Peter Melman - Landsman: A Novel

Year of Publication: 

Peter Charles Melman's debut novel, Landsman, is a boisterous, sometimes brutal, and full-hearted tale of a Jewish hoodlum turned Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Elias Abrams is the son of an indentured servant in New Orleans who escapes a robbery gone awry--and the wrath of his old underworld gang, the Cypress Stump Boys--by enlisting in the Third Louisiana Regiment. Amid the deprivations and sudden violence of the war, and thanks in part to a lady correspondent looking to raise a soldier's spirits, he develops a surprising moral sense, knowing that he'll have to reckon with the crimes, and the criminals, he left behind.

Questions for Peter Charles Melman is your first published novel, but I know it's not the first you've written. Is it the first time you've written about history? What drew you so far into the past?

Melman: Actually, you're right, my earlier manuscripts had very little to do with historical fiction. And yet, there I am a couple years ago, working at a small bookstore in Brooklyn, when I come across a line in Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic claiming that several thousand Jews fought for the South during the Civil War. I was absolutely thunderstruck; the idea of a Jewish Confederacy had simply never occurred to me. As a Jew born in New York but raised in Louisiana, with an undergraduate degree in history and doctorate in English-Creative Writing, and a tendency to write some pretty voluptuous prose, which lends itself well to period pieces, I knew suddenly, without question, that I was the man to write this book. It's one of the few creative assurances I've ever experienced. How do you find a balance between research and invention when you are trying to capture a historical period? When do you leave the facts as we know them and start making stuff up?

Melman: With Landsman, I decided early on that I'd outline the plot thoroughly, before I wrote a creative word of it. With my previous work, I'd let my writing dictate where the story was heading. I'd follow interesting paths and digressions I allowed myself to take. And while there's a nice organic quality to writing this way, I'd inevitably find that I’d written myself into too many corners. This time, I wanted to have a very clear idea of what I was getting myself into. And for me, using historical research as a backbone for the novel really helped ease the pressure of plot determination. Still, I wasn't worried about history commandeering the novel's narrative element altogether. While I paid as much homage to fact as possible, I knew my greater loyalties would remain with fiction. I say this because although you're at constant risk of anachronism, using the imagination alone while writing historical fiction is, for me, the most exhilarating part of the whole process. You have a lot of fun with your language. Were there favorite sources from the time that helped you capture the voice of the Civil War era?

Melman: Certainly Edwin C. Bearss and Willie Tunnard's A Southern Record: The Story of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry, C.S.A. (1866) was crucial in helping me gain an authentic sense of battlefield life, as was Herbert Asbury's The French Quarter (1936) when it came to ante-bellum New Orleans's seedier underbelly. And Elliott Ashkenazi's edited The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon: Growing Up in New Orleans, 1861-1862 was instrumental in helping me construct Nora Bloom, there's no question. But for the vernacular of the remaining characters, I relied almost exclusively on the ear I gained while living all those years in Louisiana. As to these characters' mentality as a whole, though? Well, that was old-fashioned empathy, I guess. There's plenty of room for heroism in your story, but not much on the battlefield. How did you like using the war (and a soldier fighting the Confederacy) as a backdrop for a tale of redemption?

Melman: Frankly, I had no real desire to write a Civil War novel. For me, the spiritually redemptive arc of its protagonist was always far more intriguing. On a global level, I'll admit that one of the novel's aims was to explore the involvement of Jewish soldiery for the South during the Civil War, true. The moral ironies of why one minority--a minority into which I myself was born--might fight to maintain the enslavement of another, proved too altogether human a subject for me to ignore. Ultimately, though, I hope Landsman serves to take the Southern, Civil War-era Jew beyond the province of villain, victim, or saint, and to place him squarely where he belongs: into the realm of flaw and decency of which we're all understandably a part. I say this because to deny the grosser elements of Jewish-American history is to deny the very most human elements of Jewish-American history. That many of my characters--Jew and Gentile alike--are depraved, that they swear and sin, is testament to the frailties and moral subjectivities of every single one of us. And while it's while certainly a worn trope in fiction writing, that we're subsequently capable of redemption at all I quickly discovered to be the book's true focus.

I think it's important to consider, then, the title of the novel itself. The first pronunciation, "landz'men," essentially defines a farmer, someone who lives and works on land. Certainly, my protagonist Elias Abrams can be described as such, born as he is for a love of the land. But it's the second meaning and pronunciation, "länts'mn," the one that I most often say when people ask me, that truly defines the novel. It comes from Yiddish, and means "countryman" or more specifically, a Jew who comes from the same district or town. Now I called the novel Landsman because of the double-entendre, but as idealistic as this may seem, I'd like to believe that, in the Yiddishe sense, we're all archetypically landsman, in some form or another. You write about a small but substantial Jewish community in Louisiana that played a significant role in the Confederacy. What's your sense of the history of Jews in New Orleans and the South?

Melman: Here, as much as any other aspect of the novel, my research obviously needed to be as accurate as possible. For this, I'm particularly indebted to Bertram W. Korn's American Jewry and the Civil War, Robert Rosen's The Jewish Confederates, Irwin Lachoff and Catherine C. Kahn's The Jewish Community of New Orleans, and Elliott Ashkenazi's The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840-1875. From what I discovered in these texts, as well as from my own experience, Jews participated at every level in the ante-bellum South. In the 18th century, Sephardic Jews numbered in the thousands and among the most respected citizens of cities like Charleston and Savannah. Then, after the cotton industry began to exhaust the lands of the eastern seaboard, these Sephardic Jews followed the cotton trade westward once the Louisiana Purchase opened up new, fertile territory. By the time the Civil War began, after the waves of immigrant Ashkenazi Jews arrived from places like Alsace and Germany in the 1830s and '40s, the Jewish population of New Orleans numbered at approximately four thousand.

Overall, these Jewish arrivals were well-respected for their education, knowledge of Old Testament scripture, affiliation with the much-admired ancient Israelites, commendable work ethic, and most of all, for their willingness to accept traditionally Southern ways. Tragically, that they were white in a society predicated on degrading African-Americans eased their transition into the daily affairs of New Orleans, there’s little doubt. It's also important to note that many of these Confederate Jews were assimilationist by nature, though New Orleans did house several synagogues at the time, one of which was absolutely massive. To get a heightened sense of the Jewish place in the Confederate South, one need only consider Judah Benjamin. West Indian-born, married to a Creole Catholic woman, prosperous in sugar cane cultivation, and one of the most brilliant senators the country's ever seen, under President Jefferson Davis, he would eventually ascend to the position of Secretary of State, the Confederacy's second-in-command. And while Benjamin was certainly the exception to the rule, he's representative of the kind of mentality found not just among most Confederate Jews, but, at the risk of sounding like an apologist for the abhorrent institution of slavery--which I'm not, obviously--anyone who's ever fought for a place they called home.