Lock continues his American Novels series with The Wreckage of Eden (Bellevue Library, June), about the relationship between an Army chaplain and Emily Dickinson during the Mexican-American War and John Brown’s 1859 slave rebellion.
How would you describe your American Novels series?
As an ongoing examination of certain qualities in the American character which persist from the 19th century, when the nation was acquiring its mandates of Manifest Destiny and violent acquisition. I use the device of imagining the primary documentarians of the time to present my ideas about these qualities that make Americans what they are—for better or for worse.
This novel deals with issues of racism and social injustice. Was that always your intention?
Yes, certainly. It’s not my intent solely to recreate the past, but to comment on it. When I set out to write, I have no preconceived notions other than the figures, the characters I’ll be invoking, but each time I find myself returning to themes of race, social inequality, and injustice. I suppose that’s simply a reflection of the present.
How did you imagine the relationship between fictional chaplain Robert Winter and Emily Dickinson?
I thought of their voices as contrary. Emily Dickinson really didn’t engage in the world beyond the larger, metaphysical sense of the world. Robert was at the heart of the most desperate adventures this nation had during that century. He was the one who questioned himself; she never questioned herself. So it was a debate between the absolute certainty of art, which Emily embodies, and the character buffeted constantly by happenstance, contingency, and moral questioning, which is Robert.
Why did you choose to set the novel partially during the Mexican-American War?
These wars, such as the Mexican-American war, the Mormon Rebellion, the Border Wars—outside of history majors, these are forgotten and unknown major conflicts, every bit as important to the time and to the nation that we became as the wars of the last century. It’s certainly not anything novel for me to observe that we can’t understand the present unless we understand the past.
Is there anything specific you hope readers will take away from this series?
One of the things that motivated my interest was my daughter’s attitude. She’s a marine biologist and knows nothing of American history. Her attitude is that “I’m not interested in dead people,” and I think that’s a mistake. I have a feeling that if this holds true for the millennial generation, it probably holds true for many of my own generation. It is very important to understand how the national ethos, the collective unconsciousness which every nation possesses, was formed.