A Conversation With Roxana Robinson

Dawson’s Fall by Roxana Robinson | Sarah Crichton Books | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 327 pgs. | $27.00

By Jan Alexander

A History of Violence

Roxana Robinson has written six novels and two short fiction collections—plus her widely acclaimed biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Her stories generally gravitate to privileged lives, to East Coast families with summer homes and positions to uphold. But as any number of critics have pointed out, no one who becomes immersed in her tales of heroin addiction, PTSD, and the complications of divorce would ever apply such reductive labels such as domestic, WASP, or women’s stories to her fiction.

She once told Publishers Weekly she knows that in contemporary letters “any mention of WASPs” is supposed to be ironic. Her work, though, follows a more classic tradition, showing how the world works through the lens of the well-born and well-meaning who don’t always realize that their actions carry monumental ripple effects on those with less power, including their own children.

Actually, make that their descendants. That is particularly the case in her new novel, Dawson’s Fall, which is a true story of her great-grandparents Frank and Sarah Dawson. They were prominent citizens of a distant time and place—the Old South during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It’s Robinson’s first historical novel, and her gifts for capturing time and place are put to the test of getting into the heads of white people who, for all their well-intended wishes to guide the South away from racism, were nevertheless products of their era.
The entire story is true, thanks to a wealth of written material that she could draw from. “The only parts I invented were some of the dialog and thoughts,” she tells me.

Frank Dawson founded The News and Courier in Charleston, S.C., which survives today as The Post and Courier, the city’s newspaper of record. --Sarah Morgan Dawson’s journal, A Confederate Girls’ Diary, was published and became a classic—-available free if you Google it. There were also archives of family letters and other books about Frank Dawson, plus his own published journal.

In this dream storehouse of research material, she found lasting imprints of her great-grandparents within her family. “My father was a wonderful self-taught musician,” says Robinson. “He didn’t read music, but he’d go to the opera and come home and play what he’d just heard. It turned out that’s what Frank Dawson used to do. And the way Sarah talks about gardening is very similar to the way I think about it.” Then there was the other, dark legacy that the Old South has left upon America.

Robinson’s paternal grandmother, the daughter of Frank and Sarah, married a lawyer and moved to New York when she grew up; and on the surface, 19th century South Carolina seems light years away the afternoon I visit Robinson in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment where she lives with her husband, Hamilton (Tony) Robinson, a retired investment manager.

It’s a place where characters from her contemporary novels would be right at home—nothing studied, every piece of furniture seeming to bespeak a family story.  She shows me an etching of one of her aunts as a young brunette beauty in riding boots and britches, drawn by Cecil Beaton. “He wasn’t a great draughtsman, but this was a wedding present,” says Robinson.

Trump Tower is only five and a half blocks away, however, and when I say there were scenes in Dawson’s Fall that seem all too similar to some recent events, a floodgate opens in our conversation. Of course the research and writing took a while – about five years—meaning she started the novel while Obama was still in office. But she has observed that since 2016, America’s racist past seems a lot less past. 

“It’s very disheartening to realize how present that story continues to be in our political life,” says Robinson. She has spelled it out, too, in her preface to the novel: “All Southern families who trace their bloodlines back before the Civil War are affected by the presence of that peculiar institution, regardless of their race. They may not mention it, but it helps shape who they are.”

I tell Robinson I live with the unmentionable too. My mother came from the South, descended from slave owners and Confederate soldiers. She saw her ancestry—and the segregated world in which she grew up—as a shameful burden, and vowed to go up North and marry a Jew even before she went to Chicago, met my Jewish father, and became a civil rights activist.

So here we are, a couple of white women talking about the outrages of slavery. I’d ask if the standards of contemporary letters allow this, but I’m pretty sure she’ll say it’s all about empathy. Robinson comes from a family with more than the usual share of literary talent, but her most famous ancestor was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in a panel discussion back in 2014 she found herself defending her great-great-great (my “great” count is not exacting) aunt’s right to the creation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Robinson wrote about the experience in the New York Times Opinionator section,  saying that “what drove [Stowe] to write was her own outraged response to slavery,” and what drives a writer “is empathy, not voyeurism.”

With the empathy factor very much present throughout Dawson’s Fall, Robinson has sought to portray the many shadings of racism and what happens when one human has power over another.

She wrestled, for one thing, with Sarah’s closeness to the so-called “servants” who worked in the house in Baton Rouge where she grew up. (Later Yankee soldiers shelled Baton Rouge and took over the house.) “The word ‘slave’ is never used in Sarah’s diaries,” says Robinson. Sara wrote about the night her father was dying, and the black housekeeper came and embraced her while she slept, so that she’d wake up to the news of her father’s death in the arms of someone who loved her.

“I find that very moving,” says Robinson, then hesitates. “A very forthright feminist friend of mine said ‘you don’t think it’s possible do you, that two people  in such separate positions of power could ever have a loving relationship?’

“I said I do think it’s possible because human nature is so mutable and so inventive. But what’s so terrible about this equation is that if a black enslaved person loved a white person, responding as a human, it vindicates the white person’s belief that slavery is a benign, benevolent institution. So, it’s the worst possible outcome.” 

Frank was born in London in 1840, to an aristocratic but down-on-their-luck family. Just when he was looking for a new direction because he couldn’t afford to continue his studies, he met some Confederates navy officers from a ship docked in Southampton. As he told his family, he wanted to join them “to fight oppression… and it would be an adventure.”

Along the way he learned some things about who was oppressing whom, and after the war, the newlywed Dawsons had noble visions of helping lead the South into the modern era. Frank wrote crusading editorials, such as the one that followed the infamous 1876 attack on the predominantly black community of Hamburg, S.C. in an area then known as the Edgefield District on the western border of the state. (The district is now divided into Edgefield and other surrounding counties.)   The incident was triggered when two white farmers tried to drive a carriage through a main road, but ran into a roadblock in the form of an all-black militia performing a military exercise on the 4th of July.

Black citizens refusing to make way for two white men; as Robinson relates it, one of the white men, Henry Getzen, told the militia captain, “this is the rut I always travel, and I don’t intend to get out of it for no damn niggers.”   Four days later hundreds of armed white men attacked the town. Dawson wrote of the black militiamen: “Their offence [sic] lay, we fear, in being negroes and in bearing arms.”

He was, nonetheless, a product of his time and place, imagining that miscegenation “carried some ethical stain,” and possessed of a sometimes naïve faith in non-partisan justice. When a black mob lynched a white rapist, for example, Dawson wrote that the black vigilantes should be punished, imagining it would create a precedent that white lynch mobs too should be imprisoned. 

Not surprisingly, Dawson’s editorials made him enemies, in a place full of angry white men accustomed to settling scores at gunpoint.

That brings up the “God-given” right to bear arms. Guns were vital to the cotton plantation economy, says Robinson. “You can’t talk someone into being a slave. There were the night patrols hunting down runaways, and we all know about the torturous punishment that was inflicted.”

But she found that the gun culture permeated the South even further during Reconstruction. “The government set up militias that were mixed race in order to enforce the new laws. But the whites wouldn’t serve with blacks. So the militias ended up being all black although that wasn’t the government’s intention. And the whites formed their own private militias.”

I say that “don’t trust the government” attitude sounds all-too-familiar too.  

Robinson nods. “The white militias were often led by ex-Civil War officers, so they sustained the military culture and created this violent vigilante presence outside the law.”

With that development all white males, dirt farmers and plantation owners alike, were part of a society that encouraged them to take the law into their own hands. And they were mad as hell at the government, trying to throw their lot in with those of black men—there were even black men running for political office—threatening the privilege they’d enjoyed just by virtue of being born white. Certainly that kind of outrage was well documented in the life of Dawson’s nemesis Ben Tillman, a populist who led “red shirt” white terrorist militias on shooting rampages against the black population.

“Tillman is now known throughout the South and his rallies draw big crowds of angry white men,” Robinson writes in the book. “They’ve all lost the world they once knew, these angry men.” Later Tillman became the governor of South Carolina, ushering in the Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, and then a U.S. Senator.

Tillman, perhaps not incidentally, came from the Edgefield District, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers were the fierce border people known as the Scotch-Irish, who also put down roots in Appalachia and other parts of the South. “For 700 years they had been living in lawless societies,” says Robinson. “In Britain they were quite distant from the seat of authority, so nobody was paying much attention to them. They formed their own bands and tribes, which became their clans. The clan was the only group they trusted.”

In the Edgefield area they drove off the Cherokees in a long, bloody conflict and made the place their own. “They were used to solving their own problems and doing it physically,” says Robinson.

It appears that we are all heirs of destruction at the hands of raging white men in America. And Dawson’s Fall is a uniquely American novel in part because of the way violence upends the home of Frank and Sarah at 99 Bull Street, a house that is now in Charleston’s historic registry.

To say much more would be a spoiler, but the final quarter of the novel becomes a heart stopper. And I don’t want to leave without asking Robinson about the seamless way she led the tale from history and social injustice into Hitchcockian suspense territory and back. Certainly, the buildup had to do with the way she began homing in on the minutiae of who was doing what from one moment to the next on a certain day in March 1889.

I ask her how she did it, and Robinson smiles. “I don’t think in terms of a system, but I’m well aware that if you’re watching a movie, you get nervous if the action slows down and focuses on one thing. The last book I wrote was Sparta, about a marine coming back from Iraq, so I did a lot of research on what happens to you in combat. Your heart starts pounding harder, and your blood concentrates in the center of your body for fight-or-flight. Your head becomes part of this engine and you literally get tunnel vision. So in writing, once you start slowing down the action and focusing on things that are happening moment-by moment, your brain is reminded that this is what happens to your body when you’re frightened or when you’re under extreme stress.”

This, too, seems like an important lesson for stressful times. 

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