Reports on The Hornet’s Nest, a new novel about the American Revolution, usually begin by marveling over the author’s resume: philanthropist, poet, memoirist, Nobel-prize winner, and, of course, former president of the United States. The phrase “Renaissance Man” has even been dropped here and there. How does Jimmy Carter do it? Dedication, above all: He rises early every morning to write. Exhaustive research: He pored over diaries and letters of the period, as well as digging among his own family roots. The result, which debuted on Veteran’s Day, is “sweeping,” “ambitious,” “intricate,” and more. What it isn’t is a novel.
At first glance it looks like a novel. It contains dialogue and fictional characters and begins with something that resembles a plot. But within the first 50 pages, that purported plot is trampled to mush by the headlong rush of historical events. Lots and lots
of historical events. The scope is roughly 20 years, beginning in 1763, and Carter seems determined to pack in every significant action and figure related to the southern conflict during that period, with occasional forays north to check out the big events up there. This he does at the expense of character development, dramatic tension, personality, sensual detail, and all sense of place.
Reviewers must be aware of this, but so great is their awe of the author that they stretch any perceived virtue to cut him some slack. Says Booklist: “What Carter lacks in narrative style and characterization he makes up for in the breadth of historical fact and detail interwoven into this obvious labor of love.” “Carter’s style leans toward the academic,” Publishers Weekly admits, “…but readers who can put up with the occasional lecture will learn fascinating truths about this exceedingly brutal war.”
Indeed, any reader who dutifully slogs through all 450+ pages will receive a pretty good overview of the southern campaigns and the confused ebb and flow of Tory/patriot loyalties. The main character, Ethan Pratt, is neutral when the fighting begins; like many homesteaders southern and northern, he just wants to live his life in peace. Personal tragedy and violent treatment at the hands of Tories pushes him into the patriot camp, though he doesn’t seem to have strong feelings either way. Even at the Battle of King’s Mountain, which kind of feels like a climax, he can’t quite make up his mind which is worse, Whigs or Tories. “He was not especially motivated by a burning desire for ‘independence’ or ‘liberty,’ since he had always considered himself to be free and independent.” So why is he charging up King’s Mountain, rifle in hand? “Probably” a “desire to demonstrate personal courage in the face of danger.” After all, “He had committed his life to what was an unpredictable fate, so that his death was in some ways a sacrifice already made.” Well, whatever.
Ethan is no more decisive in his personal affairs. He falls in love with his best friend’s wife, but still feels a strong sense of loyalty to his own wife, and in the end he settles on one of them but the reader doesn’t know which. (Carter himself admitted in an interview that he couldn’t figure out who won Ethan’s heart in the end–a disingenuous comment that actually explains a lot about his gifts as a novelist.)
It’s true that our War for Independence was confusing, bloody, tortuous, and messy–and in the long run, astoundingly successful. The Hornet’s Nest certainly conveys messiness. After turning the last page (if he gets that far), a reader might be excused for wondering if the Revolution was worth all the trouble. But that is the Carter style: exalted ambivalence. The world is too complicated, and its motives too mixed, to come to firm conclusions about right and wrong–especially the old firm conclusions. “Exalted ambivalence” characterized economic, domestic, and foreign policy during the Carter presidency.
Which makes me profoundly grateful that during times of genuine crisis we have been blessed with Washingtons and Lincolns, Reagans and G. W. Bushes. If you have moral clarity, you need no lectures on moral equivalence. If your goals and principles are firm, even complex motives and fallible men can carry them out. Leadership means cutting through the murkiness with one clear goal. Carter can’t even do that with one clear literary theme.
–J. B. Cheaney’s two novels, The Playmaker and The True Prince, are published by Alfred A. Knopf.