Friday, February 15, 2013

An Errand Completed

I just finished a most interesting book. It only took 40 years. Truthfully, I bought the book that long ago for a college class. It was no ordinary class either. It was History 176B, the first African American history class at UCLA. Offered by Dr. Ron Takaki, who would later be my undergraduate history thesis advisor, the class was extremely popular and among those enrolled during that 1968-9 term were Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The "B" section of the course roughly went from 1865 to the present. On that reading list was a novel of Reconstruction called A Fool's Errand, by Albion Tourgee. Tourgee's thinly veiled novel was based on his own experiences as a "Carpetbagger" who moved to the state of North Carolina from his native Ohio immediately after the Civil War in 1865. The novel traces the life and philosophy of a Col. Servosse, whose Yankee naivety explains why the narrator continually refers to him as "the fool" named in the title. I read about half the novel while I was taking the class. This I surmise from looking at the underlined passages and a few notes in the margins. But I never finished the book, to the best of my recollection. I had always intended to read the book and now, all these years later, I can finally say I have. It's an important book too. First published in 1879, A Fool's Errandhas had a few incarnations. The copy I have was printed in 1961 as a Harper Torchbook, a series familiar to many history majors. What makes this such an intriguing read is that it combines a history of Reconstruction with a love story, with a feel for just how complex the issue of race relations and sectionalism is in this country. Col Servosse comes to see these issues in all their complexity throughout the course of the novel. He originally buys an old plantation that he and his family breathe new life into while coming to realize just how deep the Southerner's love of the Antebellum South goes. We see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and terrorize the newly freed slaves from voting. We see who is under those hoods and we learn how that disguise was originally supposed to be the a representation of the ghosts of confederate soldiers. "The Fool" comes to realize many things including the fact that the Northern conquerors of the South have come to sell out the black man, who is ill prepared to fulfill the rights and responsibilities of his new found freedom. When I finished the book, all these years later, I realized how the polarization of the country back then is not dissimilar to the political panorama we see today. In fact, this novel might serve to illustrate a deeper understanding of the Reconstruction era, (seldom taught accurately in high school curriculum) and perhaps explain how many of those same attitudes and beliefs survive today in all their foolish glory.

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