You might not find Stark Young’s So Red The Rose in current recommendations of novels set during the civil war era, but Young’s novel, published in 1934, was a record-breaking best seller, so popular with the reading public that it was made into a Hollywood film. It differs from most novels in that it doesn’t have a protagonist, nor is it narrated by a main character. – There are various characters of equal importance, and the story line moves from character to character, running for over 400 pages, and blending real occurrences with fictional events. Not many authors could work with such an awkward format, but Stark Young was able to mold it into an interesting and powerful novel.
Stark Young’s myriad talents characterize him as a Renaissance Man. In addition to his novels, he wrote plays and essays, and often won awards for his artistic efforts. He was a drama critic for The New York Times and the New Republic; taught at various colleges, translated Anton Chekhov’s plays into English, and even took up painting, creating art that was good enough to be exhibited. Stark Young was a strong supporter of his region, the South, and was one of the twelve contributors to the 1930 essays collected under the title I’ll Take My Stand. – A quote from his essay presages So Red The Rose: “…out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worth while, that are the flowers of it. To abandon these, when another epoch arises, is only stupid, so long as there is still in them the breath and flux of life.”
Young sets his novel in Natchez during the 1860s. This unusual little town is located on a bend of the Mississippi River in the southwest corner of Young’s native state of Mississippi. The odd topography of Natchez essentially created two different worlds. A narrow strip of land bordering the river was a place for taverns, brothels, and dissipation, – a typical rowdy river port site. But behind this narrow strip of land, is a steep bluff setting apart and shielding an area consisting of plantations and lavish manor houses.
Even before Mississippi became a state, Northerners began migrating into the Natchez area, lured by the potential economic opportunities offered by plantation style cotton crops. A typical example was William Burr Howell, who relocated from New Jersey in the early 1800s. Like other Northern immigrants, he took a local Natchez girl as his bride. Howell’s daughter, Varina, would marry Jefferson Davis, and become the First Lady of the Confederacy. Persons from outside the South, like Howell, joined with the local Southerners to create the unique Natchez aristocracy that Young portrays in So Red The Rose. What follows is a brief review of prominent characters, settings, and selected scenes.
The book focuses primarily on two interrelated Natchez families, the Bedfords and the McGehees: their lifestyles, their opinions, and what they experienced before, during, and after the war. The Portobello plantation is home to the Bedford family, with Malcolm and his wife Sallie, their family and Valette Somerville, whom the Bedfords adopted. Their home is also inhabited by house slaves, primarily Aunt Tildy and Uncle Thornton. Malcolm’s sister, Agnes, is married to Hugh McGehee, the master of the nearby Montrose plantation. The McGehees have two children in their teens, Edward and Lucy. Montrose also houses the family’s mulatto butler, William Veal and other domestic servants. As was the custom of the planter aristocracy, these families allowed relatives and acquaintances to occupy rooms in the wings of their immense homes for extended periods of time, sometimes months, sometimes indefinitely.
In his novel, Stark Young illustrates the differences of opinion held by Natchez families. Some families support the Union, while others favor secession. Some think the South will prevail if war occurs while others are doubtful, and some who initially oppose military action eventually endorse it. Some felt that Jefferson Davis was not the best choice to be President of the Confederacy while others staunchly supported him. (However, when Davis called for volunteers to create an army, there was an overwhelming response.) When the war began, families had to overcome their hesitancy to allow husbands and grown sons to volunteer as they feared for the lives of their menfolk. This fear was well-founded as many lost their lives, some by wounds others by disease.
Edward McGehee volunteered while still in his teens, and his family, especially his mother, Agnes, waited eagerly for the occasional letters he sent home. In a letter from Corinth, where he was stationed with General Sidney Johnston, Edward mentioned that a significant battle was anticipated in a few days – This would be the encounter named after a small Methodist meeting house in Tennessee, – Shiloh, a Hebrew word with the ironic meaning: “place of peace.”
Over the next few days, there were no more letters and Agnes intuitively sensed that her son was dead. She determined to find his body and bring it home, and, try as they might, her family was unable dissuade her from her mission. Together, Agnes McGehee and her loyal butler William Veal drove to Jackson, where they left the wagon and took a train, eventually arriving at the Shiloh site. They were forbidden to enter the battle areas or view bodies, but during the night William Veal furtively slipped past the Union sentries and began the exhaustive search for young Edward’s body. Remarkably, William Veal found the body, and with stealth and luck, it was returned to Montrose and interred in the family burial plot located on the McGehee grounds.
Over the years, Agnes would sit meditatively on a bench beside her son’s grave, at length overgrown with greenery and flowering plants. The scenes of Agnes McGehee holding her vigil beside the flowering grave site of her dead soldier son, bring to mind the epigraph Stark Young chose for his novel, a quote from Edward FitzGerald’s Rubyiayat of Omar Khayyam:
“I sometimes think that never blows so red
The rose as where some buried Caesar bled;”
(FitzGerald employs the Old English meaning of “blows” which translates as “blooms.”)
Although no longer a young man, Malcolm Bedford also volunteered for the Confederate army but became ill during his service. Recuperating at Portobello, Malcolm’s illness worsened until he was finally diagnosed with typhoid and, even though his physician pretended that he would recover, the Bedford family knew their patriarch was dying. Sustained by laudanum and toddies, made extra stiff, Malcolm followed the military skirmishes through newspaper reports as best he could until he went into his final death throes. The conditions of his will were routine. Like many plantation masters, he freed numerous slaves with whom he had been close, and provided compensation for their devoted services.
In early 1863, slaves began hearing rumors that they were freed, presumably as a result of circulating interpretations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Some slaves, mostly field hands, but few house slaves, began abandoning Portobello thinking that they would be taken care of. As Union forces had no plan to deal with runaway slaves, they simply placed them in stockades, located along the riverbank, guarded by Union gunboats. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of these stockades began to take its toll on the occupants in the form of malnutrition and disease. Eventually, a group of runaway slaves begrudgingly returned to Portobello. Sallie Bedford accepted them with only mild words of rebuke, but Valette Somerville gave then a stern tongue-lashing, ordering them back to work.
Although So Red The Rose doesn’t have a protagonist in the usual meaning of that word, General William T. Sherman seems to be intended as the novel’s antagonist. Stark Young’s portrayal of General Sherman adheres closely to the real man; a man who justified whatever it took to advance the cause he was fighting for. Sherman was not a man given to philosophical ruminations of right or wrong, he accepted his actions as necessary and expedient, not subject to question. When Natchez families complained about the plundering of private homes by Union troops, Sherman contemptuously stated: “If the Southern people don’t like what they are getting, all they have to do is declare their loyalty and come back into the Union.” This was fairly typical of General Sherman but when it was necessary, he would set aside his rigid military demeanor and behave amiably in social settings.
An interesting aspect of Stark Young’s book are the social interactions between Union officers and the Natchez aristocracy. Although on opposite sides of the military conflict, they were able to temporarily suppress their loyalties and engage with each other cordially. In one scene, Union General Sherman visits the McGehee family at Montrose to offer his condolences over the death of their son. Apparently Edward had been one of the cadets instructed by Sherman at the military academy in nearby Alexandria, Louisiana. As Sherman had lost his own son, Willie, he sympathized with the McGehee’s grief as best he could. Nevertheless, as he departed, he felt it necessary to inform Hugh McGehee that Southern states must be ruled by a military government for several years until they had been cleansed of all hopes of sovereignty.
Daughter Lucy berates her parents for welcoming Sherman so warmly and civilly after troops under his command pillaged residential areas in the Natchez area. Not long after the General’s visit, a regiment of black Union troops led by a white officer forcibly entered Montrose, and proceeded to smash the furnishings. When Agnes demanded that they leave, one of the troops struck her across the face with his hand, and another viciously swatted her head with the flat side of his sabre. Despite the pleadings of the McGehees, their home was torched. After hurriedly gathering some possessions, the distraught family watched as Montrose was devoured by flames. When the Union troops left and the fire died down, the McGehees salvaged what they could from the charred remains and settled into a small cottage nearby.
Portobello was also invaded by predatory Union troops who searched the premises, taking whatever they thought had value. While plundering another manor house, troops used their weapons to threaten an elderly bedridden lady to reveal where valuables were kept. – The greedy scavengers callously dug up the grave of a recently buried matron, and opened her coffin to search for expensive jewelry.
Eventually local Confederate forces began vigilante reprisals against raiders and looters. Late one night, four marauding Union soldiers were captured on the Portobello grounds, one escaped with a gunshot wound, but three were hanged. After surreptitiously witnessing this grisly event, Sallie and Valette began to quietly steal back into their home, when they came across the escaped Union soldier. His extreme youth and excessive bleeding aroused the compassion of the two women. They carefully assisted him into the house, hid him in a remote upstairs bedroom, dressed his wounds, and nursed him. When the young soldier was sufficiently recovered, they covertly arranged for him to be reunited with Union forces.
So Red The Rose is largely based on actual events and real persons in Stark Young’s own family. Other parts of the novel result from his extensive research into histories, diaries, and letters, as well as his familiarity with oral legends. Although fiction, the incidents and characters portrayed in the book are more realistic than many found in any other so-called “civil war novels.” This unusual book presents one of the better depictions of the antebellum South and its unique planter aristocracy, and the book is still in print.
The 1935 film of So Red The Rose did not get the enthusiastic public reception expected, which is understandable, as Hollywood scaled down this protracted novel to fit a screen time of less than 90 minutes. Although the plot line of the film generally follows the book, screenwriters combined the Bedford and McGehee families into one family, altered some of the relationships, inserted new characters, and added a couple of additional scenes. Still, the film is worth watching. It can be found on YouTube and its cast includes some of the stellar actors of the time. The characters and events are portrayed realistically, and, at the time the film was made, antebellum Southerners did not have to be depicted with today’s exaggerated regional stereotypes of the South.