By Charles Frazier
Original Publisher: The Atlantic Monthly Press
Current Publisher: Grove Press
Harold Schechter writes:
While I bow to no one in my love of pure unadulterated pulp storytelling--from Robert E. Howard’s “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” to Mickey Spillane’s Vengeance is Mine to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather--I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a certain brand of bestseller that delivers the narrative pleasures of pop fiction under a veneer of classy literary effects. To be sure, the more cynical side of me tends to see a certain hypocrisy at work in such books, at least in regard to the audience: the kind of high-minded readers who can only permit themselves to enjoy heart-tugging, action-packed melodrama if convinced they are consuming serious art. Mostly, however, I admire the skill of those rare authors who can pull off the impressive feat of providing page-turning pop entertainment in high literary style.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain strikes me as a particularly fine specimen of the genre. Frazier has been widely and justly praised for his elegant prose and rich evocations of the natural world. For me, however, the deepest satisfactions of his novel derive from his deft treatment of certain perennially appealing pop archetypes. There’s the classic American action hero, part courtly gentleman, part frighteningly proficient killer--a kind of a Confederate Shane. There’s the storyline itself, the good old Campbellian “monomyth” (Call to Adventure, Road of Trials, etc.)--a mythic pattern that, in the hands of an artist as skillful as Frazier, still retains its compelling power, despite its recent demotion from Jungian archetype to Hollywood stereotype. There’s the venerable figure of the bookish, overly refined city slicker reborn through the wise ministrations of an earthy peasant type (there are plenty of examples but my favorite is the uptight writer who learns to loosen up thanks to Zorba the Greek).
The jacket flap of the hardcover edition of Cold Mountain compares the author to “the great nineteenth-century novelists” of American literature. I’m not exactly sure which great nineteenth-century novelists the copywriter had in mind. Frazier appears to have little in common with Hawthorne or Melville or even (since the subject is the Civil War) Stephen Crane. Among other things, the journeys undertaken by the protagonists of these writers tend to climax in confrontations with their dark unacknowledged selves (the “Shadow,” in Jungian terms). But that is one element of the hero’s quest that is notably absent in Cold Mountain. But it makes no sense, of course, to criticize Frazier for not being Hawthorne or Melville or anyone else. I’m simply grateful to him for providing such a lovely, moving, gripping read.
Harold Schechter is a professor of American Literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End (Ballantine Books, 2009).
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Don DeLillo for Underworld
- Diane Johnson for Le Divorce
- Ward Just for Echo House
- Cynthia Ozick for The Puttermesser Papers
Fiction Judges that Year:
Nicholas Delbanco, Percival Everett, William Kittredge, Alison Lurie, Carol De Chellis Hill
The Year in Literature:
- Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- Cold Mountain was Charles Frazier’s first book, and it was made into a film in 2003 that was nominated for several Academy Awards. (Renée Zellweger won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance.)
- Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, was published in 2006 by Random House. Based on the success of Cold Mountain, Frazier was offered an $8 million advance for Thirteen Moons.
- Charles Frazier's Wikipedia Entry
- Charles Frazier page on BookBrowse.com
- Cold Mountain Diary
How the author found the inspiration for his civil war-era novel among the secrets buried in the backwoods of the Smoky Mountains.
BY CHARLES FRAZIER
July 9, 1997
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