The book that Edmund Wilson published a few years ago on the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, threatened to say the last word on that subject. It was rich, ample, and diverse, full of good portraits and good narrative; it teemed with intuitions and insights. Still, I have always thought the book gave less than it promised. There is no way of extracting from it a usable theory of the Civil War’s consequences, of just what changes the war worked upon the American imagination, sensibility, and intellect. George Fredrickson’s The Inner Civil War—far shorter, more modest, less diffuse, more programmatic, and in many ways imaginatively less free—is nevertheless a highly successful effort to do just that. Wilson’s individual studies are often flashingly suggestive; some—those on Grant and Holmes—are so fine on any grounds that the question of a comprehensive pattern may on those points become impertinent. But his long covering essay—the scandalous “sea slug” piece, which was intended in some way to unify all his perceptions and show how little dignity the war had as a collective experience—is more effective in paralyzing our thought than in liberating it. Fredrickson’s occasional individual portraits are somewhat lacking in contour. Yet his analysis of what the war did to the minds of those individuals, and to the intellectual setting of their generation, is brilliant; it opens a range of possibilities for understanding the remainder of the nineteenth century. There are grave questions as to where, beyond Wilson, one is to go; upon Fredrickson’s perceptions, one may build.
For example, what exactly have our major wars done to exhibit the “conservative” side of the American psyche? Why would a civil rights movement not have been likely to occur directly after World War II? What would have been incongruous about a temper of political and social radicalism after World War I? Why no “Progressive Era” in the wake of the Civil War? On this last question at least, there is much to be learned from Fredrickson. It is not really a question of “reaction.” It has less to do with going sour than with a major displacement and reallocation of the imaginative energies, a rearrangement of Americans’ conscious relationship to their institutions.
FREDRICKSON IS CONCERNED with the drama of what happened to two kinds of pre-war sensibility. One was the Transcendental sensibility of such figures as Emerson, Garrison, and Theodore Parker. The other was that of such Brahmin intellectuals as Francis Parkman, Charles Eliot Norton, and the Holmeses, representatives of a class for whom an elite of culture and an elite of money still could, or should, go hand in hand. His major theme is the radical anti-institutionalism of that generation, its condemnation of civil, religious, or military establishments of any sort as stultifying to creative life. The Transcendentalist concern for humanitarian reform was not inconsistent with an ideal of privacy, detachment, and cultivation of the individual’s “mental and moral powers.” Most of the diverse objectives of reform had by the 1850s…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.