Lit Crit

Country Boys and Conservative Conservation

May 04, 2010

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Country Boys and Conservative Conservation

Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Anthill: A Novel, is, in many ways, a traditional first novel: it’s primarily a quasi-autobiographical fictional retelling of the author’s childhood and young manhood. Anthill is the tale of Wilson’s alter ego, a bug-loving Eagle Scout with the venerable Southern name of Raphael Semmes Cody, who grows up exploring nature in an old growth wilderness outside Mobile, Alabama.

On the other hand, most first-time novelists aren’t octogenarians. Nor are they, typically, the world’s top expert on ants. They haven’t been famous / notorious since the 1975 publication of their scientific masterwork, Sociobiology, either. Nor are they the chief inventor of the influential cause of preserving biodiversity.

And, generally speaking, autobiographical novels don’t include a 73-page centerpiece narrating the genocidal wars between ant colonies that young Raff tracks for his Insect Study merit badge. Or at least they don’t recount them from the ants’ point of view, with dialogue exchanged via chemical secretions: “The signals now proclaimed, Food, food. I have found food, follow my trail!” (While “ant fiction” sounds odd, to say the least, Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer winner, is a crackerjack storyteller. His ant chapters are as dramatic as the finest nature documentaries.)

And while many novelists are nostalgists, few are as thoroughly pro-conservative as E. O. Wilson. When it comes to sympathetic portrayals of white Republican Southerners, Wilson’s Anthill makes the recent Sandra Bullock hit movie The Blind Side seem like a Paul Krugman op-ed.

Particularly moving is the depiction in the first third of the book of the often-tense marriage between Raff’s redneck father, who works to instill in his son the best aspects of the good ole boy code of honor, and his old money mother, who names him after the Confederate admiral in her genteel family tree.

Here, Wilson is content to show—rather than tell—how an ordinary American family follows the patterns he outlined in Sociobiology. In the final third of the book (after the ant interlude), however, Wilson displays a little too much of his Harvard professor’s didactic streak as he insists on explaining the evolutionary basis for his human characters’ actions.

Wilson was a nature-loving Gulf Coast boy back during the Depression, a story he told wonderfully in his autobiography Naturalist: “Most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine.”). In Anthill, though, he has moved his protagonist’s birth up to the Jimmy Carter era. This both makes the story more relevant and lets Wilson avoid the usual ritual groveling over Jim Crow.

Tom Wolfe famously called Wilson “the new Darwin.” That’s a bit overstated, but it reflects the affinity between the Virginian Wolfe and the Alabaman Wilson as proud Sons of the South.
Wilson is heir to a long Anglo-American tradition of evolutionary theory founded largely by other intellectual country boys, such as Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Francis Galton. In contrast, Wilson’s bitter enemies in the Harvard biology department were two city boys: the Chicagoan James D. Watson and the New Yorker Stephen Jay Gould. (The acerbic Watson and the gentlemanly Wilson have since reconciled.)

In Britain, it has been common for conservative writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Richard Adams (the great talking rabbit novel Watership Down) to be skeptical of development out of their Tory love for the countryside. In America, though, conservatism is associated with boundless building. And the recent takeover by neoconservatives hasn’t helped instill a regard for nature—neocon godfather Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, lived for decades in an apartment overlooking New York’s lovely Central Park without ever setting foot in it.

In Anthill, Wilson offers an observation that would have appealed to Edmund Burke: “Nature works, Raphael learned, because it has order, and from order, it has beauty.”
The conclusion of Wilson’s plot is intended to deliver a political message to conservatives, one that Wilson summed up in a 2001 lecture:

“What is the heart of conservatism if it does not include leadership in conservation? And why have conservative thinkers needlessly, and against all logic and their own self-interest, surrendered the moral high ground on this issue to the liberals?”

Hence, after Raff graduates from Harvard Law School and returns to Mobile, he joins the National Rifle Association, becomes a Scoutmaster, and works out a mutually profitable compromise between environmentalists and the real estate developer planning to pave over the beloved wilderness where he learned about biodiversity.

Fortunately, Raff persuades the real estate baron that the big money these days is in upscale developments that set most of the land aside in nature preserves as a perpetual amenity for the fortunate few. Raff explains to the mogul that the higher price per lot in his plan is not a bug, it’s a financial feature: “Rich people can always buy houses, but the middle class maybe not.”

So, perhaps Wilson hasn’t quite worked out all the bugs in his plan for conservative conservation. Still, even if Anthill isn’t quite the great American novel, it’s an impressive addition to one of the great American careers.

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