The best writing about the American Civil War.
"How slowly our literature grows up!” Nathaniel Hawthorne groused in 1845, never imagining that soon a bloody conflagration would catapult the country’s literature out of a protracted adolescence. Gertrude Stein, writing almost a hundred years later, saw the Civil War as having pushed the fledgling nation smack into the 20th century, thereby making the United States the “oldest country in the world.”
Stein’s perspicacious hyperbole aside, the great writing that came out of the Civil War had its roots in the period just before it, a period of violence, dissent, discomfiture, and fear. As early as 1845, Frederick Douglass was proving Hawthorne right; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a book very much about the difficulty—and necessity—of growing up in a country that kept an entire people ignorant, childlike, subjugated. Then the pacifist Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, in one of his best and tightest lyrics, “Ichabod,” decried Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster’s treacherous support of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. It was as if an era of presumed integrity had ended, which perhaps it had; certainly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was calling it into question. And her polemical bestseller appeared just as Herman Melville was cracking open the novel with a far-reaching, far-sighted story about whaling in which the main character drily asks, “Who ain’t a slave?”
Yet the war also goaded writers into a new, unsentimental understanding of form, of content, and of the country. For America was a scribbling nation, never more so than during the war, and not just because of the upsurge in cheaply printed books, illustrated weeklies, magazines, telegraphic dispatches, and patriotic poems, but because of the countless journals kept by those who tended the sick and wounded, the innumerable letters of soldiers to family and friends, the reports of generals in the field and of politicians on the stump, and the printed casualty lists that read like a doomed inversion of the catalogue of Americans Walt Whitman had celebrated in his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass.
Wartime journals, with their Balzacian reach, supplanted the novel during the Civil War.
“The old forms rattle,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said in 1861; this was especially true for writers such as Melville. Turning from fiction to poetry to encapsulate what war had wrought—its flickering confusions, horrors, and mendacities—Melville now sought the “plain” phrase and “apt” verse, as he wrote in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), “More ponderous than nimble; / For since grimed War here laid aside / His Orient pomp, ’twould ill befit / Overmuch to ply / The rhyme’s barbaric cymbal.” The consolations of Longfellow’s rhymes were not for him. Or, as Melville exclaimed in the poem “Shiloh: A Requiem,” “What like a bullet can undeceive!”
Hawthorne, too, was vexed to nightmare by the conflict ushered in with the shots at Fort Sumter. These were the last years of his own life, though he did not know that; what he did sense was that he could not write a new novel, as he told his publisher, William Ticknor. In 1862, he and Ticknor went to Washington, D.C., to see the war firsthand; the result was not a book but rather Hawthorne’s Swiftian essay “Chiefly About War Matters,” published in The Atlantic Monthly. Satirizing the foibles both of humankind and, more precisely, the Northern readership of the Atlantic, this unequivocal and corrosively antiwar tour de force incorporates within it the objections of Hawthorne’s editor, James T. Fields, in a series of editorial footnotes, written by Hawthorne in the voice of a dull-witted Massachusetts patriot who misunderstands the author’s satire or condemns it as improper. Had Hawthorne lived until the end of the war, and had he continued to write essays, the New Journalism of the next century would have seemed tame beside them.
Emily Dickinson was also ahead of the curve, for her lyrics were already a Kafkaesque distillation of beauty, horror, and unremitting candor. Though for many years she was regarded as the New England recluse who didn’t hear the distant pop of gunfire or, from another point of view, deign to incorporate it into her protomodernist verse, war came to Amherst, as it did to every village and town, and Dickinson published several poems during this period in newspapers that ideologically supported the Union cause or helped raise funds for it. Yet she skeptically computed the high human cost of war, which was also Hawthorne’s point: “Unto like Story—/ Trouble has enticed me—/ How Kinsmen fell—/ Brothers and Sisters—/ who preferred the Glory—” she wrote circa 1862.
In 1867, Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson—an Atlantic Monthly contributor, an abolitionist, and the leader of the first federally authorized regiment of former slaves during the war—published “Negro Spirituals,” an essay that included song lyrics he had scrupulously transcribed while serving with black troops in South Carolina. This essay plus those collected in his Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870) constitute some of the minor masterpieces that came directly out of the war. Higginson could hear the voices of unheralded women and men who would, in the future, contribute in no small measure to an American literature. Of course there was a political agenda here; Higginson’s was the emancipation of people as well as form.
Drearily jingoistic writing filled the pages of Confederate, Union, Republican, and Democratic newspapers, though partisanship could ripen the work, as was partly true of Henry Timrod, the so-called Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, who served briefly in the army, whose home was burned by William Tecumseh Sherman, and who died from tuberculosis just a year after the war’s end. His “Ethnogenesis” welcomed the new Confederate nation born of nature—that is, cotton, or the “snow of Southern summers.” Though in the South, poetry such as this often seemed the last, elegiac gasp of a failed romanticism, in no elegy did any poet excel more than Walt Whitman, whose empathetic, gripping war verse provided comfort where there was none. In poems such as “The Wound Dresser,” he sings of amputated hands and perforated shoulders, and in his grand and poignant “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” written after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the poet recalls the hymn “of the gray-brown bird, / With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.”
The critics Edmund Wilson and Daniel Aaron have argued that the Civil War produced no major novel. Mary Boykin Chesnut, the Samuel Pepys of the South, inadvertently suggested why. “I like pleasant, kindly stories now,” she wryly commented in 1864. “We are so harrowed by real life. Tragedy is for times of ease.” Yet as Wilson notes, Chesnut’s nuanced characters and Chekhovian doom make her diary into the war’s premier novel. Indeed, wartime journals, with their Balzacian reach, seem to have supplanted the novel: Chesnut’s many-mooded diary is a case in point, as is young Baton Rouge native Sarah Morgan’s and that of the ferocious record keeper George Templeton Strong. Insatiably curious about the direction of people and things, Strong wondered ceaselessly, “Who is guilty of this Civil War?”
Yet a remarkable novel did appear, albeit 20 years after the war’s end. Though set in the antebellum South, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is unthinkable without the war or Twain’s youthful experiences in a conflict-ridden Missouri, so divided in its loyalties, as Twain once said, that “we couldn’t really tell which side we were on.” But Huckleberry Finn is a book about taking a side, the side of conscience.
The mordant Twain began his career as something of a platform speaker. Unfortunately, much of what the Civil War orators produced (vide Anna Dickinson or Sojourner Truth) has disappeared from view. Not so with the speeches of Frederick Douglass, whose wartime writing still rings with clarity, concision, and a gemlike brilliance of intellect and moral passion. But then, violence had early disabused him of illusion, as it had the fanatical John Brown, whose courtroom address and last written words sent a shock of recognition through the nation: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Years later, Thomas Higginson observed that Brown, and then the war, helped produce in America a style of simplicity, directness, and unadorned expressiveness. Cooler tones allowed for more complex shades of feeling, even in the letters of Sherman, usually quoted only to expose the type of warfare he cruelly practiced. Yet these letters bristle with conflict, sorrow, outrage. “To those who submit to rightful law and authority, all gentleness and forbearance; but to the petulant and persistent secessionists,” Sherman announced, “why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better.” These emotions are as large, violent, and difficult as war, and rendered with the same ferocity.
More subdued, more famous, and no less pellucid are Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs ,which Twain, who published them, called “a model narrative” that “will last as long as the language lasts.” For like the diarists, the memoirists composed something that approximated the elusive novel that war made impossible. (Consider, for instance, Ambrose Bierce’s 12-part essay “What I Saw of Shiloh,” his account of fighting in that great battle as a sergeant in the 9th Indiana Regiment.) Walt Whitman famously said that the real war would never get into the books, but he was wrong; think of its nonfiction, think of its poetry.
And these two forms were conjoined by Lincoln, whose eloquence often blended the unpretentiousness of Sherman and Grant with the fresh ingenuities of Dickinson and Melville; the teleological lyricism of Whitman, Timrod, Brown, and Douglass with the caustic, tragic vision of Hawthorne and Chesnut. It contained the sorrow and faith of the spiritual; it could inspire, cajole, reason. Pointed and precise, it seemed to come from nowhere, rattling old forms, sweeping them aside, revising, reconstructing, articulating in pure, deliberate words great horror and great hope.
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Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for biography in 2008. Currently, she is at work on a book about America in the years 1848 to 1877.
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