Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Marc Wortman's "The Bonfire"

Marc Wortman is the author of The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power, now in development as a feature film. An award-winning freelance writer, his work has appeared in numerous national magazines. He has taught literature and writing at Princeton University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Bonfire gives us a taste of the increasingly rancorous and violent “inner” Civil War brewing in the “instant” city of Atlanta long before the first Yank or Reb fired a shot in anger. But this Civil War wasn’t just North vs. South; it was Atlantan vs. Atlantan, and even a split within many minds, including some who were among the most ardent, fire-breathing, soon-to-be Confederates. The Bonfire depicts the rise and fall of Atlanta during the Civil War through the interwoven lives of some of its most exemplary residents, white and black, slaveholder and slave, Confederate soldier and secret Yankee. Rather than just recount the fight for the city, I aimed to write an intimate epic that reveals and narrates the often conflicting thinking, feelings and actions of those struggling within the hurricane of war sweeping the land.

The page describes how the politically powerful Ben Yancey, plantation owner and large slaveholder, urged his fellow townspeople, as the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln loomed, “to unite our people as a band of brothers in resistance to Northern aggression, and in defense of ourselves, our property and our firesides.” The voters of Atlanta spurned his call initially, voting for the anti-secession Democratic candidates.

Yancey’s and other slaveholders’ own acts underlay the rejection: he had recently released his “property,” bondsman Bob, to hire his time and live virtually a free man, even as Yancey and others called upon their neighbors to ready themselves to go to war over the eternal, unbreakable master-slave relationship. Illegally trading currency between Union prisoners and Confederate citizens, Bob grew rich in the booming city that war made essential to the Southern cause. At great risk to his own life, he also helped Union prisoners escape and cared for the wounded among them during the fighting that would eventually devastate the city.

Although born a slave, at the end of the siege of Atlanta Bob joined the party of surviving leading citizens who surrendered their city to General Sherman. After that, Bob insisted people address him using his real father’s name.

The seeds of the Confederacy’s defeat were sown in the contradictions and paradoxes of Atlanta. Those same contradictions and paradoxes, though, would eventually help the destroyed city rebuild and become the beacon of the New South.
Learn more about The Bonfire and its author at Marc Wortman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue