The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War
by Daniel Aaron
Knopf, 385 pp., $12.50
One measure of the boldness of this enterprise is that it addresses virtually the same theme that Edmund Wilson treated in Patriotic Gore twelve years ago. In spite of its quirks, perversities, and pontifications, that was an impressive book, quite worthy of its author’s reputation as the leading American literary critic of his time. No other study of literary sources has so deeply probed the apocalyptic zeals and furious mystiques that inspired the opposing sides in the American Civil War. With a blend of icy detachment and a passionate involvement rivaling their own, Wilson wrote about the anguish of the more sensitive participants, their dilemmas, inner conflicts, and delusions, their torments of conscience and confusions of purpose. Probably no other writer has come nearer to revealing the “marked fascination” each camp had for the other and what Wilson called “the intimate essence of a conflict which, though fratricidal, was also incestuous.”
It was an act of courage for Daniel Aaron to risk a comparison he knew to be inevitable. On the whole, he does not come off too badly. Occasionally he seems to shy away from a subject or book as if in tacit acknowledgment that Wilson had magisterially preempted it. But for the most part he takes courage in hand and fires away at all the major targets, all the important writers covered by Wilson. While Wilson limited himself to those who lived through the ordeal of the 1860s, Aaron adds a short section on later authors, mainly Southern, who have treated the War. (I shall adopt his device of capitalization to distinguish this from all other wars.)
Aaron is generally more analytical and less impressionistic, more cautious and less tendentious than Wilson. As Aaron himself says, Patriotic Gore is “a dramatic monologue and a homily” as well as superb literary synthesis. Wilson carried his war against mythmakers and pietists, as he said in his introduction, to the point of seeking “to remove the whole subject from the plane of morality,” to strip participants of “pretensions to moral superiority,” and to reveal the War as “the competition for power for its own sake,” a manifestation of sheer animal bellicosity. Burdened with no such thesis, Aaron’s book is less exciting and provocative, but at the same time more scholarly and evenhanded. It is by no means dull, and it presses to greater depths the analysis of motive and inner conflict among writers. It deserves a respected place on the shelf with Wilson’s book, Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War, and George M. Fredrickson’s The Inner Civil War.
“The Unwritten War” of the title was probably inspired by a reference of William Dean Howells’s to his “forever-to-be-unwritten novel” on the War. But the idea is implicit in scores of pronouncements scattered over the past century, a consensus that no writer has ever risen to the occasion, has ever produced a “masterpiece” commensurate with the epic event. Yet on the Northern side, at …