Characterizing Stonewall Jackson

on June 26, 2014 in American Civil War, Books, People and Biographies

When I set out to characterize my “senior co-protagonist,” Thomas J. Jackson, I had three things in mind. First, as a novelist coming from a historical fiction and not a science fiction angle, I wanted to stick closely to the facts. That led into my second goal, which was to avoid producing a stereotyped portrayal of the man.

Finally, I did not want to create a Stonewall Jackson character that whitewashed the real person. I love the work of Colleen McCullough with Julius Caesar, Mary Renault with Alexander the Great, and Sharon Kay Penman with Richard III, but all treated their principle subjects with fawning admiration. I wanted my Jackson to have his warts, although I refused to exaggerate them into caricature.

When Life Hands You Lemons…
Jackson being such a famously eccentric figure, my interpretation almost necessarily produces some disagreement. I was in an e-mail correspondence with another author about Jackson’s lemon-sucking, and she insisted that the whole thing was a myth. Serious Jackson scholars know that Jackson had a passion for fruit, and his favorite was peaches, leading some to discount the lemon-sucking thing as little more than fable.

Yet growing up as a farm boy in rural Kentucky with family roots in Appalachia, I know first-hand that even today there are people who enjoy sucking on lemons. Were it not for that for that experience, I might discount the lemon thing as a myth too. Instead, I downplay rather than discount it, and highlight other fruits. Lemons appear only twice in Stonewall Goes West and just once in Mother Earth, Bloody Ground, and are sucked on but the one time in the three examples.

Perhaps the whole lemon-sucking thing is just a figment of Richard Taylor’s imagination, but I have my reasons for thinking there is a kernel of truth to it.

Mr. Stonewall Sandpaper
If I have found anything amusing about the response to my book in internet forums or blogs, it’s the notion that I didn’t make my Jackson caustic enough. He was infamous for his high standards, insistence on absolute obedience, and complete lack of patience. Some have even accused him, quite plausibly, of scapegoating subordinates in the wake of failure.

The path of caricature for these traits would have Jackson alienating all the prickly, proud, and/or hot-tempered Western generals, placing one after another under arrest. That view is simplistic, near-sighted, and historically inaccurate to boot, because it ignores all the instances where Jackson had no problems with his subordinates or was able to work past them.

To dwell on the examples of Richard Garnett and A.P. Hill (Hill in particular didn’t get along with Longstreet either) ignores “Allegheny” Johnson, who got along with Jackson just fine. It also ignores John Winder, who clashed with Jackson but maintained a working relationship right up to his death, and it ignores examples like Dick Ewell, who thought Jackson was nuts until he was won over by his victories. Instead of focusing solely on A.P. Hill and Turner Ashby, who were as much at fault for their stormy relationships with Jackson as Jackson himself, I drew on all the examples and applied them to my story.

“You’re Just Plain Wrong”
I knew getting into these novels that I’d get nitpicked a lot, because if there is one thing a lot of otherwise perfectly affable Civil War buffs are big on is thinking they know everything. I don’t even spare myself from that charge, but in acknowledging it I at least try to make sure I have my facts straight first.

Sadly, that isn’t the case for some who disagree with my choices. One blogger recently nitpicked me for supposedly getting it wrong that Jackson wasn’t a good rider, and implied that I therefore had a poor understanding of the character. Unsurprisingly, this same guy also took issue with Jackson not being abrasive enough.

I don’t think my work is infallible, but 99 times out of 100 it’s the nitpicker who has turned out wrong. In the aforementioned example, see for yourself and Google the neutral phrase “Stonewall Jackson’s horsemanship.” The result is page after page of links to stuff about how he wasn’t a good rider, how he chose Little Sorrel because he was small and undemanding, etc.

Part and Parcel
This sort of thing is part and parcel of being a writer, because people are always going to criticize your work. Sometimes it reflects nothing more than a difference of opinion, and sometimes its friendly and fair and acknowledges that. Sometimes its the critic’s limitations, which could be fair or unfair. Either way, it’s just what comes from working with historical fiction.

2 Responses to “Characterizing Stonewall Jackson”

  1. Jim Walters says:

    Some people are just know-it-alls, and others are just jerks.

    You did a fine job. Everyone makes mistakes, and you own up to yours. Don’t sweat it.

  2. Mathew Lively says:

    Myth or not, Jackson and lemons will be forever linked in peoples’ consciousness, and Henry Kyd Douglas’ elaborate description of Jackson eating a lemon at Gaines Mill remains my favorite passage in I Rode with Stonewall.

Leave a Reply