The Politics of Prose
Ungentlemanly Acts: The Army's Notorious Incest Trialby Louise Barnett
Hill and Wang, 225 pp., $24
Little about present-day Fort Stockton suggests it was ever a place of high national scandal. Yet, at a time in this country when incest was not a fit subject for discussion and talk of it a "corruption of public discourse," the U.S. Army was dealt the flagrant and politically incorrigible hand of an incest-based court-martial from this remote town, once a vital outpost at the fringes of America's postwar West. Barnett enlivens the bleak frontier existence of late 19th-century West Texas, beginning with a backdrop of typical indiscretions, idiosyncracies, and indelicacies of fort life and ending with a portrait of the place as a regular hotbed of intrigue and the preposterous miscarriage of justice it gave rise to.
In 1879, Captain Andrew Geddes claimed to have witnessed (overheard) Lieutenant Louis H. Orleman having incestuous relations with his 18-year-old daughter, Lillie (who eventually acknowledged then denied the charges). When his accusations were brought to light, Orleman countered by charging Geddes with seducing his daughter. The Army, harboring unsavory sentiment toward Geddes (a capable soldier who happened to be a compulsive womanizer) and, drunk on the arbitrariness of its own court-martial system, chose to put Geddes on trial in San Antonio. Relying and expanding on bountiful evidence of court record and testimony, prejudicial volleys traced all the way to "the highest quarters of the army" (meaning General Sherman), and painstakingly cross-referenced historical facts, Barnett details the Army's systematic and ludicrous attempt to build a case against Geddes as a "sexual predator."
In a very smart, captivating, and appropriately humorous narrative, Barnett exploits the Geddes case to illustrate grander issues which exemplified 19th-century American mores. The Army's conduct is revealing of attitudes toward women and female sexuality and "the male desire to know and control the sexuality of women." The book (re)visits the antiquated notions of phrenology, 'scientific discourse' on the novel (apparently novel-reading by women leads, or led, to deformities in females), and "the 19th century ideal of pure womanhood." Barnett subtly demolishes the staid ideal of "an officer and a gentleman" by showing an abject lack of the quality in the three-, four-, and five-star personalities spotlighted (Sherman, a regular she-manitarian who espouses femicentric drivel in his robustly gallant and paternal directives, was himself a cradle robber). This exciting book is a carefully crafted and unassuming study of the etiology of incest, cultural mores, and political vengeance.