Bell's Bend: Acclaimed Author Courts Controversy with Nathan Bedford Forrest Novel

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From a timely appearance by astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to a fictitious portrait of a conservative African American firebrand by best-selling Nashville author Alice Randall, the just-announced lineup for this fall's Southern Festival of Books (to be held Oct. 9-11 on War Memorial Plaza) offers plenty of kindling for the Kindle. But even among a confirmed list of authors that includes Roy Blount Jr., A. Manette Ansay, Rick Bragg, William Gay and Charlie Huston, the book that may cause the biggest commotion isn't even technically due to be released until November. That book is Devil's Dream, the eagerly awaited new novel by Madison Smartt Bell--a fictionalized account of the life of Confederate lightning rod Nathan Bedford Forrest. Revered as a tactician and military commander, reviled as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest remains a divisive figure almost 150 years after his death. Witness this dust-up a few weeks back on Pith, where poster JR neatly summarized the debate:
Pro-NBF: "He was a great general. The Klan wasn't really like that when he was in charge. He even had a radical agenda that called for racial reconciliation. See, the Klan was more like a fraternity then, and we all know fraternities are well-known for their policies of racial inclusion." Against NBF: "Part of his 'great generalling' was the Massacre at Ft. Pillow. Also, he founded the Klan. Seriously. The Klan, people. Is it really worth the trouble of offending upteens millions of people just to 'honor' this guy?"
The idea of Forrest's life in the hands of Bell, a Nashville native whose novel of the Haitian slave uprising All Souls' Rising was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award, promises something much more provocative and enticing than an embellished historical marker. At any rate, it'll be more dignified than Forrest's most visible local monument--a statue that resembles Edgar Allan Poe getting goosed after a few too many absinthes. From the publisher's copy:
From the author of All Souls' Rising ("A serious historical novel that reads like a dream"-The Washington Post Book World)-a powerful new novel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most reviled and celebrated, loathed and legendary, of Civil War generals. With the same eloquence, dramatic energy, and grasp of history that marked his acclaimed trilogy of novels about Toussaint Louverture, Madison Smartt Bell gives us a wholly new vantage point from which to view a complicated American icon. We see Forrest off the battlefield, in the more hidden but no less telling moments of his life: wooing the woman who would become his wife; battling an addiction to gambling; overcoming his abhorrence of the bureaucracy of the army to rise to its highest ranks. We see him taking part in the business of slave trading, but treating his own slaves humanely. We see him with his slave mistress, with whom he fathered several children, and we see him reveal his gift for inspiring courage but not change. As the novel unfolds, a vivid portrait comes into focus: a man whose fierceness was marked by fairness, a life filled with contradiction and integrity. In Bell's telling, it is also an evocation of genius and reticence.

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