversation happening on this page is central to a number of issues that are important to the book, and it will take only a little bit of orientation to clear that up.

First, the voices we hear belong to Ulysses and Julia Grant. The year is 1862, a point midway through the Civil War, and the two of them are visiting the Missouri home of Julia’s father, Frederick Dent. Dent is an unrepentant and Confederate sympathizer, and he has just now been bitterly lamenting the deaths of two of his slaves. His concerns are purely financial, of course. In the dialog that follows, Grant speaks first.
“What bothers him more is that two of his prized possessions were bold enough to die.”

“Now, now. He mourns them as anyone would.”

Grant frowns. “Perhaps. Perhaps he only mourns the loss of his property.”

“I suppose so,” says Julia. “Sentiment has never made a dent in him.”

Her husband seizes on a chance to lighten the mood. “A dent, you say? Why, the man is nothing but Dent.”

“Oh, Ulys.”

“He is Dent from head to toe.”

Julia laughs. “All right. It’s never made on impression, then.”

“Fair enough.” They walk on and he opens a gate and admits her first. They proceed hand in hand into a field of tall grass with an apple orchard beyond it. As they go he decides that as far as the colonel is concerned, the two slaves may as well have run off. Dent must take it for the most terrible sin a negro can possibly commit: an act of free will. He makes no mention of it.

Julia returns to the original question. “What if you’re wrong about his finances,” she says, “and White Haven is truly in peril?”

“He could sell off land. He’d have less property to manage and more funds for handling it.”

“Of course! Then he could acquire a new man. Replace Monroe.”

“He could do that. If he insists on falling back on the old ways.”

“They’re the only ways he knows. Besides, you sound like an abolitionist.”

Grant pulls up short at the edge of the orchard. “I don’t care much for abolition one way or the other. You know that. My concern is putting down the rebellion.”
In my novel, Grant and his wife don’t spend a lot of time talking about the war or its causes. Their relationship is backgrounded by such matters, though. Not only does Julia’s father own slaves, he has put one of them into the daily service of Julia and Ulysses—creating a self-contradictory condition that will haunt the couple forever. Dent loves his daughter but hates her husband, which further complicates matters. And throughout, as he prosecutes the Civil War, Grant will wrestle with the roots and implications of his relation to slavery and its victims. A primary narrative arc of The General and Julia traces the clarification and maturing of that crucial relation, which makes page 69 as good an introduction to the book as any I can imagine.
Visit Jon Clinch's website.

The Page 69 Test: Finn.

--Marshal Zeringue