Thursday, February 05, 2015


Wilderness, Robert Penn Warren, Random House, 1961, 310 pp

Robert Penn Warren's seventh novel is set in Civil War times but though he draws on his studies of that conflict, it is really about something else.

Adam Rosenzweig, born a club-footed Bavarian Jew, sets out on a quest to honor his recently deceased father. His intent is to fight for freedom, that having been the defining mission of his father's life. He gets himself a special boot to correct his deformed foot and takes a ship to America where he plans to join the Union Army and fight for the freedom of the slaves.

Of course nothing turns out as he planned. He spends time in army camps in an area called the Wilderness, working for a sutler. His only friend is a Negro fellow employee and he experiences all the grit and suffering and insanity of war without ever fighting as a soldier.

Thus the novel becomes a story about living according to one's passion, no matter how innocently conceived nor how badly carried out, because to live any other way is hardly to have lived.

I liked the book. At times it reminded me of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. The voice and major themes of RPW's writings come through loud and clear.

On the night Adam's father was buried he thought, "This was the moment when the dead realize the truth: This is it, it will never be different. To be dead, he thought, that was to know that nothing would ever be different. He thought: I am alive."

And so we carry on.

(Wilderness is best found at libraries or from used booksellers.)

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