Southern Cultures 10.4 (2004) 33-54
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"A World Properly Put Together"
Environmental Knowledge in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain
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It has been more than seven years since the publication of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, and it has become nothing short of a phenomenon. The paperback edition continues to sell, the mountain-sized budget Hollywood movie was released in December 2003, and the book is increasingly being used in university classrooms. It appeals to a broad cross-section of readers as a love story, a war story, an adventure story, and as a story of Civil War-era daily life and folkways. Renée Zellweger as Ruby in the film adaptation of Frazier's Cold Mountain, courtesy of Photofest.
It has been more than seven years since the publication of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, and it has become nothing short of a phenomenon. The paperback edition continues to sell, the mountain-sized budget Hollywood movie was released in December 2003, and the book is increasingly being used in university classrooms. It appeals to a broad cross-section of readers as a love story, a war story, an adventure story, and as a story of Civil War-era daily life and folkways. Frazier's feel for the time and place, and his masterly use of language to convey that feel, is in no small way responsible for the book's phenomenal success.
Of the many who have commented on Cold Mountain, perhaps historians have approached it with the most care. Because Appalachia has been represented in such ghastly ways, historians diligently police its image in the popular media, and, of course, the novel's setting during the Civil War is an eye-catcher as well. The battlefield is at the periphery of the narrative, which tells the story of the disillusioned deserter, Inman, who makes his way home from the Piedmont into the mountains, while his awaiting love, Ada, and her companion, Ruby, struggle to come to terms with a mountain environment that has them at its mercy. Though we see little military action, there are constant reminders that the landscape that each protagonist negotiates is in a state of late-war upheaval: Inman's constant, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to elude the home guard, the ravaged and male-deprived economy of Cold Mountain, and the general air of skepticism whenever two unfamiliar characters meet. This weary wartime mosaic is what most historians have chosen to focus on in their discussions of Cold Mountain. But neither they nor other critics of the novel have satisfactorily discussed Frazier's vivid environmental imagery and the strong connection between his characters and their surroundings. Historian John Inscoe has taken note of the compelling sense of place Frazier's characters associate with the mountains, and historian Martin Crawford has chided Frazier for giving too much wordplay to natural relationships as opposed to the human variety. Neither analysis really explores the meaningful relationships of these human characters to the natural world or the historical significance of these relationships.1
Frazier has admitted that during the writing of Cold Mountain he found himself "growing less and less interested in the war itself." Instead, he increasingly [End Page 34]
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The battlefield is at the periphery of Frazier's novel. From Cold Mountain, the movie, courtesy of Photofest.
wanted to create "a fictive world . . . marked by change and threat and beauty." Frazier "wanted to know what the world's processes—human and nonhuman—were, how things looked and how they worked. Subsistence farming, vernacular architecture, herbal medicines, and the mysterious ways of wild turkeys, for example."2 This creative examination of everyday life follows a long line of Appalachian fiction writers who use the land as more than mere setting. Like John Ehle, Wilma Dykeman, and Robert Morgan, among others, Frazier treats the environment as a character in itself, with as much influence as any other: Inman's struggles with an unfamiliar environment stir in him a...