January 12, 2004

Jimmy Carter the novelist stirs up The Hornet's Nest

By Michael Terrazas

Jimmy Carter is widely acknowledged to be the most active and prolific former U.S. president in the nation’s history, and now one of Georgia’s most famous sons can add another bullet to his resume: novelist.

With the publication of The Hornet’s Nest (Simon & Schuster, 2003), Carter becomes the first former president to publish a work of fiction, and the task Emory’s University Distinguished Professor set for himself was no small one—The Hornet’s Nest is nothing less than an attempt to cover the breadth and depth of the entire American Revolutionary War through the lens of historical fiction.

“There literally have been hundreds of books written about the War Between the States, and dozens written about the Vietnam War and the First and Second World Wars, but you can hardly find a book written about the Revolutionary War,” said Carter, who now has written 18 books. “So there was a dearth of books about this war, which in my opinion is the most important war of all for America. It shaped our basic premises of life.”

Like many things associated with Carter, The Hornet’s Nest has a distinctly Southern feel. Its near-500 pages are set primarily in the South, and many characters are lifted directly from the history books: For example, Elijah Clarke, namesake of Georgia’s Clarke County, figures prominently (though not necessarily heroically) in the narrative, as do many other real-life historical figures.

Even the fictional characters are grounded in reality; Ethan Pratt, the “protagonist” of Carter’s sprawling novel, is a composite of the former president’s own family history. Like Pratt, Carter’s ancestors moved from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to North Carolina, then later into northeast Georgia. Presidential progenitor Wiley Carter lived in the Quaker settlement of Wrightsborough, where Pratt makes his home upon relocating to Georgia.

“As far as I know, the book historically is completely accurate,” said Carter, who read some 45 books for background and spent seven years working on his novel. “I went back and made sure every battle was correct and that the dates were true to history.”

Indeed, The Hornet’s Nest reads most successfully as a meticulously researched work of history; even Revolutionary War buffs are sure to come away from the book with new insights on how the conflict affected the lives of everyday New World colonists, and that is exactly why its author chose to fictionalize his subject.

“I wanted to bring to life the torturous decisions that British subjects had to make during those years,” Carter said. “It was very difficult because an adult many times in life had taken an oath before God to be loyal to the king—when you got a marriage license or a land deed. I didn’t see any way to bring the actual events of life into reality without making it fiction.”

Chief among the novel’s triumphs is the way it recounts the conflicted attitudes of colonists who struggled to balance their very real devotion to Mother England with their equally impassioned desire to see the colonies treated fairly as loyal subjects to the crown. The Civil War often is portrayed as a struggle of brother against brother, but Carter said the War for Independence was the first to draw its battle lines straight through American families.

“Every war in which America has been involved has been geographically divided, but in this war there was no geographical division—the division was inside families,” Carter said. “Maybe the older son, the senior son, would decide because of the exigencies of life to take up arms against the king. And in a few weeks he would be on the battlefield fighting against his own brothers. That was common.”

As is only appropriate for a college professor, common misconceptions of the Revolutionary War—and a general lack of knowledge about it among the populace it liberated—is another reason Carter decided to write his book.

“You ask the average person on the street—or the average student in an Emory history class—what they know about the Revolutionary War, and they’ll know there were a few skirmishes around Boston,” Carter said. “They know that Paul Revere rode his horse in the middle of the night, that George Washing-ton crossed the Delaware River in a snowstorm and had a hard time one winter, and that Cornwallis surrendered. That’s about it.”

One misconception Carter clears up is the thought that most of the war was fought in New England; nearly all the major battles, he said, took place from Georgia through the Carolinas and into southern Virginia. Also, in an understated theme that resonates in today’s hyper-nationalist (and occasionally xenophobic) world, Carter’s novel makes clear that American independence would not have been won without the aid of France.

“Another thing that’s unknown about the war is that it was by far the bloodiest war we ever fought; it was filled with intense hatred and vituperation,” Carter said. “There were orders that went out on both sides: ‘Don’t take any prisoners.’ One British general ordered that, if you took a prisoner, you would lose your rum ration for a month. So if anybody on either side surrendered, they were executed with a bayonet through the gut or a bullet through the head.

“This didn’t happen in any other war, and it happened regularly in this one. So this war was filled with different kinds of experiences, of interrelationships and challenges, of dreams that were shattered,” Carter said. “In my opinion, no other war had that.”