Yankee Doric: America Before the Civil War

Raffel, Burton. Yankee Doric: America Before the Civil War (A Novel).

$29.95 cloth. ISBN 978-0-913785-22-5. 

Respected nationally as a poet, translator, and critic, Burton Raffel remains best known for his translation of Beowulf, which brought the world of Anglo-Saxon heroism to more than a million readers. With Yankee Doric: America Before the Civil War (forthcoming June 2010), Raffel looks closer to home, describing the United States—North and South together—in the years leading up to secession and battle. With the Civil War sesquicentennial approaching, Yankee Doric could not have arrived at a better time.

Though he has published more than one hundred books (of poetry translations, literary editions, and criticism), Yankee Doric is Raffel’s first published novel. “It is an ambitious work,” says its editor, Tita French Baumlin, “whose main characters embody a definitively American heroism, one embracing duty over love and self-sacrifice in the face of crisis. Chronicling the lives of the Bingham family and set in New York, Virginia, and Paris, the novel’s expansive world makes Yankee Doric an American epic in prose.” The novel’s “finely honed style,” Baumlin adds, “invokes the ‘plain style’ of the age’s Federalist aesthetic, as symbolized by the classical Doric order of architecture.”

Currently retired from teaching at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, Raffel has poured a lifetime of literary artistry and historical scholarship into its writing. Yankee Doric reminds readers what brought Americans to take up arms against each other. As Raffel describes it, “my aim was to characterize the actual run-up to a giant historic event, still perhaps the largest ever. I have tried to make my characters, North and South, both historically absolutely real and at the same time of fictive interest. I wanted the people of my time to understand not all the arguments, pro and con, about the Civil War, but how it felt to be feeling them in real time.”

On this latter point, Raffel explains: “Human time means feeling the pressures and also the vacancies of a particular era, in particular places, and in the particular human beings who, to my mind, best represent how it happened that a sprawling, modest, relatively honest young republic fought itself into the driving behemoth that the U.S. has become, in our post-Civil War existence. The U.S. after the Civil War was immediately, and well-recognized, to have experienced a drastic and unchangeable new existence. I take no stance in this novel. My purpose is to re-experience our at first slow, then faster and faster fall into Civil War.”

A Louisiana resident since 1989, Raffel was born and raised in New York City. He is in a unique position, thus, to depict both North and South. And readers are carried across the Atlantic, as well. As Raffel describes them, the many travel scenes “show not simply how Americans experienced foreign ways, but also how different the rest of the world then was (and still is) from our land and its social structures. I intended the death of Jonathan’s father, in horrible areas of the Middle East, to highlight the range of those differing social structures. Americans don’t live only on our prosperous native lands, nor can we opt ourselves away from those other regions and their very, very different ways.”

Yankee Doric revolves around the lives, loves, and conflicts of the three Bingham children, Theodore, Jonathan, and Anne-Marie. Though a superbly talented pianist, Anne-Marie is fated to live and die as a housewife. Her daughter, passionately in love with her uncle Jonathan, moves into the international world of art (as a dancer) and—directly contrary to all expectations for women—decides not to marry, since the man she so loves will not marry her. Jonathan meets with a similar fortune, having fallen in love with the woman who, instead of him, chooses as a husband his dead sister’s widower.

Jonathan’s loss, Raffel notes, “ties him into the highly intense war against slavery, fought all over the land, in pen and ink and in physical actions. He who is not a politician becomes an activist, both as a believer, but even more as a man who wants at least to be near the woman he loves, even though he cannot have her.”

Though retired from teaching, Raffel continues to write at a furious pace from his Lafayette home, having recently completed the third of a series of deliberately short novels, full of plot movement. His poetic translation of Dante’s massive allegorical epic, The Divine Comedy, is forthcoming later this year. “Lately, it seems that everything Raffel does is epic in scale,” says Baumlin, who adds that “Yankee Doric may be his first published novel, but it will not be his last.”