For President Buchanan
One disadvantage of having exiled our television for several years is that I’m counting on Rona Barrett and Mary Hart to relay this news, but if for some reason they are stuck in analog TV traffic, I must tell you that Ron (“Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals”) Maxwell’s new movie, “Copperhead,” which opens June 28, is from a screenplay I adapted from the novella by Upstate New York’s greatest novelist. No, not James Fenimore Cooper (of whose Deerslayer Mark Twain said, “its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language”) but Harold Frederic, the pride of Utica (along with Annette Funicello and Roscoe Conkling).
Ron and cast and crew did a marvelous job of making vivid the world and story of Copperhead, which concerns an Upstate farmer who in the sanguinary years of 1862–3 says No to the war for the Union. Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, in a subtly powerful performance) is neither a doughface—i.e., a Northern man with Southern principles, a la Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan—nor a congenital contrarian: he is, rather, a Jefferson-Jackson agrarian in the Upstate New York Democratic tradition. His side will lose, his tradition almost disappear, but Abner will not be moved.
No spoiler alerts here; see the movie. I will say that “Copperhead” approaches the Civil War from an angle of vision unusual in American popular culture, and even there it might surprise you. Place and verism, after all, must always trump ideology. I despise “message” movies, or didacticism, or deck-stacking. Lord knows American movies are in need of alternative perspectives, but the world can do without a libertarian Stanley Kramer or a localist Gene Roddenberry.
I mentioned the unlovable James Buchanan, who has been on my mind since I recently reread Buchanan Dying, John Updike’s imaginatively empathetic play about the despised 15th president, who on his deathbed revisits the people and the climacteric moments of his life in Lancaster and Washington.
James Buchanan was something of a cold fish, an inveterate office-seeker, and—typical of the decayed Democracy of that era—an expansionist/imperialist who coveted Mexico, Cuba, and any other southerly territory that wasn’t nailed down. He temporized—or played for time—as the Union ruptured during the interregnum between Lincoln’s election and assumption of office, and Updike makes the best case he can for the wisdom of this course.
The play is an act of Pennsylvania patriotism. As Updike explained, “In my Pennsylvania childhood, I knew him to be the only President our great and ancient state had produced, but where were the monuments, the Buchanan Avenues, the extollatory juvenile volumes with titles like Jimmie Buchanan, Keystone Son in the White House or ‘Old Buck,’ the Hair-Splitter Who Preceded the Rail-Splitter?”
In the tradition of such Middle Atlantic men of letters as Harold Frederic, Edmund Wilson, and Gore Vidal, Updike was something of a war skeptic, even a Copperhead, who referred to “the dubious cause of putting down secession with force.” Writing in 1974 of “our hero,” Updike noted hopefully that “it may be, in these years of high indignation over unbridled and corrupting Presidential power, that we can give more sympathy to Buchanan’s cautious and literal constitutionalism than has been shown him in history books written by Lincolnophiles and neo-abolitionists.”
Vidal did not care much for Updike, whose books, he said, were surrounded by a “force field” that rendered them impenetrable. Vidal tamped his enthusiasm for Buchanan Dying because he thought Updike skirted the matter of Buchanan’s ambiguous sexuality. Updike gives Buck an Ann Rutledge of his own, Anne Coleman, who takes her life in despair over her suitor’s lack of ardency. He ignores the possibility—the possibility—that Buchanan had eyes instead for his erstwhile roommate, Senator (and Vice President) William Rufus King of Alabama, a silk-scarved dandy who made Oscar Wilde look like Ernest Borgnine. (The roomies were known around Washington as “Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan.”)
As if playing his own devil’s advocate, Updike quotes in his afterword Henry James: “The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned … to a fatal cheapness … . You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do …”
Buchanan Dying, like the historical novels of Gore Vidal and Thomas Mallon, among others, refutes James. On screen, I think “Copperhead” does too. But you be the judge of that.
Bill Kauffman is a columnist for The American Conservative and the author, most recently, of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map