“There is a great story-telling tradition in the South. My grandfather, father, and uncles were all raconteurs, and I grew up listening to their stories, as well as those of other men. There’s a touch of oral tradition in my writing.” – Robert Jordan
The Abbeville Institute has done a remarkable job of restoring Southern gentlemen-authors to their rightful place in American literature, alongside and above the scribbling gurus of New England. Along with Simms, Longstreet, and Timrod, however, there is another Southern author who deserves recognition. Like Faulkner and Poe, his Southern identity is ignored, despite his pride in it and its influence on his work – Robert Jordan.
Jordan (whose real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr.) was born and raised in Charleston, where he lived all of his life. “I have found few places in the world where I felt I could live as happily as I do in Charleston,” said Jordan. In addition to writing, Jordan enjoyed hunting, fishing, sailing, billiards, chess, and pipe collecting, and history. He graduated from the Citadel with a degree in physics and was highly decorated for his two tours in Vietnam. After Vietnam, he built nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy, but left that career for writing after suffering a severe injury that left him with a cane for the rest of his life. Jordan was a devout “High Church” Episcopalian and a Freemason. He was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. His earliest literary inspirations were Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Jack London, and his later influences Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Louis L’Amour.
First and foremost in Jordan’s career as a Southern author is his Fallon Saga, a historical-fiction trilogy of what Jordan called the “Southern arc” of American history:
“I had intended to do a Southern arc of history. The general arc of history that is studied in the United States and recognized is the move out of New England – Pennsylvania and New York – into the Ohio valley, and from there west to California, but there was a Southern arc, which was the move out of Virginia and the Carolinas into Louisiana and Mississippi, and from there into Texas, and from there through New Mexico and Arizona into California. And I wanted to follow that in a series of novels that I originally intended to go from the American Revolution through the Vietnam War…”
The Fallon Saga begins with the patriarch, Michael Fallon, an Irishman who founds his family in South Carolina, and continues on with his descendants. “He had a dream in which a man is holding Michael Fallon’s sword, standing next to the grave of the Fallon who has died in the Vietnam conflict, and I thought, oh, boy,” explained Jordan’s wife and editor, Harriet McDougal. “With those books he wanted to write the Southern sweep of American history, in the way that John Jakes wrote the Northern sweep.”
Concerning his Charleston home, which was the backdrop for The Fallon Saga, the self-proclaimed “history buff” Jordan was always overflowing with information:
“At the time of the American Revolution, Charleston was the richest city in North America. The city of Charleston, when the port of Boston was closed by the British – one of the major turning points of the American Revolution – the city of Charleston sent more food and more money to the city of Boston than all of New England and New York combined. The fall of Charleston in 1780 to the British was the worst defeat that would be suffered by an American army until the fall of Corregidor in 1942. Approximately one quarter of the battles of the American Revolution were fought inside the state of South Carolina. One quarter. And we did not have the typical, ‘a quarter of the people are for the revolution, a quarter of the people are against the revolution, the others just wish it would go away.’
“Now, we invented partisan warfare, we invented guerrilla warfare, we had war to the knife. We chose a side, or you were considered by both sides to belong to the other side. And the war went on so long that at the end of it…people think Yorktown and the surrender was the end of it. It wasn’t; the war in the Carolinas went on for another year, and some men were so tired that General William Moultrie – who had held Charleston as a Colonel against the first British assault, and thus insured the passage of the Declaration of Independence – with fighting still going on told the state legislature, ‘I’m tired. I’m going home. I’ve fought long enough.’ When mad Anthony Wayne appeared to bring relief to Charleston, William Moultrie asking him a biting question. He said, ‘What took you so long?’
“So, there’s that, and there’s also the fact, on the dark side, that almost all of the slaves who were brought in trade to North America and United States through Africa came through the port of Charleston. Sullivan’s Island, outside of Charleston, could be called ‘The Black Ellis Island.’ It certainly needs to be remembered.
“It also should be remembered that Charleston, during the Civil War, withstood a siege that ranks with the siege of Stalingrad, or Leningrad in WWII – that is, nearly three years of being under constant bombardment. When the war was over…I’ve seen photographs of Charleston at the end of the Civil War, and it struck me because they reminded me very much of the photographs of Berlin at the end of WWII.”
The first book, The Fallon Blood, covers the American Revolution in South Carolina, centering around Jordan’s Charleston home. You meet heroes such as the Rutledge brothers, Christopher Gadsden, Francis Marion, William Moultrie, and villains such as Charles Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton, and experience events such as the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the Siege of Charleston, and vicious warfare between Tories and Patriots. The second book, The Fallon Pride, expands its horizons, introducing figures such as Andrew Jackson, Jean Lafitte, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and covering events such as clashes with the Barbary pirates, the deadly rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and the War of 1812. The third and final book, The Fallon Saga, introduces John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Denmark Vesey, and Samuel Houston, and covers events such as the Fredonian Rebellion, Vesey’s slave revolt, and the so-called Nullification Crisis.
The Fallon Blood captures the optimism and unity of the American Revolution, though it ends with Southern suspicion of betrayal at the hands of the North. The Fallon Pride depicts the growing pains of a young and innocent republic’s rude awakening into the world of statecraft. By The Fallon Legacy, Southerners’ anxiety over the slave problem and anger against Northern economic exploitation are pulling America apart.
Throughout Jordan’s trilogy, the Southern people are fully and fairly represented, though never mythologized. They are not saints or sinners, but human beings doing the best that they can in the world in which they live. One of the advantages of historical fiction is its ability to capture this human element, an element often sorely lacking in history. Jordan accomplishes this with impressive skill, weaving an exciting narrative history and detailed social history into each book. You not only learn what happened in Colonial and Antebellum Charleston, but also what it was like to live there. Sadly, Jordan never reached the climactic moment of Southern history – her War of Independence.
Jordan’s magnum opus, however, is The Wheel of Time, an epic fantasy saga of a divided world struggling to unite against a common foe. The Wheel of Time, which Jordan claimed was inspired by War and Peace, has been compared to Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Lord of the Rings. Jordan himself was dubbed the American heir to Tolkien. Jordan explained that he left historical fiction for fantasy due to its greater freedom of expression, both morally and creatively.
Sadly, Jordan never lived to complete his masterpiece, dying suddenly from a rare blood disease in 2007. He was buried at the 300 year-old St. James Church, a national historic landmark. His wife and editor – described by a friend as “a kindly, nice grandmother and…a stately Southern belle” – appointed an author to finish the series.
At first glance, there may not seem to be anything “Southern” about a fantasy saga like The Wheel of Time, but that would be a mistake. Southern influences run wide and deep throughout the story. “I would have to say I’m an American author, and more specifically that I’m a Southern author,” claimed Jordan. “My voice is both very American and very Southern.” The protagonists hail from the “Two Rivers,” a rural, remote region reminiscent of much of the South. In fact, Jordan and his wife referred to their Charleston home as the Two Rivers. Like Southerners, Two-Rivers folk, though perhaps close-minded and suspicious of outsiders, have hearts of gold. “The Two Rivers people are based on a lot of country people I have known, and among whom I did a lot of my growing up,” said Jordan. The Two Rivers even has a banner which is a symbol of pride in an ancient, long-lost heritage, but is seen as a symbol of treason and rebellion beyond its borders – sound familiar? The dialogue is brimming with Southern-style homespun wisdom, some of which sounds so natural that it will inevitably crop up in your own speech. A sense of duty, honour, and country weighs heavily on the characters, as it has on chivalric Southerners from George Washington to Robert E. Lee to George S. Patton. In accordance with the suspicion of power in Southern political tradition, the magic of the world is a power that corrupts even the most well-intentioned users. As rulers maneuver to advance their own interests, however, the corrupting influence of plain old political power is also portrayed. “Politicians convince themselves that what is in their self-interest is good for the people,” said Jordan. “If you want a self-sacrificing hero who’s going to say, ‘This is truly in the best interest of the world and I will put aside my own beliefs, wishes, and desires,’ then you have to find somebody without a belly button.”
Today, “the Myth of the Lost Cause” is fashionable in the historical establishment. According to this school of thought, anything positive which Southerners said about themselves after the so-called “Civil War” – such as the rightfulness of secession or the bravery of Confederate soldiers – was a lie created to cope with the shame of defeat. Aside from being wrong, these Lost-Causers have missed the meaning of myth. A myth is neither fact nor fiction, but an artistic way of remembering something fundamentally true in the human experience. Myths may not be strictly accurate, but they are not mere superstitions or lies to be dispelled, either. Rather, myths encapsulate meaningful memories worthy of preservation. Jordan appreciated the power and importance of myth and wove it deeply into his storytelling:
“I come from Charleston, South Carolina, which is a city that has undergone tremendous changes. The time of the American Revolution, it was the wealthiest city in North America. It was also the site of the Secession Convention that started the Civil War, and as a result of that, it was written out of the histories. You learn, growing up under those circumstances, that nothing stays the same. Even when you look around you and see all of these old houses, and what tourists think of as a stable old culture, it’s changed a hundred times in the last two hundred years. You realize that things that people think of as permanent, such as history, are mutable. They are changed by the observer. And what is remembered of history often becomes more important than what actually happened.”
Civilizations are remembered by their literature. The past can be understood through history, but it can be lived through literature. Although Jordan is best-known for creating a world of his own, that world grew from Southern roots.