Marcellus Jerome Clarke as a Confederate soldier. Photo via Wikipedia.
Marcellus Jerome Clarke was a quiet teenager when he enlisted in the Confederate Army. But following his capture by Union forces and his subsequent escape, he rode with the famous John Hunt Morgan for a time before leaving the army, forming a guerrilla gang and ultimately becoming one of the Civil War’s most enigmatic figures: a criminal named Sue Mundy.
On March 15, 1865, three weeks before the end of the Civil War, twenty-year-old Clarke was hanged as a Confederate guerrilla in Louisville, Kentucky, as a crowd of thousands looked on. In the official charges against him, Clarke’s description included the alias “Sue Mundy.” By the time of his execution, Mundy had earned a reputation as the region’s most dangerous outlaw.
In the historical novel Sue Mundy: A Novel of the Civil War, author Richard Taylor chronicles in fiction the true story of Clarke and the legend of Mundy. In honor of what would have been the 172nd birthday of Marcellus Jerome Clarke, here’s an Q & A with the author about this fascinating figure:
What drew you to Jerome Clarke? Do you recall the catalyst for your interest in this historical figure?
Taylor: What drew me initially to Sue Mundy was a photo that appeared in the late 70’s in a pictorial history of Louisville, Views of Louisville, published by the Courier Journal. It contained the photo of Sue Mundy seated with his legs crossed. I decided then to learn everything about him I could, starting with journal articles in the Register of the KY historical Society and Filson Club Quarterlies, then moving on to memoirs and books, then military records and courts martial in the National Archives. I also talked with experts on the subject who gave me perspective and additional help.
What about the photograph so compelled you?
Taylor: I was curious to get behind the image and learn the reality of his violent life. It opened up a number of questions and a number of possibilities to me. In some ways, the novel, just as the introductory description of Jerome Clarke seated, is a deconstruction of the photograph. The clarity of the image belies the complexity of shadow and substance that it embodies. By itself, the photograph is inadequate to explain who this person is, what produced him, what is going on in his head. The answer to these and similar questions, I guess, is what the novel is about. My favorite professor, Guy Davenport, defined art as the replacement of indifference with attention. It was hard for me to be indifferent about that image of Sue Mundy, just as about the same time, I was arrested by the photographs of sharecroppers in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, whose faces I painted over a period of months as oil portraits, maybe as some kind of exorcism but also partially as commemoration. Jerome Clarke, at first a boy with good prospects, deserves, in the same way, some sort of explanation about how, given his upbringing and the times, he could go so wrong. My partial response is that all of us are potentially Sue Mundys, creatures of infinite possibility who are circumscribed by the collision of our potential with the realities of our circumstances. The novel is an exploration of these questions, a replacement of indifference with attention.
Talk a bit more about the research process. How did you begin? What sources were most useful to you?
Taylor: First, I went to standard histories of the Civil War in Kentucky and followed every reference to Sue Mundy. This meant county histories, standard histories of the war, biographies of participants (such as John Hunt Morgan), even diaries and memoirs. In addition to seeking out facts, I wanted to get a flavor of the war, gathering facts about weapons, horses, uniforms, etc. One of the most interesting experiences was accompanying a group of Civil War buffs along the route that William Quantrill followed in Kentucky. We stopped at the site of skirmishes and killings. One was the remains of a farmhouse in a cornfield that belonged to man named Prior Pruitt. Our expert, named Harold Edwards, pulled out an account of Quantrill’s coming to the house early in l865. He’d knocked on Pruitt’s door, the very door of the dilapidated building we were standing in front of. When Pruitt refused to open it, Quantrill shot through it, killing Pruitt (whose grave we visited a mile or so away). In the door was a single bullet hole. That bullet hole brought home the war to me in a way no book ever could.
The most useful sources were the straightforward journal articles. But the details that give it, I hope, some verisimilitude came from all the accounts I read, some of them pretty remote from Sue Mundy’s life. I read everything I could find that in any way contributed to the historical context and to the language I felt would make the narrative authentic. I drew from maybe 40 or 50 sources, making up what I had to or wanted to in an effort to make it all come together.
Why did you choose to tackle this material as a novel rather than a straightforward history? What liberties did this genre allow you? What limitations?
Taylor: I considered writing a biography of Sue Mundy, but there were too many gaps in the material and too little analysis of his moral trajectory—the development of character that makes for good fiction. Writing a novel let me lie a little to tell the truth, as they say—at least the truth as I see it. This is another way of saying that not always having to verify what I said made the process more enjoyable. Writing fiction allowed me to apply Jerome’s experience to my own understanding of things. One of the things that moved me to take up the novel again was the loss of one of my own sons—imagining what his aspirations were and what it meant to die young.
So part of the challenge was remaining faithful to Jerome Clark’s point of view without sacrificing the larger perspective on the Civil War that his story offers.
Taylor: Though I tampered with facts, I tried very hard to adhere to what I believed was the reality of his experience. In order to convey that reality, I had to make him perhaps more aware, more sensitive than he actually was. I could not think of him, maybe any criminal, simply as a brute. Humans are intricately complex and changeable, an idea that lies at the heart of the fictional enterprise.
In what ways is Sue Mundy a tale not just of Jerome Clark, but of the Civil War in general?
Taylor: Jerome’s life is a microcosm of the larger war in Kentucky, the war in general. There is the same loss of innocence as Kentucky switched its allegiances from north to south as a result of the draconian policies of the Union commandants who, in effect, ruled the state during the last two years of the war. In part, Jerome’s life is a movement from innocence to experience, idealism to disillusionment as he suffers the loss of his cousin Patterson and witnesses the devastating effects of war.
You mentioned before that you wanted Sue Mundy to address, in part, war’s dehumanization of individuals. Is this a story that has some relevance in today’s social and political climate?
Taylor: There is moral deterioration here just as there is in the sectarian violence in Iraq or Lebanon. The difference is that one relates to ethnicity, one almost purely to politics. Amazingly, people from opposing sides in the Civil War sat often in the same churches before and after the war. Guerrilla war means little war, the unofficial war that we are now witnessing in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Sadly, the fact that the similarities are so cogent makes a sorry comment about our lack of moral growth as a species. The names and allegiances change but not the tendency toward violence as a futile means to resolve differences. Every war, as has been said, represents the failure of reason. That we should begin a new millennium with a preemptive war half a world away is a sad commentary on our present and our future.