Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s debut novel, won critical acclaim and the National Book Award for fiction when it was published in 1997. As an author of travel books and short stories, Frazier had ample experience in writing about landscapes and using a condensed prose style. Frazier applied these literary skills in crafting Cold Mountain’s episodic structure and detailed descriptive passages. Frazier’s prose draws on the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the scope of southern novels by authors such as William Faulkner, and the appreciation of nature expressed in the poetry of Walt Whitman. Frazier lives in North Carolina, and his choice of Cold Mountain’s setting along the Blue Ridge Mountains conveys his profound identification with this hallowed terrain.
The epic novel charts its course through the troubled waters of nineteenth-century American history. The action is set in 1864, three years after the outbreak of the Civil War, in an era of discord between North and South. Although the war is essentially a backdrop for events, it is clear that Inman’s experiences as a Confederate soldier have profoundly affected his understanding of the world and have resurrected his dormant spiritual anxieties. Many characters tell tales of hardship and despair, some of which are war stories. These tales help develop the themes of displacement and exile that define the novel.
Frazier suggests that the war damaged Southerners both personally and politically. Frazier’s characters are rarely supportive of one side or another. After three years of conflict, many are disillusioned with what they consider to be the selfish motivations of both sides. In particular, the inhabitants of Cold Mountain are presented as guarded, insular, and narrow-minded.
Frazier examines the issue of slavery in the context of the war, but as a backdrop to central events. The characters are racially diverse, but the novel tends to focus on white society. Frazier incorporates the cruel treatment meted out to slaves by Southern landowners into more general themes like human suffering and hope for a better future. Frazier is more interested in Inman and Ada’s relationship to each other and to the landscape than he is in the politics of the era, leaving us to decide whether he shortchanges historical events. The novel is most effective in capturing the spirit of two people searching for self-knowledge and romantic fulfillment.
The book is also effective in presenting a view of nineteenth-century Americans’ relationship to the land. Inman’s obsessive drive westward is an expression of his freedom of spirit. When he is forced to retrace his steps east by the military, Inman feels as though life is slipping away from him. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking,” (1862), “The future lies [west] to me. . . . Eastward I go by force; but westward I go free.” Frazier’s novel is set on the verge of a new era, and Inman seems to symbolize the independence of spirit and dynamic will of those who will later lay claim to the West.
Although he touches upon the issue of migration westward as well as the trauma of Civil War experiences, Frazier refrains from coming to any definitive political conclusions in his novel. Instead, Cold Mountain examines the evolution of human relationships in tandem with the seasonal changes and variations of the natural world. Although set in the Civil War era, Frazier’s work deals primarily with the timeless search for self-realization.
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