“Civil War Literature” Posts
In the fall of 2008, a database failure erased a couple hundred posts from my blog “Civil War Literature,” which I’d been running since the summer of 2007. Luckily, Google Reader had archived those posts and I was able to recover most of them.
As time permits, I have recreated those posts below — without the original comments. They are arranged in the order in which they first appeared:
It would be nearly impossible to catalogue all the Civil War literature published after 1865. Even if one narrowed the scope to novels alone, the task would be daunting. Probably more than one thousand novels about the war have appeared in print. (The David Madden Collection of Civil War Fiction, housed at Louisiana State University, contains about five hundred novels published between 1950 and 2005 alone.) Once we move beyond the genre of the novel, the volume of writing becomes simply overwhelming. Since 1865, Americans have produced thousands of short stories, poems, memoirs, narrative histories, published diaries, screenplays, and dramatic works about the war.
Because of the sheer volume of Civil War literature, it is risky business to make blanket statements about the genre’s quality, purpose, and cultural significance. For this and other reasons, few scholars have attempted a sustained analysis of the literature. There exist only two major assessments of Civil War writing to date, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses:
1) Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
2) Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1973).
I plan to devote a post to each of these works during the coming week, and will also look at an early study of Civil War fiction: Robert A. Lively’s Fiction Fights the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957).
In my last post, I described Robert A. Lively’s book Fiction Fights the Civil War, noting that it includes a list of fifteen “Best Civil War Novels” and thirty “Other Representative Civil War Novels.” As you read through Lively’s picks, remember that his book was published in 1957, long before the appearance of modern Civil War “classics” such as The Killer Angels and Cold Mountain. (I do not personally consider Cold Mountain a classic, but there is no denying that it’s one of the most celebrated ACW novels of the last twenty-five years.)
I should point out that these books are listed alphabetically by author’s last name; the list does not, therefore, represent a numerical ranking. However, it’s worth noting that Lively did not think Gone with the Wind worthy of the top tier, despite its Pulitzer Prize and enormous influence and popularity. There is much to debate about that choice, and a few other selections and omissions may also strike readers as controversial.
I may one day create my own updated list of Best Civil War Novels, and I’m of course interested to know what books other people would include on their own. But for now, here are Lively’s selections:
A Selection of The Best Civil War Novels
1) James Lane Allen, The Sword of Youth (1915)
2) George Washington Cable, Dr. Sevier (1885)
3) Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
4) John William De Forest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867)
5) William Faulkner, The Unvanquished (1938)
6) Ellen Glasgow, The Battle-Ground (1902)
7) Caroline Gordon, None Shall Look Back (1937)
8 ) DuBose Heyward, Peter Ashley (1932)
9) MacKinlay Kantor, Long Remember (1934)
10) Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County (1947)
11) Andrew Lytle, The Long Night (1936)
12) Joseph Stanley Pennell, The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters (1944)
13) Evelyn Scott, The Wave (1929)
14) Allen Tate, The Fathers (1938)
15) Stark Young, So Red the Rose (1934)
Other Representative Civil War Novels
1) Hervey Allen, Action at Aquila (1938)
2) Francis Courtenay Baylor, Beyond the Blue Ridge (1887)
3) James Boyd, Marching On (1927)
4) Roark Bradford, Kingdom Coming (1933)
5) Winston Churchill, The Crisis (1901)
6) John Esten Cooke, Surry of Eagle’s Nest: Or, The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia (1866)
7) Virginius Dabney, The Story of Don Miff, As Told by His Friend John Bouche Whacker: A Symphony of Life (1886)
8 ) Thomas Cooper De Leon, John Holden, Unionist: A Romance of the Days of Destruction and Reconstruction (1893)
9) Clifford Dowdey, Bugles Blow No More (1937)
10) Clifford Dowdey, Where My Love Sleeps (1945)
11) John Fox, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903)
12) Harold Frederic, The Copperhead (1893)
13) Joel Chandler Harris, On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy’s Adventures During the War (1892)
14) Joseph Hergesheimer, The Limestone Tree (1931)
15) Mary Johnston, The Long Roll (1911)
16) Sidney Lanier, Tiger-Lilies; A Novel (1867)
17) John Uri Lloyd, Warwick of the Knobs: A Story of Stringtown County, Kentucky (1901)
18 ) Edgar Lee Masters, The Tide of Time (1937)
19) Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)
20) Silas Weir Mitchell, In War-Time (1885)
21) Henry Morford, The Days of Shoddy; A Novel of the Great Rebellion in 1861 (1863)
22) Mary Noailles Murfree, The Storm Center (1905)
23) Thomas Nelson Page, Meh Lady: A Story of the War (1893)
24) Epes Sargent, Peculiar: A Tale of the Great Transition (1864)
25) Molly Elliott Seawell, The Victory (1906)
26) Thomas Sigismund Stribling, The Forge (1931)
27) Albion Winegar Tourgee, Toinette: A Novel (1874)
28) John Townsend Trowbridge, Cudjo’s Cave (1864)
29) Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, Macaria; Or Altars of Sacrifice (1864)
30) Lydia Collins Wood, The Haydock’s Testimony: A Tale of the American Civil War (1907)
When in 1957 Robert A. Lively chose not to include Gone with the Wind (1936) on his list of Best Civil War Novels, he helped to standardize a highbrow approach to the colossal bestseller. For most literary scholars, historians, and “serious”-minded readers, Margaret Mitchell’s novel stands a world apart from works of quality American literature. No matter that it won the Pulitzer Prize, and that it has done more to shape public perception of the Civil War than any other work of fiction. In fact, those qualities have become reasons for disparaging the book. David Madden and Peggy Bach voiced the typical complaints in their introduction to Classics of Civil War Fiction. For them, Gone with the Wind is little more than a “historical romance,” one whose popularity has become a “monumental distraction” from the study of serious ACW literature.
To be fair, I spend far more time thinking about the work of Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane than about Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller. But I certainly believe that Gone with the Wind deserves recognition as one of our greatest works of Civil War fiction. Having absorbed each of the 1,037 pages, it’s clear to me that many people who critique the novel have never read it. In fact, those who savage the book often seem to be complaining about the 1939 film adaptation. While the film portrays its fair share of grit and poverty, it’s far more guilty than the novel of popularizing the “moonlight and magnolias” portrait of the South. It also contains less complexity, less sensitivity, and less intelligence than the book.
Of course Mitchell’s literary talents do not compare to those of Crane, Evelyn Scott, or Faulkner. But even those who dismiss the novel usually admit (as do Madden and Bach) that Gone with the Wind possesses real narrative power. So for the moment, let’s turn away from the issue of literary quality and consider that of content. Why do so many students and scholars of Civil War fiction gnash their teeth when faced with the fact that Mitchell’s book dominates the genre? I would suggest that the following factors often apply:
1) Gone with the Wind has a female protagonist.
2) The novel maintains a focus on the home front, and does not follow its uniformed characters into battle.
3) The story is just as concerned with Reconstruction as with the Civil War itself.
While true that many ACW novels share some or all of these traits, it is also true that those works are far more obscure than battlefield narratives about soldiers — from The Red Badge of Courage to The Killer Angels and beyond. The fact that Gone with the Wind is not obscure, I believe, has created a crisis of identity within the study of Civil War fiction. The sheer popularity of the novel forces readers to ask difficult questions. What should a novel about the war portray? When did the conflict really start, and when did it end? To what extent were civilians, especially women and African-Americans, active participants in the struggle?
Rather than answer these questions, it has become easier to simply deny that Gone with the Wind counts as serious work. But by denying the novel the attention it deserves, we of course limit our understanding of Civil War fiction. We blind ourselves to the ways by which historical memory evolves, and we run the risk of discrediting important new works that grow out of the Mitchell tradition. Clearly there are many associated issues here that need discussing. But for the moment I’ll suggest that every fan of The Killer Angels and Gods and Generals visit their local library on June 30 (the 71st anniversary of Mitchell’s bestseller) and check out a copy of Gone with the Wind. Even those who dislike it will learn something new about the Civil War, and all who read it will strengthen their grasp of ACW literature.
In addition to my work on the Ambrose Bierce Project, I am also involved with a forthcoming humanities computing project named Mapping Faulkner. Co-edited and masterminded by my friend Bart Welling of the University of North Florida, the project will approach William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County from the perspective of cartography. We aim to bring 3-D digital mapping technology to bear on Faulkner’s world, drawing on 1) the two-dimensional maps Faulkner himself created of his imagined county, and 2) “real-world” maps of Lafayette County, Mississippi.
As a way to gear up for the project, I recently took a low-tech approach to Faulkner’s great Civil War novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936). My goal was to literally chart one special passage from the work, and to see what the resulting map might reveal about the novel, the war, and the relationship between text and image. Those who are interested in my findings can read the Faulkner passage by clicking the “read further” link below, then look for future installments that will feature the map and analysis.
As I mentioned in a recent post, today is the 71st anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel Gone with the Wind (1936). It therefore feels appropriate to recommend a book on the subject: Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture, edited by Darden Asbury Pyron (1983).
This collection of essays covers numerous topics, including: 1) GWTW and the Southern literary tradition; 2) romance and racism in the novel; 3) representations of sex and gender in GWTW; and 4) the relationship between the bestseller and the film.
My favorite entry in the collection is “The Case of the Cool Reception,” in which Richard Dwyer shows that the novel initially won great praise from the literary establishment before falling into disrepute during the late 1930s. He argues that scholars rejected the book primarily because of its popularity, revealing “their elitist ideological biases against the nonacademic majority of the American public as consumers of convenience, comfort, and mindless diversion.” Beyond Gone with the Wind itself, Dwyer’s essay comments on the wide gulf that too often separates academics from mainstream America.
I realize that many people like to read a work of literature on its own terms, and not study its reception history and influence over the public. But for those interested in how and why Gone with the Wind became a major literary and cultural phenomenon, this collection of essays will be welcome reading.
This is the third and final post in my series on classic studies of Civil War literature. Having looked at Fiction Fights the Civil War and Patriotic Gore, I now want to examine the most comprehensive and influential study of Civil War literature to date, Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (1973). A professor of literature at Harvard University (now emeritus), Aaron surveyed a vast body of narratives about the war and concluded that the conflict had gone unwritten. Or, to be more exact, he argued that America’s greatest writers failed to produce a literature worthy of the nation’s most dramatic crisis.
“From the very beginning,” Aaron observes, “the War seemed designed for literary treatment as if history itself had assiduously collaborated with the would-be writer.” But it was not to be. No American masterpiece emerged to rival the works of Scott or Tolstoy, and no great writer set out to explore, interpret, and illuminate the meanings of the four-year struggle. The best writers in America — among them Henry Adams, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain — remained largely silent on the subject. Aaron explains that it took until 1895 for the most famous novel of the war to appear (The Red Badge of Courage), but he then rejects the notion that Crane’s novel has anything to do with the Civil War: “Crane did not think of the War as a national tragedy nor was he ever tempted to examine its causes and consequences.” The scholar concludes that Crane “was not historically minded. The War served only as his setting for an antiwar tour de force in which deluded people misread the laws of the universe and were overwhelmed.”
Whether or not one agrees with Aaron’s assessment of Crane and The Red Badge of Courage (I don’t), one must appreciate his carefully-constructed arguments about the works of dozens of writers: not just those who lived through the war, but also those who, like Crane, knew the conflict only at “second hand.” In nearly all cases, Aaron posits that America’s men and women of letters were not up to the challenge of grappling with the complexities and epic scope of the Civil War. Tracking the war’s literature from the 1860s all the way to the Agrarian Movement and the fiction of William Faulkner, Aaron never wavers from his central thesis. For example, he suggests that Faulkner may have been a talented writer, but the war “did not interest him much — only its aftereffects.” Similarly, Aaron calls Robert Penn Warren’s reflections on the war “passionate yet disinterested.”
In the end, Aaron concludes his book in the same way he begins:
Who won the literary War is of no importance. Of more consequence is the fact that for over a century the War as a subject has not powerfully attracted many of the finer talents, even though constant allusions to it indicate its continued hold on the literary imagination. . . . Our untidy and unkept War still confounds interpreters.
In the years since 1973, many students of Civil War literature have rejected Aaron’s thesis outright. Some complain that he looked in the wrong places for the great literature about the Civil War, while others have criticized his decision to look only at “highbrow” writers as opposed to more popular memoirists and novelists. Still others (such as myself) have sniped at what we believe to be Aaron’s over-generalizations about particular authors. But there can be no doubting that his study is a superb survey of the literature — prepared by a talented scholar with an impressive command of American literary history.
Moreover, The Unwritten War is important for raising two issues other those that I have already discussed. First, the book reinforces (even if it never actually says so) one of the most central and longstanding complaints about Civil War fiction: that on balance, the literature just isn’t very good. I plan to address that complaint in future posts, but it’s worth noting here that Aaron’s influential book at least appears to support and justify that perspective.
Second, The Unwritten War offers one of the most persuasive hypotheses I’ve seen for why so few writers have explored successfully the causes and meanings of the Civil War. The reason is race. Unwilling or altogether incapable of confronting the issues of slavery, race, and racism, American writers have usually followed one of two paths. Some push the subject of race to the periphery of their stories, novels, and poems — and in doing so, create literature that feels hollow, flat, dishonest, or incomplete. Others simply choose not to write about the war at all. Both paths, it seems to me, are deserving of a great deal of further discussion.
Should readers in 2007 borrow and/or buy a copy of The Unwritten War? Despite any misgivings I may have, I strongly recommend Aaron’s book. It’s an essential text, and holds up well after more than thirty years. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the written legacy of the war.
I recently discovered that Tim Morris, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington (and a past contributor to the ABP Journal), has put together a web Guide to Civil War Novels. Tim describes his project in this way: “The Guide to Civil War Novels is a Web bibliography that attempts to document novels about the American Civil War, comment on those novels, and arrange both documentation and commentary in an accessible and expandable format.”
As expected, visitors can search the site’s archive of nearly 100 novels according to the title, the author’s name, and the decade of publication. But what is especially impressive is that one can also search for novels according to their contents. For instance, I looked for works on Braxton Bragg and learned that the following novels feature the cantankerous general as a central figure:
Moreover, one can search for Civil War novels that focus on other subjects as well, among them the African-American experience, prisoners of war, and the sport of baseball.
Tim also offers useful commentary on both individual works and particular sub-genres. For example, here is what he has to say about MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War (1961):
Kantor’s counterfactual novella began as an oversized Look magazine article from 1960, and has remained in print as a famous speculation about this great “what-if” of history. Kantor imagines Grant falling from a horse at Vicksburg, and dying (Grant actually did take a fall there but survived). Grant’s death, coupled with a little more vigor by Lee on the first day of Gettysburg, leads to a two-nation system in the former United States. Somewhat whimsically, Kantor has the Confederacy gradually abandoning slavery and in fact reuniting with the North in 1960 after having been allied with the old Union (and an independent Texas) in the World Wars.
The 2001 paperback includes Kantor’s 1967 essay on the writing of the Look piece, called “An Historical Inversion.”
Clearly the archive does not contain all Civil War novels, or even all of those that appeared on Lively’s “best of” list. But one of the true benefits of a humanities computing project is the fact that it can grow and evolve over time. I look forward to seeing how Tim’s guide develops, and hope that many others will also take advantage of his informative site.
It is the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, and the majority of Civil War enthusiasts are now celebrating tales of battlefield heroics — especially stories about the Army of Northern Virginia, whose ill-fated assaults in early July 1863 have become the stuff of legend.
I thought about devoting today’s blog entry to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel that makes ample room for both Northern and Southern heroism at Gettysburg. But although I admire Shaara’s work on many levels, my contrarian side has led me to focus attention elsewhere — specifically, on a Civil War narrative that illustrates a lack of duty and heroism. That work is Mark Twain’s 1885 essay, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.”
Twain’s piece, which was written for Century magazine’s series on the Civil War (but not included in its Battles and Leaders volumes), reveals his conflicted feelings toward the war and the role he played within it. As he tells it, Twain’s career as a soldier was as undistinguished as it was brief: the future celebrity left Missouri for Nevada in 1861 after just two weeks’ service as a Confederate volunteer. “The Private History” explains that in the summer of 1861 Twain joined the Marion Rangers, an irregular Missouri unit whose members eschewed orders, ignored rank, and avoided most other military protocol. Humorously deficient in any sense of duty or patriotism, the band regularly retreated and hid in order to avoid contact with the enemy. This “idly delicious” life ended abruptly when the Rangers shot and killed a man who may or may not have been a Union scout. For the first time facing the reality of war, “the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity,” Twain and several comrades decided to give up military service altogether.
Why bring up this narrative on the anniversary of what Ken Burns calls the “greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere”? My reasoning is the same as Twain’s when he wrote the following passage: “Thousands entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again, permanently. These, by their very numbers, are respectable, and are therefore entitled to a sort of voice – not a loud one, but a modest one; not a boastful one, but an apologetic one. They ought not to be allowed much space among better people – people who did something – I grant that; but they ought at least to be allowed to state why they didn’t do anything. . . . Surely this kind of light must have sort of value.”
Whether or not Twain is being ironic in his comments about those who “stepped out” of the war, he has a point in saying that such persons are deserving of a voice — and of historical memory. For those of us who prize history over myth, we need to remember those who “didn’t do anything” as well as those who did. I believe the best Civil War literature, including this essay by Twain, helps us to accomplish that.
This is the second installment in a series on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which I attempt to literally map out a particular passage from the novel. Those who wish to follow along can read that passage in the first installment before continuing below.
This excerpt from the novel charts the journey of the Sutpen headstones using words and narrative; my goal was to see what occurs when we try to represent that journey in two different ways:
First, I wanted to reconstruct the passage pictorially. What would happen when the headstones’ journey became a matter of lines on a map? Would a map clarify the text, or obscure its meaning altogether? Would it allow us, like Quentin, to see these events “plainly”? Most important, which social phenomena can be mapped, and which cannot?
Second, I sought to map the passage historically. I wanted to research the Atlantic trade routes between 1863 and 1864, and learn what I could about the Southern ports during that time. On land, I hoped to investigate the troop movements and major campaigns during those years of the Civil War.
Here is the map I created to represent the passage of the Sutpen headstones from Italy to Mississippi. As you will see, the map includes numerous question marks and uncertainties. In the next installment in this series, I’ll explain how and why those question marks are in place. And in addition, I’ll consider how an attention to cartography can at once limit and deepen our understanding of one of the greatest novels of the Civil War.
In the meanwhile, I wish everyone a fantastic Fourth of July!
This blog is concerned primarily with Civil War literature published after 1865, largely because of my personal interest in how postwar writers came to interpret and remember the four-year struggle. I do not want to suggest, however, that fictions about the war did not emerge during the conflict itself. In fact, innumerable war stories, poems, and imaginative essays saw print during the war. Published in newspapers and journals, these narratives comprise a body of work that historians have only recently started to study in detail.
Because so few were ever reprinted, these wartime fictions are not easy to come by today (unless, that is, one lives near a major research library that houses a collection of nineteenth-century periodicals). I was therefore grateful to discover HarpWeek’s Sampler of Civil War Literature. The site offers one way for the twenty-first century reader to get a sense of the subject matter, style, and attitude of these works.
The sampler provides the full text to fifteen short stories published in Harper’s Weekly between 1861 and 1865. The subject matter ranges from guerilla actions on the Kentucky border to the Fort Pillow massacre to the experiences of children and women on the home front. Few of the tales feature strong writing, and some are downright sentimental and romantic. But each one offers a window into how Americans understood the conflict they were even then experiencing. And in a larger sense, they demonstrate that the wartime public was thirsty for narratives that helped give meaning and order to a war that could seem altogether out of control.
Selected by Professor Kathleen Diffley of the University of Iowa, each story is accompanied by Harper’s Weekly articles, illustrations, and editorial commentary — all of which help to provide historical and military contexts for the fiction. A rich resource for anyone interested in the war, HarpWeek’s Sampler of Civil Literature is well worth a visit.
I always take time to study the cover art of works of Civil War literature. In the case of celebrated books that go through numerous reprintings, the artwork can be especially revealing. One example is Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve lost count of how many editions are in circulation, but there are certainly many more today than ever before — largely because the novel is now in the public domain.
In particular, I am interested in those editions that reveal the artist’s (or the publisher’s) interpretation of The Red Badge of Courage. Some covers portray a particular scene from the novel, and in doing so tell us a great deal. For example, a cover that portrays a frightened Henry Fleming in full flight suggests a different reading of the book than does one that portrays Henry leading an assault or wrestling a flag from the clutches of a dead man. All of those scenes exist within the story, of course, but the artist’s choices reflect his or her sense of what readers should take away from Crane’s novel. And of course, most readers can’t help but be swayed by the message the cover puts forward. Is this a story about heroism and courage? Fear and cowardice? Rage and bewilderment? Cover art begins to shape our reactions to the text before we so much as read the first word.
I’m especially intrigued by how artists have portrayed Henry’s age. Some covers depict Crane’s youthful protagonist as a young boy. I wonder: how do readers respond differently to a portrait of a boyish Henry than to artwork in which he appears as an adolescent, or as a strapping young man? To what degree does his age help explain — or even justify — his flight from combat? For those who see this novel as the story of a boy becoming a man (an interpretation I disagree with), is it better to illustrate Henry as a child or as a young adult?
Above and below, I’ve posted the cover art for several editions. (You can click on each for a larger image.) The wide range of responses to the novel, as reflected in this artwork, demonstrates something about the complexity of Crane’s writing. In addition, these covers also remark on the fascinating relationship between text and image — a subject that I will want to address again in the future, when I write about film adaptations of Civil War fiction.
I took a road trip this weekend to visit family, and while in traffic gave some further thought to the subject of Red Badge cover art. It occurred to me that although artists choose a variety of scenes from the novel to portray in paint and ink, there are certain trends that nearly all of them follow. Even if you look only at the covers I included in my last post, you can witness a few of those tendencies:
1) Most portray a flag somewhere in the illustration, no matter how distant in the background.
2) Most portray Henry Fleming alone, or isolated in some way.
3) In most, evidence of Henry’s “red badge of courage” is on full display: a bloodied bandage around his head.
None of these trends are surprising, as the novel itself emphasizes Henry’s feelings of isolation, his attachment to the flag (even if he seems oblivious to its larger meanings), and his desire to receive a wound.
Yet it’s what we do not see that intrigues me at the moment. Why is the “tattered man,” the comrade who Henry abandons during the narrative, entirely absent from The Red Badge of Courage cover art? And what about the striking scene in which Henry, having fled from combat, discovers a long-dead and rotting soldier in the forest? Perhaps these subjects fail to attract artists because they draw attention to the shame and horrors of the battlefield, and to those qualities in the book. Perhaps it’s easier to represent the story as a simple one about cowardice and heroism, and every man’s capacity for both.
But what about the single most famous scene in the novel, when Henry receives his wound? Why have artists opted not to illustrate that moment? I suppose some would argue that such an illustration would ruin the “secret” of the novel for first-time readers. Perhaps so. But I nonetheless believe that artists and publishers reveal deep anxieties about the book by choosing not to show Henry’s wounding. As most enthusiasts of Civil War fiction know, Crane grants Henry an ironic wound; he is not injured by the enemy, but rather by a panicked comrade who clubs the youth in the head rather than stop to explain why the Union flank has collapsed. Although Henry has himself fled from battle earlier in the day, he allows others to interpret his bloody wound as a symbol of his bravery and fortitude in combat.
My guess is that artists resist the moment of Henry’s wounding because they, like countless other readers (and like Henry himself) wish to forget how the youth earned his “badge of courage.” We are uncomfortable with the fact that the most famous and celebrated novel of the Civil War turns on a scene of powerful irony. It is far more comfortable, I suppose, to paint Henry Fleming leading a charge or even running from the enemy, because in both cases we believe we can understand his motivations.
But how can we “treat” Henry’s head wound, which reflects on the complexity of war and refuses any easy interpretation? I’m not sure that I have an answer to that question, but I should admit that I am not really looking for one. Personally, I believe we need more narratives that look hard at the ironies and moral complications of the Civil War — even if we can’t get the cover art to match.
This is the third installment in a series on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which I attempt to literally map out a particular passage from the novel. Those who wish to follow along can read that passage in the first installment and study the map in the second before continuing below.
We begin in Italy (at right on the map), in 1863. That’s the year that Ellen died, and when Mr. Compson presumes that Sutpen placed the order for the headstones. Mr. Compson does not state when the headstones arrived in the Confederacy, but Quentin – picking up the narrative – give us a date. He believes the headstones were with the regiment at Gettysburg, between July 1-3, 1863, and so Quentin’s imagination suggests that the stones left Italy the same year they were ordered.
Immediately, however, I ran up against a wall. In researching Italian ports from which marble headstones were exported during the 19th-century, I learned that there were at least six possibilities: Livorno, Naples, Bari, Ancona, Trieste, and Genoa. Without a great deal to go on regarding the proper port, I sought to discover which Italian communities have traditionally produced fine marble for use as headstones. That investigation led me to the Tuscany region, particularly the neighboring cities of Pietrasanta and Querceta. The medieval city of Pietrasanta, in particular, is renowned for its marble artisans – some Italians call it the Marble Capital of Italy. With these facts in mind, I therefore chose to begin my map in Tuscany, and to chart the stone’s departure at the nearby port city of Livorno. In some respects this was not an encouraging start, as I had to begin the map with two question marks.
From there, matters became even more complex. The Compsons had imagined the headstones passing over the Atlantic and running the Union blockade of southern ports (represented on the map by the black bar that parallels the southern coast). But research taught me that father and son had left out an important leg of the trip. Virtually no ships destined for the Confederacy sailed there directly from Europe. Instead, European ships landed in intermediary ports where goods might be transferred to smaller vessels designed to maximize cargo space for contraband. Small ships were needed to avoid detection from Union crafts monitoring southern ports, and the desperate need for cargo space meant that the coal fuel supply in each blockade runner was limited severely.
Shipments from Europe to the Confederacy therefore had to sail for ports relatively close to the American coast, so that the blockade runners could make the last leg of the trip without requiring much fuel. The vessel carrying the Sutpen headstones from Italy therefore would have probably landed at Bermuda, or Nassau in the Bahamas, or Havana. Because Havana offered the least direct route to the important southern ports, however, I eliminated it as a likely destination. The Italian shipment may have arrived at Bermuda, for transfer to a blockade runner destined for Wilmington, North Carolina. Or, most likely, it would have sailed for Nassau, where the stones would have been placed aboard a runner aiming for Wilmington, Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston, South Carolina. (Although Nassau was obviously closer to Florida, the circumstances of the war made Florida an undesirable landing point – especially if goods then had to travel by land up to the mid-Atlantic states.)
So here again, I could only guess about the location of the intermediary port used by those handling the headstones – further demonstrating the degree to which Faulkner’s narrative resisted the kind of precise mapping I had in mind.
The run from Nassau to the three major southern ports was between five hundred to six hundred miles, taking about three days. In order to reach any of them successfully, the pilot of the runner would have to navigate difficult waters, avoid detection, and/or outrun Union ships. To understand the odds stacked against a successful run, one must consider the statistics compiled after the war. In his postwar study, James Russell Soley explained that the Union blockade captured over 1,500 ships during the Civil War, 210 of which were elite steamers judged extremely difficult to apprehend. The blockade ultimately managed to capture and destroy at least 31 million dollars worth of contraband, which by today’s standards would be in the billions.
Sutpen’s headstones therefore beat substantial odds by arriving safely on Confederate soil. But with the Civil War in its third year by 1863, and with a southern people beginning to starve for food and supplies, there was no guarantee that any cargo would arrive at its intended destination. Indeed, as I mapped the northern movement of the stones from some unknown point in North or South Carolina, I was for the first time struck by the sheer unlikelihood that Sutpen’s stones could have found his regiment in Virginia.
The next installment in this series (Part 4) will examine the passage of the Sutpen headstones from the shore to Gettysburg and beyond — tracing the cargo to its final destination in Mississippi.
Yesterday Kevin Levin blogged about an incident involving Robert E. Lee that supposedly took place in Richmond in June 1865. Among other interesting questions, Kevin wondered whether the event actually occurred, or whether it was an apocryphal story meant to serve the needs of postwar whites.
For me, Kevin’s post calls to mind a similar Lee “episode” that I researched a few years back when writing about the memoirs of Irish-American soldiers. This episode (which I discussed in an article published in Civil War History) goes a long way toward showing how “imaginative” and “historical” narratives overlap.
In 1899, an Irish-American clergyman named George Whitfield Pepper published his memoirs, Under Three Flags. In the book, he reconstructed an interview he supposedly held with Robert E. Lee in 1865. According to Pepper, Lee made the following observations about Irish participation in the Civil War:
Meagher on your side, though not [Irish-born Confederate general] Cleburne’s equal in military genius, rivaled him in bravery and in the affections of his soldiers. The gallant stand which his bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that occasion. Though totally routed, they reaped harvests of glory! Their brilliant though hopeless assaults upon our lines excited the hearty applause of my officers and soldiers, and General Hill exclaimed, “There are those d—– green flags again!”
Even if Lee was known for such effusive language (he wasn’t), the strange circumstances of the interview should give us pause. Pepper claimed to have visited Lee’s home, unannounced, as Sherman’s army marched victorious through Richmond. Add in Pepper’s ethnic bias, and the entire exchange seems suspect. Would Lee, so soon after the collapse of the Confederacy and the Army of Northern Virginia, open his door to a perfect stranger and hold forth on the finer qualities of Irish troops North and South? I don’t think so, but I have nonetheless investigated all major sources for anything Lee may have said about Irish troops and Generals Cleburne and Meagher. After a careful look (and after checking with a number of Lee specialists), I have found nothing to suggest that Lee ever commented on these subjects in conversation or correspondence.
But as students of both literature and history know, the published word is a powerful force. Once in print, Pepper’s “interview” with Lee (recreated some thirty-four years after the fact), took on a life of its own. Today, no one remembers Pepper as the source of Lee’s reflections on Irish-American heroism in the Civil War. Wrested free from the Irishman’s memoirs, “Lee’s” words have found their way into the pages of both popular and academic history. The effect, I surmise, has been exactly what Pepper intended. Put into the mouth of Lee, the romantic assertions about Irish glory hold far greater weight than had they been advanced by an obscure, Irish-born reverend.
I do not intend for this post to criticize Pepper, or to disparage anyone who has taken the interview with Lee at face value. Rather, I mean to 1) draw attention to the complex ways by which the written word contributes to historical memory, and to 2) show how the imagination plays a powerful role in all forms of Civil War literature — even those that do not wear the label of fiction.
A few years back, I came across an amusing article published in the June 1962 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated: “Why are Most Civil War Novels Mediocre? Here’s Why, With Some Tips for Writers.” The author, David Gerard, argued that most Civil War fiction fell flat. But all was not lost. If aspiring authors would just follow his few simple rules, their writing would stand to improve immeasurably.
Although I did not save a copy of the article, I did jot down Gerard’s “tips” for how to write a quality Civil War novel:
1) Avoid a modern style
2) Be partisan
3) Avoid telling the war from the perspectives of non-officers
4) Describe multiple battles
5) Be historically accurate
6) Keep women out of the story
With the exception of number five (historical accuracy), I can’t agree with Gerard’s list. As his tips reveal, Gerard viewed the Civil War as a contest between great men. He believed the perspectives of women, and even non-officers, could offer little insight into the meanings of the conflict. As for fiction, it could best capture history by following officers from battle to battle, and by granting readers one sectional viewpoint without the “distractions” of a Modern literary style.
I am grateful that so many authors after 1962 have not followed these tips. But if his advice does appeal to you, you will likely want to read the one work Gerard extolled above all others: Harold Sinclair’s 1956 novel The Horse Soldiers. Happy trails.
I have never admired Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain. Believe me when I say that I wanted to enjoy the book, to the point of re-reading it several times in an effort to better understand its widespread appeal. (It won a National Book Award in 1997, and rates as one of the most popular Civil War novels of the last fifty years.) Regrettably, the re-readings only reinforced my distaste for the novel’s characters, language, and plot. I may try to read it again in year or so, but I’m guessing I’ll still conclude that the dust jacket is the book’s best feature.
I’m clearly in the minority on this subject, however, and I accept the centrality of Cold Mountain to any discussion of recent Civil War fiction. What I am less willing to accept are the parasitic works that attempt to capitalize on its popularity. Not long ago I came across one such specimen, a coffee table book titled Walking to Cold Mountain: A Journey Through Civil War America. The book is authored by a former editor of Civil War Times Illustrated, and boasts a Foreword by PBS documentarian Ken Burns.
Filled with oversized photographs and quotations from famous historical figures, the book has little if anything to do with Frazier’s novel. The only (flimsy) connection arrives in the Introduction, which reads:
This book was inspired by Cold Mountain, by Inman and the people he meets and the places he passes through while at war and on his way home, by Ada and folks like her facing daily trials on the home front. It’s a figurative walk to Cold Mountain, a walk over battlegrounds and dirt roads, through towns and army camps, past farmers and slaves. It’s a journey through early 1860s America, an America that was torn apart by civil war.
This passage should probably have begun: “This book was inspired by the dazzling sales of Cold Mountain, and by a desire to share in the associated profits.” In any case, what I like best about this coffee table book is the same thing I like about the novel: its dust jacket.
Someone — whether a reader or Frazier’s publisher — must have complained about the shameless attempt to associate the picture book with the bestseller. Slapped onto the cover is a sticker which announces the following in bold letters: “This book is not authorized by the author of Cold Mountain.”
A most appropriate, if understated, bit of commentary.
The Louisiana State University Library contains the Michael Lehman Williamson Collection of Civil War Books for Young People. The LSU Library describes the collection in this way: “Unique in the nation, the collection features more than 900 books about the Civil War written for children, including biographies of famous people, such as Harriet Tubman, Robert E. Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Matthew Brady, fiction about children’s experiences during the war, factual works about the history of the war, and reference works designed for children to use.”
About five years ago, the library featured about 10% of the collection in a special exhibit titled Blue and Gray for Boys and Girls. The corresponding website, linked here, provides photographs of the twelve cases that made up the exhibit. Each case is accompanied by a paragraph of commentary, followed by the publication details of featured books. You can also find here the titles of scholarly works that discuss children’s Civil War literature. (One downside to the site is that the navigation links appear at the bottom of the pages, where they are easy to miss. Be sure to scroll all the way down in order to find the links to each case.)
Even if you have little interest in children’s books, I recommend spending a few moments on the site. It is interesting to see how representations of the war have evolved in the decades since the 1860s. Moreover, the exhibit reminds us that many of our perceptions of the Civil War are first formed by the books we read as children.
This is the final installment in a series on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which I attempt to literally map out a particular passage from the novel. Those who wish to follow along can read that passage in the first installment and study the map in the second. This installment picks up where the third left off, when the Sutpen headstones arrive somewhere in the Carolinas.
As I mapped, it became increasingly clear to me that I was not truly mapping the remarkable passage of these marble slabs. Rather, I realized that I was mapping something far less tangible – the preternatural will of Sutpen himself, and of the house that bore his name. I came to see Sutpen’s Hundred as the magnetic center of my map, an entity whose undeniable pull and power was evidenced each time the stones overcame one of the daunting obstacles that lay in their path.
Those familiar with the Civil War know that the Army of Northern Virginia won its most celebrated victory at Chancellorsville, in central Virginia, during the first days of May 1863. Whether the headstones reached Sutpen’s regiment before or after that battle is impossible to say, and it is also impossible to know where they at last entered the Colonel’s camp, and whether their arrival was threatened by Northern troops. I therefore entered another question mark on my map, and moved north with the Confederate army to the greatest battle of the war and the South’s supposed high-water mark: Gettysburg. There in Pennsylvania the Confederate army was defeated, but not routed, and the stones remained in the possession of Sutpen, his body servant, and his soldiers.
After Gettysburg, the Confederate troops under General Lee returned south to lick their wounds and prepare for a Union counterstrike. And here my map again broke down. I was at a loss as to at what point the regiment and headstones moved toward and through the Cumberland Gap – the famous break in the Appalachian Mountain chain. Did they do so as part of a larger campaign? And did they pass through before September 1863, when Union troops captured the Confederate garrison at the Gap?
And frankly, I began to wonder whether it mattered anyway. After all, sheer speculation had been as much a guide to me, so far, as had anything reported by the Compsons. And it was by this point clear to me that I could not map for sure how and when the regiment avoided Union patrols among the Tennessee mountains. And perhaps most discouraging, I knew from past research that my map would end the same way it began – with a question mark. This is because Sutpen’s Hundred, twelve miles outside of the town of Jefferson, could not be located precisely on any map of Mississippi. Jefferson, while perhaps modeled after Oxford, Mississippi, was according to Faulkner some forty miles distant from Oxford in an unnamed direction.
All I knew from Quentin’s account was that the headstones passed into Mississippi in the late fall of 1864, at last arriving at the house whose magnetism had drawn to it not only the stones, against all odds, but also Charles Bon, Mr. Compson, Quentin, Shreve, and me as well.
I must admit that a degree of frustration accompanies the finished map, one punctuated by question marks and uncertainties. But I believe the exercise can help us understand the novel better – and better understand why Faulkner was himself drawn to map his world with both text and pictures.
First, mapping taught me something about Sutpen’s Hundred as both a physical and mythic space: the property draws us to it, even if we can’t locate its precise coordinates or define its contours. In fact, the headstones’ remarkable journey ultimately charts our own passage to Sutpen’s Hundred. We too are pulled toward it from distant regions, arriving there despite the numerous and formidable obstacles along the way: these obstacles being the racism, murder, cowardice, fear, and brutishness that characterize the estate.
Surely it should not require a map to teach us that readers will be fascinated by that which should, and does, repel them. But the map charts the power of Sutpen’s Hundred in an unnervingly concrete way, and helps demonstrate how Faulkner’s subject matter at once stands inside and outside of the historical constraints of 1863 and 1864. Indeed, the sheer difficulty of mapping this unlikely voyage has convinced me, more than ever, of the fact that Faulkner’s narrative cannot be contained within the past, no matter how doggedly we might try to read it historically. Similarly, the elusive location of Sutpen’s Hundred comments on how the novel resists our superficial attempts to tame it, and hence limit its scope and reach.
Finally, the experiment shows that any attempt to map Faulkner’s world will require frustration and question marks. It will require guesswork and imagination. But these factors, in the end, are not reasons to cease mapping. Rather, these are the tools employed by Quentin and Shreve and Mr. Compson – and Faulkner invites the reader to take up these tools as well. If anything, the experience of mapping these lines taught me the degree to which Absalom, Absalom! encourages readers to themselves imagine and contribute to the story of Sutpen and his family. The novel shows us that one does not map merely to record or to define. Rather, one maps in order to explore, to explain, and above all, to create.
Last week I conducted an electronic Q&A with Tim Morris, professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. As I mentioned in a recent post, Tim has put together an excellent Guide to Civil War Novels. I was interested to see what Tim had learned (so far) as a result of his web project, and he was kind enough to answer an array of questions relating to Civil War literature.
The questions and answers that follow represent part one of my interview with Tim. Check back tomorrow for part two.
What led you to create your Guide to Civil War Novels site, and how does it fit within your larger interests as a scholar and reader of American literature?
TM: I started the Guide to Civil War Novels as a way of organizing my own notes about my reading. I hope some day to write a book about Civil War fiction, I’ve been working on articles, and I tend to think more and more in terms of web bibliography as an organizing principle for academic work.
If I never actually finish that book, I will still have something to show for the effort …
Your project suggests that Civil War fiction deserves attention and careful analysis. To your mind, what qualities make these works especially worthy of study?
TM: I am fascinated by the way that various pasts have had their own pasts. The Civil War meant certain things to veterans, others to people who remembered it from their childhood, others to people who could not remember it at all, and still other things to us, who encounter it through the mediation of all those different pasts. Much Civil War fiction is formulaic, but even formulas tell us much about the obsessions and ideals of American readers.
Having read and commented on some 100 Civil War novels, do you have a theory about why the genre remains strong more than 140 years after Appomattox?
TM: Two reasons, I suppose. One is simply that Civil War history and interpretation of that history remain vital. The war is not yet a settled issue. The second reason is that fiction is for many readers better than history. It allows a fuller imaginative recreation of what it was like to be there. It allows us access, we feel, to things that participants in the War said and felt, but could not write, during their own lifetimes.
Your Guide allows users to search for novels according to the decade of publication. How important is historical context to our understanding of a particular work? For example, do we need to know that Will Henry’s “Journey to Shiloh” is a product of the 1960s in order to appreciate its interests and significance?
TM: Without being too pat about aligning text and context, I think that Civil War fiction has strongly tracked developments in 20th- and 21st-century literature and culture. There are what you might call “World War II” Civil War novels — Shelby Foote’s Shiloh and Mackinlay Kantor’s Andersonville are examples, books hard to conceive of before 1945. There are many, many Civil War novels that follow reinterpretations that grow out of the 1950s/60s civil rights movement and its take on history. The specific text you mention, Journey to Shiloh, might be seen as a kind of an alienated-rebellious-teen Civil War novel, a Civil War story for people who were intrigued by Rebel without a Cause or other 1950s films, the Sal Mineo genre. It’s pulpy, sensational, iconoclastic — very 50s in its approach.
Do you believe it’s fair to critique a twentieth-century novel, such as Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” because its characters often have the social sensibilities of 1997 rather than 1864? Or do you tend to see such anachronisms as useful, insofar as they reveal something about the evolution of Civil War memory?
TM: There’s really a whole range of answers to this question. From the perspective of reenactors or other history buffs who aim at precision, the anachronism of certain texts is an annoyance. For others, it might be a revelation — look, people in the 1860s are basically like people in the 1990s, but they could not say so back in the 1860s because they lacked our idiom (in that view, there is no anachronism). From the perspective of cultural studies, anachronism is deeply telling — as you suggest, we remember the past only through the lens of our own attitudes and behaviors. And from the authorial perspective, that of the artist, anachronisms are either something to be eradicated by positivist research that can tell us what really happened (Kantor and Frazier are both good examples of such intensely committed researchers); OR anachronism is something to be embraced and exploited — I think here of Charles Johnson, in a novel like Oxherding Tale, which is not in my Guide (its treatment of the War is too indirect) but is perhaps the best example of an unabashedly anachronistic historical novel about the period.
My last post featured part one of my interview with Tim Morris, the creator of the online Guide to Civil War Novels. The following Q&A represents part two of the interview with Tim, who is a professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington.
As your Guide points out, the 1930s are usually considered the Golden Age of Civil War fiction. What works from the 1930s strike you as especially important to the genre, and why did they emerge as this particular moment?
TM: There’s a whole complex of reasons, I’m sure, but the simple one is that everyone who had played a part in the War was now dead. Writers were free to reimagine the War for their own purposes without looking over their shoulders at surviving veterans. So Red the Rose, Long Remember, Gone with the Wind, and The Long Night are especially important here, as well as some by William Faulkner that I probably need to add to the Guide, notably Absalom, Absalom! and The Unvanquished. (If one considers the latter to be a novel — I am reluctant to add story collections, just for reasons of neatness.)
I’m interested in your idea that by the 1930s, writers no longer had to “look over their shoulders” at surviving veterans. Much of my own research has involved the ways by which veterans at once inspired and intimidated the writers of later generations. To your mind, how much of a role did former soldiers play in the development of Civil War literature?
TM: Obviously some major writers had either fought in the war themselves (John W DeForest, Ambrose Bierce) or had had a close view as civilians, sometimes in childhood (Thomas Nelson Page). But I think that the major role veterans played was as readers and sometime reviewers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for instance, could be quite scathing about war literature when it was written by noncombatants (Walt Whitman’s war poetry, for instance, which Higginson despised). I imagine that kind of reader served to constrain and shape a lot of what got written.
Would you say that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a work of Civil War fiction, even though it was published before the war itself?
TM: No, though Abraham Lincoln might have disagreed. And even if Uncle Tom’s Cabin really did start the big war, I am not sure that it is a text written with the inevitability of war in mind. Stowe may have been too sanguine about the receptiveness of her audience, but I sense in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in the early 1850s) that Stowe believed she could teach the nation to end slavery in a nonviolent way. By the time she wrote Dred (1856) I think she knew that war was inevitable. It would be intriguing to add a “pre-war” category of works that prefigured the conflict, and Dred would be prominent among them.
As a follow-up to my last question, let me ask about content. How do you determine what qualifies as a “Civil War novel?” Are there certain qualities or considerations that must appear within the book if it’s to find a place in your Guide?
TM: I admit to having no rules really. Marjorie Reynolds’s Civil Wars of Jonah Moran, for instance, is probably the farthest afield of the books that I list. Its connection to the war is that the title character is a collector of Civil War miniatures. The War figures very prominently in the novel — you can’t imagine it being the same without the War as context — so that might be my implicit criterion here. As Michael Oriard says of sport literature, a book is a sport book if you can’t imagine it with the sport removed. I’d say that’s true of all 96 of the novels I’ve listed so far.
Your Guide contains a number of fictions published during the war itself. How do wartime novels differ, in spirit or emphasis, from those published in the decades afterward? Is there a family resemblance, or do we see a clean break after 1865?
TM: The wartime publications I have listed are all juveniles (some adult fiction was published during the war but is scarce in libraries today). The salient feature of the wartime juveniles by Oliver Optic is their intense pro-Northern stance, to the point of treating the Rebellion as a criminal betrayal of the Union. Oliver Optic’s postwar fiction was far more reconciliationist. And even immediate postwar adult classics like Miss Ravenel’s Conversion and Waiting for the Verdict, if not bent on reconciliation, are much more ambivalent about Northern war aims than the wartime juveniles had been.
What are the prevailing trends in recent Civil War novels, those published during the 1990s and 2000s?
TM: Women’s stories pretty much outnumber men’s in recent fiction. Even in novels by men, like Cold Mountain and The Widow of the South. Violence has become pretty ghastly, too, as if war fiction in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, Abu Ghraib, and live-blogged war needed to be gory in the extreme to seem realistic (I am thinking of Owen Parry’s mystery series and of the Robert Olmstead’s very recent Coal Black Horse).
As you point out in the Guide, several sub-genres exist within Civil War fiction: the detective story, the sports story, the juvenile tale, etc. Which of these sub-genres is your favorite, and how does it provide a unique perspective on the conflict?
TM: I am fond of the sport stories, which largely see sport as an oasis. I am an editor on the sport literature journal Aethlon, and I have been struck by novels like Perfect Silence and Play for a Kingdom that present baseball as a principled alternative to combat.
What are your future plans for the Guide to Civil War Novels?
TM: My unstated motto comes from an essay by Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim!”
Is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) a work of Civil War literature? What about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)?
It may seem strange to ask these questions, as Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin almost ten years before the war, and as Huck Finn is set in the antebellum years (specifically, the 1840s). Yet more than a few scholars and readers have suggested that both count as Civil War fiction. Why? The reasons are somewhat different for each.
When it comes to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the argument usually has something to do with the novel’s cultural significance in the years leading up to the war. Some suggest that the book’s portrait of the evils of slavery persuaded thousands of Americans (especially in the North) to believe that human bondage must be eradicated, and that it would take an armed conflict to do it. In turn, thousands more Americans (especially those living in the South) came to believe that war would be necessary in order to blunt the illegal intrusions of abolitionists.
This approach to the novel’s cultural role is certainly a reductive one, but it’s supported by words supposedly uttered by Lincoln when he met Stowe in person in 1862: “So this is the little lady who made this big war!” The exact wording of the quotation seems to vary from one retelling to the next, but the message remains clear: Uncle Tom’s Cabin made the Civil War happen. (Interestingly, Lincoln’s famous quip wasn’t first reported until 1898, thirty-six years after the fact.)
What does any of this have to do with fiction about the Civil War? Based on the novel’s enormous cultural presence, many readers have declared it to be a central work of Civil War literature: What book could have more to say about the struggle, and its causes and meanings, than the novel that started the war in the first place?
This line of thinking is provocative, to be sure, but I don’t think it holds up under scrutiny. I recently asked Tim Morris about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and he answered that the novel did not count as Civil War fiction — in part because Stowe did not believe that war was inevitable when she wrote it. That argument makes sense to me, and I would personally be reluctant to count the novel even if it did overtly anticipate, or agitate for, a civil war in America. For me, Civil War literature is comprised of writing that actively engages an existing or past phenomenon, not a future one. I’m not suggesting that soldiers and battles should define any literary genre, but they do define wars – and Civil War literature is as much about a physical war as it is about the moral and cultural conflicts that inspired it.
In any case, my resistance to counting Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Civil War novel also springs from a deep suspicion I have about why some readers are so insistent that the book should qualify. I will address that suspicion in my next post, on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For the moment, however, I’ll say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a complex work of fiction, and should be read for its own merits — not because it connects to the war directly, but because it continues to be relevant to any discussion of race and region in American life.
P.S. I highly recommend that anyone interested in Stowe’s novel visit Stephen Railton’s award-winning website, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture. The site features a wealth of information, illustrations, and artifacts associated with the novel.
My last post addressed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book published before the war (1852) that has nonetheless acquired a reputation as a Civil War novel. Toward the end of the entry, I noted that I am suspicious about why people claim Stowe’s novel belongs within the genre. I react in the same way when someone suggests that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) ought to be considered the greatest work of Civil War literature, despite the fact that it’s set in the 1840s, more than a decade before Fort Sumter.
The unspoken message behind such claims, I think, is that Civil War literature is embarrassingly bereft of a true classic. The only artistic masterpiece about the war is The Red Badge of Courage, a work that many (perhaps most) readers believe has nothing to say about the causes and consequences of the conflict. Unhappy with Crane’s treatment of the war, highbrow readers likewise wince at the popularity of Gone with the Wind and other “historical romances.” They want a great work of literature to extol, but see nothing on the shelf worthy of acclaim.
In an attempt to legitimate the genre, some readers have decided to work backwards: first they identify a classic work of fiction, then argue for its centrality to Civil War literature. Some have latched on to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and others have set their eyes on a still greater prize: Huckleberry Finn, a book that scholars rank among the most important works in American literary history.
Even David Madden — an avid student, supporter, and author of Civil War fiction — has been drawn to the idea that Huck Finn takes the war as its subject. He and Peggy Bach had the following to say about the novel in 1991:
Some may consider it perverse to call Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn a Civil War novel. But what if those who call it the Great American Novel are at least close to being right? They claim that it is the fullest expression of the American character and land, the American Dream and its nightmare obverse, [implying something] about America then and America to come. What it most prophetically suggests . . . is the Civil War. If each American reads it with all she or he knows about the war conceptually and imaginatively in mind, it may shed a kind of light no conventional Civil War novel can. At the very least, reading this novel as a Civil War novel may alter the way one perceives all those novels more confidently called Civil War novels.
When I first read this passage, I found myself nodding in agreement. I admire Huck Finn a great deal, and teach it regularly to my students at Penn State Erie. The novel surely grapples with the issues of race and institutionalized racism, subjects central to any understanding of the Civil War. But the more I thought about Madden’s words, the more I backed away from his logic. It is indeed useful to consider how Huck Finn comments on the war. But Madden goes out of his way to point out that Huck Finn may be the mythical “Great American Novel,” which he seemingly sees as a way to elevate the reputation of Civil War fiction. In fact, later in the introduction he writes: “For Americans, the Civil War provides the single richest and most meaningful perspective on the entire American Experiment. Wouldn’t the Great American novel then have to be simultaneously the Great Civil War novel?”
The idea of somehow improving Civil War literature, by associating it with Huck Finn or other “unconventional” war novels, leaves me feeling uneasy. Moreover, can’t we apply this logic to any book concerned with issues of race in America? If I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) with all I know “about the war conceptually and imaginatively in mind,” will I likewise come to see that book as a contribution to the genre?
My point is not that we should police the borders of Civil War literature and exclude works that don’t make the war itself a primary subject. In fact, I’m all for an inclusive genre. But those who want to count Huck Finn as a Civil War novel are almost always the same folks who want to exclude from the discussion books like Gone with the Wind that have been deemed inartistic or silly. (As I’ve pointed out in the past, Madden and Bach have little good to say about Gone with the Wind, and do not consider it a “classic work” of Civil War literature.) My own view is that we should read Civil War fiction for what it is, and not try to improve the standing of the genre by either 1) ignoring the lousy works, or 2) widening the scope of the genre simply to make room for masterpieces that will improve its standing.
So yes, we should consider how Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn, Invisible Man, and Beloved reflect on the war. But we should not read these works to the exclusion of Gone with the Wind and So Red the Rose. And we should spend less time worrying about the reputation of Civil War fiction than we should spend on studying what these works can teach us about American culture and life.
More old posts from “Civil War Literature” coming soon!