“Brother Sid: A Novel of Sidney Lanier”
Author: May Lamar
Publisher: The Donnell Group
Price: $22.95 (Cloth)
For decades after his death, Sidney Lanier was mostly forgotten. Then, in the 1920s, The United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to enhance Lanier’s posthumous reputation and succeeded in making him a symbol of the Lost Cause. In 1945 the UDC even managed to have Lanier voted into what became the Hall of Fame of Great Americans which is housed in a most unlikely place for a Confederate to be honored: the campus of the Bronx Community College. Schoolchildren in the South right up through the 1960s were likely to be taught that Sidney Lanier was the “Poet of the Confederacy” and were often required to memorize big chunks from “The Marshes of Glynn” and “The Song of the Chattahoochee.”
There are at least ten Sidney Lanier high schools, in his native Georgia and Alabama where he lived for a time, but also in Florida and Oklahoma. He also has a county, a bridge and several lakes named after him. Yet Southerners know little about the life, which was short but packed with incident and considerable drama.
In writing this readable, entertaining novel, May Lamar of Montgomery used a number of previous studies of Lanier, but relied mainly on three decades of his letters. These give us Lanier’s voice, his attitude, and an immediacy of feeling.
Lanier was, probably, a genius. He had graduated from Oglethorpe University in Milledgeville and was a tutor there while still in his teens. He planned to go to Heidelberg, Germany, get a Ph.D., and have a career as a university professor, but war broke out and Lanier enlisted. He saw action, and at one point was blown up and loaded unconscious onto a wagon load of corpses headed for burial. When he came to, he “realized he was among the dead and then fainted.” Lanier was saved in this instance by his faithful dog Flag, who sat on his body licking his face!
Later, Lanier was captured while aboard a blockade runner sailing out of the James River.
During his four months in a POW camp, Lanier’s health was compromised; he probably caught TB there, and he lived only 16 more years, dying in 1881 at age 39.
Lamar opens her novel with his February 1865 release from the Fort Lookout camp and then proceeds both forward and in flashback to give us Lanier’s life. He was a man of great gifts and ambitions. Sidney Lanier wished to be a scholar, a musician, a poet. In fact he published a war novel, “Tiger Lilies,” in 1867, but was not, finally, pleased with it.
Lanier, like many during Reconstruction, had financial troubles. He worked as a lawyer, was briefly a headmaster in Prattville and a clerk in a Montgomery hotel, wrote advertising copy for the Florida railroad, and performed as a musician, mainly on flute, whenever the opportunity appeared.
None of this was satisfying and although he was married with four children, and was fighting the lung hemorrhages which would finally kill him, Lanier struck out as free-lancer, writing boys’ books such as “The Boy’s King Arthur” and “The Boy’s Froissart,” literary criticism and of course poetry. He was determined to use whatever time he had in creative work. By the time of his death he had published an amazing amount, later collected in ten volumes.
As Lamar makes clear, in another time, another place, Lanier would have been a major cultural figure.
A determined and good-natured fellow, he had many loyal friends. A charming, handsome young man, he loved the ladies. At one time, Lanier had, simultaneously, three girlfriends in three different states and, since he sometime got romantically carried away, was engaged to two.
Lanier’s was a colorful, eventful life and although it is not in the province of Lamar’s novel, it is impossible not to think about what this gifted man might have accomplished in a lifetime of normal length.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”