As is our custom we bid farewell to a concluding novel with a special column. Jack Alcott’s Grim Legion joins a “happy few”: our select group of “flagship stories” that began with Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World.
Is Grim Legion science fiction? No, it’s historical fiction, but the era in which it is set — the early Industrial Revolution in America — was literally science fiction applied to real life. The resulting social, political and economic tensions would ultimately lead to catastrophe, as we know; they persist today in religious and social acrimony, among other things.
In the story, the “Helvetians” inveigh against “godless” machinery, but what values are they defending?
The novel contains a multitude of historical allusions. For example, in part 24 (Chapter 25): “He followed for a few yards but the snow was blinding, and his chest and ribcage were on fire where Gant had kicked him.” To what historical fact does this incident allude?
Edgar Allan Poe is acclaimed as the father of the mystery story and as a writer of horror fiction. Yet half his work is devoted to comedy, and his literary criticism was very influential in Europe as well as in America; such giants as Charles Baudelaire revered him. What incidents in Grim Legion allude to the less well-known aspects of his career?
One could go on in like manner for a very long time...
Now, as Jack Alcott’s Grim Legion joins the history whence it sprang, we salute both the novel and its historical characters: Sylvanus Thayer, the “father of West Point” and founder of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. Robert E. Lee — himself superintendant of West Point from 1852 to 1855 — whose career led to glory. And Edgar Allan Poe, whose career led... straight out of the Army and into the pages of world literature. And then, of course, there’s Henry, Edgar’s ne’er-do-well brother and mainstay...
The Challenge is staggering but not impossible. Historical fiction has a way of bringing history to life. Prepare a syllabus for a high-school or university course in literature and history based on Grim Legion.
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert E. Lee in 1838
Copyright © 2006 by Bewildering Stories
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