CONFLICTING VIEWS ON THE “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY
I have been a fan of John Jakes’ ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy, ever since I read the first novel - 1982's "North and South" when I was in my twenties. After reading both the first and the second novel - "Love and War" (1984), I became a fan of the miniseries, upon which the miniseries are based. Because of my love of Jakes’ saga, I began perusing many websites created by fans of the saga and joined a few Yahoo discussion groups. And what I had discovered about the saga’s fandom has left me feeling not only shocked, but wondering if these fans had any idea what Jakes was trying to convey in his story.
Reading some of the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” websites and the Yahoo groups has led me to wonder if the majority of this particular fandom tend to place the saga into the same category as ”THE BIRTH OF A NATION” or ”GONE WITH THE WIND”. In other words, many of these fans tend to view Jakes’ saga with a conservative eye. Either they seemed mistaken by Jakes’ (and producer David Wolper’s) theme behind the saga . . . or they may have decided to ignore it. I suspect the latter.
Now, some might be wondering why I had even bothered to write this article. Frankly, so am I. I doubt that this article will ever change these fans’ perspective on the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy. So why do I bother? To be honest, this article is not about changing their perspective. It is about me expressing my frustration over the fact that I cannot find one fan of the saga who does NOT view it along the same lines as Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel (and David Selznick’s famous screen adaptation). I have yet to encounter a ”NORTH AND SOUTH” fan who does not view the story as some kind of ode to the Old South. Judging from Jakes’ three novels and Wolper’s miniseries adaptations, I certainly do not view it as such.
This conservative attitude has never been more apparent than in my clash with other fans over the role of the slaves owned by the family of one of the saga’s main characters – Orry Main. Aside from the character of Cuffey (portrayed by Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker), these fans try to view the slaves in a sympathetic light by labeling them as loyal to the Main family. This is especially true of the two characters – Semiramis (Erica Gimpel) and Ezra (Beau Billingslea). While perusing a ”NORTH AND SOUTH” website created by a European-born fan (the site has since disappeared ), I noticed that he had described both characters as ”loyal”, due to their decision to remain at Mont Royal (the Mains’ South Carolina plantation) after the other slaves had left in the second miniseries, set during the Civil War. What many fans failed to realize that Semiramis or Ezra had not remained at Mont Royal due to any loyalty to the Main family.
”NORTH AND SOUTH: Book 2” had started with a recently married Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the war, and Semiramis acting as her personal servant. Hours before the Battle of Bull Run commenced, Brett received a message from South Carolina that her mother, Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) had been injured in a barn fire. Brett made the sudden decision to make her way through battle lines in order to return back into Confederate territory and South Carolina. Semiramis accompanied her. The pair eventually reached Mont Royal in the middle of Episode 2. In the following episode, both Cuffey and Ezra separately questioned Semiramis’ decision to remain with Brett. Although the maid refused to acknowledge Cuffey’s question, she gave Ezra a vague answer about wanting to stick by Brett’s side. However, both men seemed to know the true answer. Charles Main. Semiramis had fallen in love with Orry Main’s younger cousin in the previous miniseries, ”Book 1”. And both men seemed appalled that she would harbor such feelings for a man who was related to their owner. But whereas Cuffey left Mont Royal (stealing Clarissa Main’s jewels along the way), Ezra remained behind, considering her treatment at the hands of the Mains’ former overseer, Salem Jones (Tony Frank). Even when the Main women – Clarissa, Madeline (Lesley Ann Down) and Brett – had permitted the other slaves to leave. And what was Ezra’s reason for remaining at Mont Royal? He wanted a chance to woo and win Semiramis’ heart. And Semiramis’ reason for remaining behind? She wanted a chance to see Charles Main again . . . on the chance he might return to the family’s plantation. Any loyalty toward the Main family had nothing to do with either slave’s decision to remain. However, many ”NORTH AND SOUTH” fans refused to acknowledge this. They simply wanted to believe that the two slaves had remained at Mont Royal, due to some kind of loyalty to the Main family. They especially seemed enamored of the idea of Semiramis remaining loyal to Brett. Judging from their remarks, the idea of a loyal servant . . . especially a black slave . . . seemed very appealing to them.
Another aspect about many of these fans of the trilogy seemed to be their belief that the Mains’ slaves should have been satisfied with their lot as the family’s servants and property . . . as long as they were well treated. In one of the Yahoo groups, one particular fan questioned this belief, expressing doubt that a slave would automatically love his or her master because of well treatment, pointing out that the master (or even mistress) was still robbing that slave of any kind of freedom. And another member responded in the following fashion:
”JESUS! BECAUSE THE SLAVE KNEW NO OTHER REALITY! THEY WERE SLAVES!
HOW WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO KNOW ANOTHER LIFE! AFTER A WHILE, IT HAS
TO AFFECT ONE'S SELF-BELIEF!”
Whoever had posted this response was obviously ignorant of his or her American history. If Southern slaves were unaware of the idea of freedom, why did so many of them escaped or attempted to escape from bondage? And that included famous fugitives such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, Henry Box Brown, Robert Smalls, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns. Even the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy featured two fugitive slaves – Semiramis’ older brother Priam (David Harris), and Grady (Georg Sanford Brown) – James Huntoon’s slave and Virgilia Hazard’s husband. Although both former slaves had encountered a great deal of bigotry and hardship in the North, neither of them had any inclination to return to their masters and slavery. Instead, both participated in John Brown’s failed raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Another one of the Mains’ slave – an elderly gentleman named Joseph (Harry Caesar) – seemed to be on friendly terms with Clarissa Main. He even seemed concerned for her well-being. Despite the lack of hostility between slave and mistress, Joseph did not hesitate to leave Mont Royal during the summer of 1863, when given the opportunity. Despite the Mains’ decent treatment of their slaves, one of them – a man named Caleb – reminded Orry that Mont Royal had never been their home.
If there is one character in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy that personified some of these fans’ more conservative view of the saga, it is abolitionist Virgilia Hazard. Virgilia was not the only abolitionist in the story. Her older brother, George and his wife, Constance (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) were also abolitionists. And Charles Main seemed to have a more liberal view of African-Americans than the others in his family. Judging from his comments to Semiramis, he never seemed to have a high or matter-of-fact opinion of slavery. But Virgilia, portrayed by the wonderful Kirstie Alley, managed to take her views against slavery to great heights. One might as well describe her as a fanatic. She had no tolerance toward all Southerners – especially slave owners. And she was very passionate in her views toward abolition and women’s rights. Many fans hate her . . . even to this day.
One can understand an initial dislike of Virgilia. She was bigoted toward all Southerners and harbored a fanatical view of her political and social beliefs. On the other hand, it is easy to admire her more liberal view toward African-Americans – especially in the mid 19th century – and abolition. This tolerance led her to fall in love and marry Grady. In ”Book I”, George had accused her of marrying the fugitive slave for political reasons. But Constance insisted that she had loved him. Virgilia’s reaction to his death seemed to support Constance’s views. And unlike other unpopular characters like Ashton Main (Terri Garber), James Huntoon (Jim Metzler), Isabel Truscott Hazard (Wendy Fulton, Mary Crosby and Deborah Rush), Harry Venable (Keith Szarabajka) and Elkhanah Bent (Philip Casnoff); Virgilia was able to face and acknowledge her flaws before her death by a hangman’s noose in Episode 6 of ”Book II”. Not only did her opinions of Southerners ease – personified by her sympathy toward a wounded Confederate officer - she also managed to make her peace with both George (whom she had accused of being a sympathizer toward Southern slave owners) and more importantly, Orry. But many fans have refused to acknowledge this character development in Virgilia. And they continue to blind themselves from her virtues. Because of this, I cannot help but wonder if their dislike of Virgilia had more to do with her liberal views than her personal flaws.
I find it ironic that the only fans of the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy I have come across, seemed to view the saga with a conservative bent. This is especially ironic, considering that John Jakes' take on history in the antebellum United States seemed to be a lot more liberal – especially in his criticism of our country’s history with slavery. Even producer David Wolper managed to capture this view of Jakes’ saga in his three miniseries that aired between 1985 and 1994. Yet, I rarely come across any fan who seemed to view the trilogy in the same manner – especially in regard to their views on the Mains’ slaves and criticism of the Virgilia Hazard character. It almost seemed as if they would prefer to place Jakes’ trilogy in the same political category as Margaret Mitchell’s saga, ”Gone With the Wind”. And I do not know whether to find this sad . . . or ironic.