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At War with Mexico, by Bruce Cutler

Review by Ed Quillen

Historical Fiction – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

At War with Mexico: A Fictional Mosaic
by Bruce Cutler
published in 2001 by University of Oklahoma Press
ISBN 0-8061-3264-7

MANY HISTORIANS call the Civil War the defining event in American history, but without a Mexican War in 1846-48, there might not have been a Civil War in 1861-65.

After all, one of the main causes of the Civil War was a bitter argument about whether slavery should be extended to the territories taken from Mexico — Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and that part of Colorado south and west of the Arkansas River, which had served as the international boundary since 1819. Despite the heroic labors of Henry Clay in forging the Compromise of 1850, the United States couldn’t find a comfortable way to fit our territory into the national political system.

Further, most of the Civil War leaders played a part in the Mexican War. Abraham Lincoln, then a congressman from Illinois, opposed the war and feared that he had thereby ended his political career. Jefferson Davis emerged a hero for his swift and innovative deployment of his Mississippi Rifles regiment at the Battle of Buena Vista. Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, who privately considered the war unjust, managed to save the day at Mexico City by hauling a howitzer up into a belfry to get a clear field of fire. Capt. Robert E. Lee, an engineer in Gen. Winfield Scott’s staff, moved heavy artillery up a cliff at night to take well-defended Cerro Gordo from the rear.

The military outcome was not a foregone conclusion: even if the United States was a richer country, American soldiers were always outnumbered and had to maintain a long supply line through hostile territory. No matter what you think of the morality of the Mexican War, it was an impressive military achievement.

With all that in mind — what a rich cast and setting for historical fiction — I looked forward to reading At War with Mexico.

But even though it’s a piece of fiction about the Mexican War, it’s not a novel. According to the cover, it’s “a fictional mosaic.”

THERE’S NO NARRATIVE or protagonist. Instead, it’s a collection of short pieces, arranged chronologically from 1846 through 1848. These pieces are, of course, all fictional, though most of their “sources” are real people.

There are excerpts from newspaper stories, magazines of the day, President James K. Polk’s diary, soldiers’ letters and notebooks, etc. “Contributors” include Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Central Colorado even appears, in an 1848 entry from John C. Frémont — “When we plunge into the defile at Hard Scrabble it is one continuous snowstorm” — which moves on to their snowbound starvation above Saguache.

Cutler naturally has to use a variety of voices and literary styles in this mimicry. He does that well, moving from the grandiloquent style of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (“We might as well define infinity or space. It shines with a diamond brilliance…. We hereby name it: Manifest Destiny”) to the homely letters from the overseer of Polk’s plantation (“I no that you aire very much perplext about your negrows running off … I have got my hansful to save the crop and I am livving hear for small wages.”)

But the constant switching in styles also makes this book rather choppy, and many entries are typeset like poetry, which is attractive but exacerbates the discontinuity.

The book also presumes that the reader is quite familiar with the major political issue during the conduct of the Mexican War: Polk was a Democrat, and most of the generals were Whigs, the opposition political party then. Polk did not want any general to be so successful as to become a political rival. That’s a hell of a way to run a war, but unless you know that context, much of this will be hard to follow.

At first, it appears that this book has neither a theme nor a story to tell, and it reads like a scrapbook. But a thread eventually develops — the jumbled pieces tend to illustrate the growing American belief in a “Manifest Destiny” justified by pseudo-scientific theories that demonstrated the superiority of the Anglo-Saxons, who thereby deserved to rule the continent.

A historian might well develop such a theme, and base it on material that resembles what’s in At War with Mexico. But the historian’s material would be the real documents, the letters and diaries and press clippings, not the fabrications in this book.

IN ADDITION, in such a wholesale fabrication, anachronisms seem inevitable, and Cutler does err. For instance, he has an entry from President Polk’s diary: “This war will not be like our last one. The war against the British. Madison, the schoolmaster. He thought his underlings would do their duty. They merely did what they wished. This war will be run from the Oval Office. It will be run from my desk. Absolute control.”

Polk could never have written this entry because there was no Oval Office when he was president. William Howard Taft had the Oval Office built in 1909, sixty years after Polk left the White House.

It’s hard to know what to make of At War with Mexico. The promotional copy says the idea was to convey the feel of American political and intellectual life during the Mexican War.

But for me, it was slow and often tedious reading, even though it’s a short book with small pages and generous margins. If this had been a collection of real documents from that era, it might have been worth the trouble.

As a piece of fiction, though, it doesn’t work. Writers do need to experiment with new ways of telling stories, and university presses, where the commercial pressure is lower, are commendable laboratories for such experiments. Let’s hope the next experiment produces more engaging results.

–Ed Quillen