Copperhead, which Ron Maxwell directed from my adaptation of Harold Frederic’s novella, opens in theaters June 28, with a second wave of openings July 19. You can find where it’s playing at copperheadthemovie.com. Herewith my introduction to the newly published edition containing Frederic’s story and my screenplay; it’s available at dzancbooks.org/copperhead.
Harold Frederic, born in 1856, was a native of Utica, which though it is the eighth largest city in New York can fairly stake a claim to being, pound for pound, the literary capital of the state. Frederic lived a short but full – perhaps overly full – life. In brief, he began his career as a Utica and later Albany newspaper editor, in which capacity he was celebrated as a wit and bon vivant. He was a good friend of fellow Upstater and U.S. President Grover Cleveland, whose Jeffersonian Democratic political convictions Frederic shared. He left his native grounds – for good – in 1884 to become a New York Times foreign correspondent based in London. Between 1886 and his death in 1898, Harold Frederic published more than a dozen books, most famously The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), a tale of a simple Upstate Methodist minister’s loss of faith which is widely considered a masterpiece of late-19th century American realism. (F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Damnation of Theron Ware "the best American novel" written before 1920.) Frederic was also a bigamist whose wife and mistress (and their children) lived about fifteen miles apart in the precincts of London. He spent weekdays with one family and weekends with the other. He suffered a stroke in 1898 and had the bad luck to be under the care of his Christian Scientist mistress, who refused medical treatment for the stricken author. Frederic died, and she was tried, unsuccessfully, for manslaughter.
The Copperhead – its title taken from the derisive serpentine epithet applied to Northern critics of the Civil War – was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine in 1893 and published in book form that same year. It was brought out in England the next year as The Copperhead and Other Stories of the North in the American War. The novel, or novella, or longish short story, as you prefer, would reappear in several collections of Frederic’s fiction, most notably in The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic, under the imprint of Syracuse University Press and with an introduction by Edmund Wilson.
In every incarnation it sold poorly, as Frederic’s work usually did. But then The Copperhead hit none of the expected notes. It catered neither to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" Northern righteousness nor "Dixie" Southern romanticism.
Edmund Wilson, our greatest literary critic and a denizen of that magical literary ground surrounding Frederic’s Utica, wrote that Frederic’s "stories of New York during the Civil War reflect the peculiar mixture of patriotism and disaffection which was characteristic of that region…Due to this, these stories differ fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction I know, and they have thus a unique historical as well as a literary importance."
There is an unblinking, unsentimental honesty to The Copperhead and Frederic’s other stories of the War. The fanfare and spangles, the soaring rhetoric and battlefield heroism: you’ll find none of that on his York State homefronts. We are shown, instead, a little world pockmarked, drained of life, even, by what – and who – is absent. Young men leave communities of which they are essential pieces. Some return intact but irreparably altered; some stagger home shattered; others make the trip back in pine boxes. The normal rhythms of courtship are disrupted. The interdependence of small farms, crossroads shops, and little Protestant churches is unraveled, and we are given to understand that things will never be the same.
Stephen Crane, whose own The Red Badge of Courage is commonly regarded as the great American Civil War novel, said of Frederic’s Civil War tales that they illumed "the great country back of the line of fight – the waiting women, the lightless windows, the tables set for three instead of five." This is the side of war that is most immediate for Americans yet which seldom interests our artists, let alone our politicians: The war at home. The domestic consequences of our crusades.
Angus Macfadyen, who plays Jee in Copperhead (the film dispenses with the article), says that the story reminds him of The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s epic film exploring the devastation wrought upon a small Pennsylvania community by the Vietnam War. I hadn’t thought of that, but Angus was – as is his wont, I grudgingly concede – right.
Frederic wrote The Copperhead, like almost all his published fiction, while living in England, but as with a later skeptic of the War, Gore Vidal, although he lived abroad he was no expatriate. He was, rather, a proprietary patriot ("All four of my great-grandfathers had borne arms in the Revolutionary War, and one of them indeed somewhat indefinitely expanded this record by fighting on both sides") who believed that America was his country, which is why he felt no need to write spread-eagle stories glorifying a war that had cost his homeplace blood and treasure, the lives of its young men and the vigor of its communities.
Typically, in a story of a dissenter, the author flatters himself and the audience. The deck is stacked; the cards are marked. Every right-thinking reader or viewer is confident that of course he or she would be at the side of this poor recusant who is being persecuted by narrow-minded peasants or clerics who deny that the earth orbits the sun or that man is a product of evolution or that the world is older than six thousand years or that the simon-pure prisoner who is about to be lynched is innocent. But really: is any pose more cheaply purchased than standing – at a very safe distance of years – with Galileo or Scopes?
Smugness is detestable. Only a complacent idiot enjoys burning strawmen or crowing over his moral superiority to the benighted. Harold Frederic does not let the reader bask in his own sanctimony. It’s so easy to say that you’re for free speech; that you honor the First Amendment; that though you may not agree with so and so who says such and such, you’ll defend to the death his right to say it. Well, here’s Abner Beech, an Upstate New York farmer of 1862. He thinks this war between the states – this hallowed war, this bloodletting out of which modern America was born – is an unconstitutional atrocity. He despises the soon-to-be martyred Abraham Lincoln, who by most 21st-century lights is the greatest American hero. Abner stands up and speaks his piece – his peace – during time of war.
Okay, Mr. Free Speech. Are you willing to defy the mob and defend Abner?
It’s not so easy.
"Doin’ right ain’t got no end," says the murderous Kansas redleg fanatic who wipes out the title character’s home and family in Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales. To assert otherwise in time of war – including our own age of perpetual war – is virtually an act of sedition. In The Copperhead, Abner Beech learns this lesson, and he learns it good and hard.
Jee Hagadorn, the abolitionist whom Frederic loathes but whom we, in the film, have sought to humanize, is absolutely correct on the central moral question of the age: the immorality of slavery. But Jee has subordinated all else – his family, his community, his daily responsibilities – to an abstraction. He sees only a forest and no trees. Jee is the archetypal religious fanatic who exults in war because God Is On Our Side. (‘Tis a happy coincidence that his forename is homonymic with the first syllable of jihad.) In our film – if not in Frederic’s novella – Abner does not concede an inch of Christian ground to the Bible-quoting Jee. He matches him verse for verse, in a running colloquy between a New Testament man of peace and a thundering prophet of the Old Testament.
Gore Vidal, in his essay on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, wrote: "our writers and directors tend to know as little about the country’s history as the audience, so when they set a story in the past the characters are just like us except they’re in costume. But the past is another country, and to bring it to some sort of dramatic life takes a capacity for which there is no English word."
In our day any imaginative leap into the past brings a flurry of charges that one must surely endorse every prejudice or social convention of that past – which is why such fictions usually feature an auctorial alter-ego whose attitudes are anachronistically, ridiculously au courant, and utterly unbelievable. The past in such works of art, or rather propaganda – sometimes crude, elsetimes slick – is emptied of meaning, content, its pastness. It exists only to serve the modern and transient and tedious political needs of the author.
But our film, if it is any good, must be of, must be suffused and perfused and imbued with, 1862-3. Otherwise it is just moderns wearing period costumes and speaking like it’s 2013.
(Why, I can hear some ask, are there no African Americans in the film? After all, the war that Abner condemns was fought, at least after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, for their liberty.
In 1860, the black population of Oneida County, the real-life counterpart of Copperhead’s fictive world, was 627 out of a total population of 101,626. That is, it was minuscule, and concentrated in the county’s population centers rather than its rural versions of the Corners.)
Copperhead the movie was born, in a sense, over breakfast at the Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Sherman, a great if unheralded patriot, signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He also coauthored, with my erstwhile biographical subject Luther Martin of Maryland and William Paterson of New Jersey, the New Jersey Plan, the decentralist alternative to what became the U.S. Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.)
Ron Maxwell – who with Gettysburgand Gods and Generals staked claim to being our foremost cinematic interpreter of the Civil War – and I, producers Bob and Susan Bishop, and our daughters Daisy Bishop and Gretel Kauffman had spent the previous night at a meeting of the New Canaan Historical Society, which Ron had addressed on the topic of, yes, the Civil War. A questioner had asked when he would make another movie about the conflict; Ron replied that he was always looking for a book or story that might serve as the basis for such a film. I mentioned, over breakfast the next morning at the Roger Sherman, this novella titled The Copperhead.
"That’s a great book," he replied.
Yes it is, so here we are.
As a lad I read screenplays with a fine lack of discrimination. From David Holzman’s Diary to the obscure Robert Redford-Michael J. Pollard motorcycle movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy: if the Batavia Junior High or High School libraries carried it, I read it.
I had long since abandoned that groove, but when Ron Maxwell and I decided to collaborate I undertook a tutorial in writing for the screen.
I read partly to learn the grammar of film, but also to see how the best screenwriters ignore boundaries in chasing down dreams. My reading consisted of James Dickey’s (unfilmable) screenplay for Deliverance, which revealed the literary possibilities of the form; Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, a film I have loved warily since I was a boy; Graham Greene’s The Third Man; Robert Towne’s Chinatown; Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous; and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
I also wanted to read a screenplay by a good writer for a bad film. I chose Missouri Breaks by Thomas McGuane, a fine novelist who scripted two movies I admire from that halcyon era, the early ‘70s: Rancho Deluxe and 92 in the Shade. Where and how, I wondered, had McGuane gone wrong? (It wasn’t all his fault; I put much of the blame on Marlon Brando’s self-indulgent goofing as a dress-wearing hired gun.)
Ron Maxwell and I had a deep and rich well to draw from in Harold Frederic’s source novel, and if we veered away from his plot and characterizations I hope the script, and movie, are true to his brave spirit.
Copperhead was filmed over seven weeks at King’s Landing, a historical "living museum" located about twenty miles from Fredericton, the lovely capital of the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
The cast and crew were superbly talented and blessedly convivial. The staff at King’s Landing, the extras, and the people of the region were a delight. Making this film – or, more accurately, given the relative paucity of tasks a writer faces on the set of a well-planned movie, tagging along for the ride – was among the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of my life.
Hell, I even got to meet and hang out with Peter Fonda. Since I was a teenager I’ve owned a seven-foot-long Easy Rider poster declaring "A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere." I consider Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) one of the finest films I have ever seen; what a kick it was to talk to its auteur.
Coincidentally, Peter Fonda’s family name graces the seat of Montgomery County, New York, about 50 miles east of Harold Frederic’s Utica. Peter’s father, Henry, appeared in film versions of three novels by Utica-area author Walter D. Edmonds: Chad Hanna, The Farmer Takes a Wife (from the novel Rome Haul), and Drums Along the Mohawk.
I was taken aback – pleasantly – when I read this line in Harold Frederic’s preface to his collection In the Sixties (1897): "It was at this time that I gathered the first materials for my projected work [about the Revolutionary War], from members of the Fonda and other families."
Yes, that Fonda family. And so it comes full circle, as Peter Fonda plays the critical role of Avery in Copperhead. (I should point out that Avery in the film differs substantially from Avery in the novella.)
I write every day with a photo of Eugene V. Debs tacked to the wall on my left. Debs, the leading American socialist of the early 20th century and, more importantly, a faithful citizen of Terre Haute, Indiana, was America’s most famous martyr to wartime censorship. In the photo, Debs is addressing an audience in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918, condemning U.S. entry into the First World War and remarking, with wry prescience, that "it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world."
For this speech, Debs became one of 15,000 Americans jailed for violating President Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage and Sedition Acts. As Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis explained when handing down a twenty-year sentence in another such case, "In times of peace, you have a legal right to oppose, by free speech, preparations for war. But when once war is declared, that right ceases." Strange, isn’t it, how the Founders never got around to appending that footnote to the First Amendment?
Copperhead critics of the Civil War were often persecuted, too, if not to the extent that dissenters from the First World War were. Newspapers were shut down, antiwar editors and speakers were imprisoned, habeas corpus took a holiday. War is always the enemy of liberty and free speech.
Those who wish to investigate the Copperheads further might read the works of the late historian and Marquette University professor Frank Klement, the dean of scholarly studies of Northern opposition to the Civil War. Klement was a product of the University of Wisconsin’s legendary history department and shared its populist-Middle American orientation. He demolished the myth that the Copperheads were disloyal pro-Southern traitors and demonstrated that by and large, they were honorable dissenters, "Democratic critics of the Lincoln administration who opposed the changes that the Civil War foisted upon their country."
Significantly, Frank Klement came of age as a historian during the Truman-McCarthy Cold War Red Scare, which he viewed as a witch-hunt. This surely colored his view of the Copperheads, for as Klement told an interviewer, "You can’t separate a historian’s philosophy of life or the era in which he lives from his scholarship." Ominously, in our own day, shadowed as it is by Bush-Cheney-Obama wars and see something/say something paranoia, the academy may be tilting back toward a view of the Copperheads as treasonous fifth columnists who ought to have been rounded up, a la the Japanese-Americans who filled FDR’s WWII West Coast internment camps, or at least closely surveilled, like the protesters who are confined in Orwellian-named "free speech zones" if they interrupt Democrat-Republican conventions.
We live in a time and in a country which finds principled dissent of the sort exercised by Eugene V. Debs and Abner Beech almost incomprehensible. In one sense, freedom of expression knows no bounds: Internet pornography, snuff-game videos, libelous tweets – laissez faire, man. But with respect to politics, art, culture….seldom in American history have the limits of permissible speech been so narrow, so constricting. True, our Eugene Debses aren’t usually thrown into gaols, but nor do they become cause célèbres, like Debs. Their prison is the red state-blue state idiocy under which the limits of acceptable opinion are demarcated by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and writers live in the fear (which, I can tell you as one who has long worked with members of the DC punditocracy, absolutely paralyzes careerists) of saying the wrong thing and running afoul of the hall monitors and tattletales who police American discourse. Harold Frederic – and Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal and pretty much any writer on American subjects who is worth a damn – does not fit the liberal-conservative straitjacket. The very premise of Copperhead – that some honorable men of the North resisted Lincoln’s call to arms, whether from commitment to Jeffersonian democracy or pacifism or wrongheadedness or the awful presentiment that war would remake the country – will enrage the enforcers of opinion orthodoxy, who insist that there is only one acceptable narrative (and a boring one at that) of American history: nationalist-consolidationist and social democratic at home, and world-saving-militarist abroad. There is no room in this carefully monitored and barren storyline for Abner or M’rye or Jeff Beech, or even Jee, Esther, and Ni Hagadorn. These men and women have been written out of American history. This film lets them back in.
In his preface to In the Sixties, Harold Frederic explained: "There remains the volume of collected stories, long and short, dealing with varying aspects of home life in the North – or rather in my little part of the North – during the Civil War. These stories are by far closer to my heart than any other work of mine, partly because they seem to me to contain the best things I have done or ever shall do, partly because they are so closely interwoven with the personal memories and experiences of my own childhood – and a little also, no doubt, for the reason that they have not had quite the treatment outside that paternal affection had desired for them….These stories of mine…are in large part my own recollections of the dreadful time – the actual things that a boy from five to nine saw and heard about him, while his own relatives were being killed, and his school-fellows orphaned, and women of his neighborhood forced into mourning and despair – and they had a right to be recorded."
Yes, they did.
Copperhead does not preach or hector or demonize. It is not an advocacy film (for why did we redesign the character of Avery, make him the spokesman for the pro-Lincoln, pro-war side, and cast an iconic American to play him?) or a message movie (except as a plea for the tolerance – or should I say the reappearance in our America? – of dissenting opinions). It is a story squarely and defiantly in the American grain about a town and two families and the way they are ripped apart by a war that is so very far away and yet so devastatingly close. It is about the war waged at – and upon – home. It is a story as old as moldering bone fragments at Antietam and as fresh as the tears a mother cries as her son leaves to fight in whatever country the U.S. military is occupying as you read these words.
A nation cannot live on myth alone. War, as one who prosecuted it with especial vigor once said, is hell. A people who forget this are destined never again to know peace.