In Full Flower Author HJoward Bahr's novel has been overshadowed, like the Civil War bloodbath at its center. But he has won his personal battle to publish something beautiful

October 29, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Once there were two men, living in bordering states. One was a horse farmer, the other an assistant professor who used to be a railroad worker.

The men were strangers, yet their imaginations seemed to run on parallel tracks. In the early 1990s, each began to write a story that had been tugging at him for some time. The stories were Civil War stories, more or less, set in their home states, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The two men finished their books and found publishers. The novels appeared, one right after the other, in the spring of this year. Both writers received glowing reviews, both were nominated for the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction.

It is here that their paths diverged.

For one of the books is Charles Frazier's much-celebrated "Cold Mountain," the literary equivalent of a winning lottery ticket -- best seller, soon to be a major motion picture, National Book Award nominee, more than 770,000 copies in print.

But this is the story of the other book, "The Black Flower" by Howard Bahr, and the small Baltimore-based press, Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, that made it possible.

Bushrod Carter was barely twenty-six, but his greasy hair and mustache were already shot with gray. The grime of the long campaign from Atlanta was etched in the lines of his face and in the cracked knuckles of his hands; crammed under his fingernails was a paste of black powder, bacon grease, and the soil of three Confederate states. Though he was a veteran of all the campaigns of the Army of Tennessee since Shiloh, the fortunes of war had left him still a private of the line, carrying a musket in the ranks of the regiment he had joined more than three years before. True, he had been a Corporal once on the march up into Kentucky, but he had lost his stripes (symbolically, for he hadn't sewn any on) in the confusion over a pitcher of buttermilk stolen from the officers' mess. It was just as well with him, for he really possessed no military ambition. In fact, he was sure he no longer possessed ambition of any kind.

-- "The Black Flower"

Howard Bahr has always felt as if he were born at the wrong time. The first 10 years of his life -- his happiest by far -- were spent with his maternal grandparents in Mississippi, and his life with them had the slower, gentler rhythms of a much earlier time. He always thought he might be more at home in the 19th century.

Then his mother remarried, and the Bahr family began moving around, wherever his stepfather's job took them. Bahr doesn't elaborate much, but these were not happy years. He joined the Navy at age 17, as soon as he finished high school. When he left in 1968, he was a third class gunner's mate.

"I was 21, almost 22, and I went to work on the Illinois Central Railroad in Gulfport, Miss.," he says. He has a thick Southern accent, but you couldn't call it a drawl. Bahr's voice is rapid and quick, his words falling over each other. "I always wanted to be a railroad man. Loved railroads all my life. That was my great ambition."

But even as he advanced from yard clerk to brake man, he was writing. Short stories, essays, non-fiction pieces, a column for the Illinois Central magazine. In 1972, he even sold one of his columns to the Saturday Evening Post for $100. "Oh, that was a big day."

At the age of 27, he decided to enroll at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in English and started work on his doctorate.

He had come to the study of literature by way of his fondness for the work of William Faulkner, another native son of Mississippi and an inescapable influence. Eventually, Faulkner even made it possible for Bahr to make a living: From 1976 to 1993, Bahr worked as a curator in Faulkner's restored home in Oxford, the fabled Rowan Oak.

He wrote on the premises when he found time, but as he told the Oxford-American, a journal on the arts, in its just-published Faulkner centennial edition: "My writing was never better for having been done at Rowan Oak; neither was the creative process any more difficult or aggravating than it would have been anyway. The grace of God has much to do with creative success, I think -- but not place. Not even Rowan Oak."

Quick return

He began "The Black Flower" about a year before he left Rowan Oak, for a tenure-track position at decidedly unpretentious Motlow State Community College near Lynchburg, Tenn. In 1995, the book finally finished, he sent it out to mainstream publishers like St. Martin's and Algonquin. They sent it back, so white and unblemished that he wondered if anyone had read so much as a single line.

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