The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War
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 least, it was conceded that history, or Providence, had outdone itself to furnish the would-be epic writer with an embarrassment of riches. The heavenly scenario, replete with portents, heroes, and villains, opens with the martyrdom at Harper’s Ferry and closes with the martyr of Ford’s Theater. Coincidence and climax of literal history had only to be plagiarized and could hardly have been improved by invention. For the Yankee of Puritan heritage, as Aaron observes, “Milton had already written the first draft.”
Nevertheless all agreed that no writer had produced the required epic, and some agreed with Whitman that “the real war will never get in the books.” Few agreed upon the reasons. Among those offered were a sterility of the American literary imagination, the fastidiousness of a largely female readership, and the reticence of veterans. Aaron speculates tentatively that a Freudian “emotional resistance” blurred literary insight and that the trouble was race. The Negro figured only peripherally in the War literature and then, even among his well-wishers, as “an object of contempt or dread, or an uncomfortable reminder of abandoned obligations, or a pestiferous shadow, emblematic of guilt and retribution.”
The main title of the book gives the wrong clue to the author’s intention. For while Aaron concedes that few American writers have been able to “say something revealing about the meaning…of the War,” his real point is “that the paucity of ‘epics’ and ‘masterpieces’ is no index of the impact of the War on American writers. As I shall seek to show, the War more than casually touched and engaged a number of writers, and its literary reverberations are felt to this day.” He is perfectly aware that the “unwritten” War has inspired more writing of all sorts, including poetry and fiction, than any other American war, probably more “than all of America’s other wars put together.” It might as readily have been called the overwritten War. It is not the quantity or, for that matter, the quality of the literature it inspired, but rather the emotional impact of the War upon individual writers that is the real concern of the author.
Until the federal defeat at Bull Run, few Northern writers gave any thought either to the prospects or to the consequences of civil war. The older Brahmins then converted instantly to bloodthirsty super-patriots. To Holmes it was “our Holy War” with no ambiguities, to Lowell “a splendid abstraction,” as Aaron says, with “anguish diluted in rhetoric.” A long-time enemy of federal encroachment, Emerson now called for “the absolute powers of a Dictator”—anything to win. His armchair blood lust dictated “a trust in the simplicities,” preferred animal savagery to overcivilized softness, and spurned any negotiations with Rebels “about exchange of prisoners, of hospitals, or truces to bury the dead.” Men of his generation, North and South, “found a remarkable unanimity in their judgments and God’s.”
Three writers of rank who had done their best work before the War, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, managed to maintain more detachment and skepticism. Hawthorne ironically pictured Emerson “breathing slaughter” and posing, “merciless as a steel bayonet.” Hawthorne irritated true believers beyond measure with his humane skepticism and his ridicule of those who presumed to speak for the Almighty. Though more of a nationalist than Hawthorne, Melville was also more somber and brooding in his skepticism. He did not blame boys egged on by “priests and mothers in the name of Heaven,” but their bloodthirsty elders. He only hoped the tragedy had not been enacted “without instructing our whole beloved country through terror and pity.” In Melville’s post-War versenovel, Clarel, Aaron suggests that “the ‘South’ became a symbol for his own moral landscape,” that he “found in the mixture of rage, hurt, and despair” of the ex-Confederates “an analogue to his private wounds and disappointments.”
With reference to a lesser figure, Ambrose Bierce, Aaron observes that he made the War “a livid stage for a private drama.” That could not be said with equal justice about either Melville or Whitman. But Walt Whitman was undoubtedly given to self-dramatization. He reports that he “saw great battles,” when, in fact, he never saw battles of any kind. In the grisly army hospitals, however, he was touched by the real horror of war and conveyed some of it to his readers. At the same time he was impatient with abolitionists, privately contemptuous of Negroes, and indulgent toward the South. “Besides, is not America for Whites?” he asked. Nevertheless, he presented the War as a validation of his message in Leaves of Grass, pictured himself as Lincoln’s surrogate, and repeatedly hinted that attacks on himself were somehow unpatriotic if not blasphemous.
The four most gifted post-War writers, Henry Adams, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain, were all of military age during the War, but none saw military service. The “Malingerers,” Aaron calls them. None of them got close enough to the fighting to report it, but all sustained psychic wounds and each in his own way resented the demands of the War upon him, felt guilt about his failure to meet them, nostalgia for the good old days, and oblique sympathy for the South. For all, therefore, it was an “inner civil war.”
A youth in his mid-twenties, Adams sat out the War years at the Court of St. James as secretary to his father. He breathed martial fervor to his brother Charles, who was in the fighting up to his ears, but never yielded to occasional impulses to take up arms. During the War years he called for Draconian measures against the Southern brutes and paranoids. “We must exterminate them in the end, be it long or short,” he declared, and thereafter plant “a military system of colonies” in the South to civilize survivors. After it was all over and he had simmered down a bit, taken the measure of post-War degradation, and decided he was a bit of a rebel himself, he wrote Democracy, a novel taking a dim view of a war that had disqualified the Adamses for office. For his spokesman he selected a Confederate veteran.
So had Melville before him in Clarel. And so was Henry James to do in The Bostonians. James also had a soldier brother, two of them in fact, who filled him with remorse and shame about his “malingering.” He dwelt on the subject at even greater length than Adams. While he said that the War years had been the most intense period of his life, he dealt with the subject only indirectly in his fiction and mainly through feminine surrogates. Later the South became a symbol of the charm of the “days before” for which he admitted nostalgic yearnings. Howells, who sat out the War in Venice, felt the need of “some excuse for turning his back on his country in the hour of her trouble,” but never made clear what the excuse was. He was certainly not the man to write the great War novel, as he admitted. When he does refer to the War at all, it is with misgivings and reservations and with emphasis on its sordid aftermath.
Mark Twain turned his apologia for malingering into a farce that undercut reverential and celebratory attitudes toward the War he never fought. Toward issues and consequences of the struggle he was ambivalent. The Tom Sawyer in him identified with the hustle and progress of the Gilded Age; while the Huck Finn part remained a wry and dissembling Rebel. Aaron sees A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the Arthurean chivalry of the sixth century was horribly smashed by nineteenth-century weapons, as an elaborate parable of the Confederate debacle. The author’s sympathies were split. “If Mark Twain loved and hated the South, he admired and resented” the North that “compelled his loyalties while it violated the truths of his secret self.” Unable to commit himself fully to either, “he displayed a not always hidden hostility to what he praised and affection for what he scorned.” His was another inner civil war.
In view of all the potential talent available for the task, it is ironic that John W. De Forest should come off with the highest marks. Aaron pronounces his Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) “the best novel about the War to be written by a veteran or, for that matter, by anyone.” This estimate is rather difficult to accept. For one thing it is hard to condone praise for a prig and a snob, and De Forest was more than a bit of both. Half acknowledging this, Aaron nevertheless admires the “dry and deflationary” style of De Forest’s novel, its candor and lack of pomposity, its “blend of irony and humor, anger and disdain.” He points out that the ostensible theme of the book, the victory of righteousness and progress over barbarism and reaction, “is constantly undercut by De Forest’s ambivalent feelings toward both the angelic hosts and the squadrons of Satan—and toward the Civil War itself.”
Two other Union veterans of the War gain passing attention and lighter praise. Ambrose Bierce saw harder fighting than any other writer. His soldiers move in a trance and his macabre stories are more surrealistic than realistic. In the aftermath he doubted that “a land of peace and pensions” had been worth fighting for. “I know what uniform I wore—/ O that I knew which side I fought for!” His contemporary, Albion W. Tourgée, was more of an idealist and a believer, and carried his crusade on through Reconstruction as the most articulate of carpetbaggers and most unflinching champion of Negro rights. His novels are clumsy, their plots preposterous, but he was probably the most widely read of veteran War novelists.
After the “malingerers” and the veterans came the generation whose experience of the War was secondhand. Of these Stephen Crane and his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, normally receive more praise than Aaron is willing to hand out. The events the novel recounts, as he says, “might have occurred at Sevastopol or Sedan,” so detached are they from their historical context. It is not a novel about the War, but about war, war as a “holy debauch” and “a religious revival in hell.” Aaron is justified in pronouncing it contrived and derivative. Crane’s friend and admirer Harold Frederic wrote about the home front he knew as a child. He treated the War as an unmitigated disaster, the first Northern writer of distinction whose fiction “was not simply against war, as Crane’s was, but against the War.”
Critics over the last century have repeatedly held that the great war novel or epic they called for ought to have been written by a Southerner. Aaron agrees. Defeat and tragedy lend themselves more readily to literary treatment than “the vulgarity of victory,” and, he suggests, “the fall of the Confederacy seems emblematic of the human tragedy—an outraged, self-deceived, vainglorious, brave people” plunging head-on to disaster. He even describes “the ideal author of the unwritten masterpiece” endowed with humor, Olympian irony, and “Chekhovian nostalgia.” But until William Faulkner, no such writer appeared below the Potomac.
The literature of the Confederacy and the post-War South gets short shrift here. It is put down as too polemical, too defensive, too shrill, or too elegiac. The War seems to have been “too stunning for Southern writers to comprehend at the time.” Only three stand out as exceptions: Henry Timrod, the poet, George W. Cable, the novelist, and Mary Chesnut, the diarist. Of the poets, Timrod is described as “the single authentic talent and the only one who appears to have been ‘educated’ by events in the Melvillian sense.” Unlike the verse of the truculent patriots, his was somber, reflective, and often detached. But Timrod died young, his promise unrealized.
Cable earns more respect and attention here for his independent and courageous views on slavery, race, and social problems than he deserves for his fiction. His major work, The Grandissimes, treats New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and exploits historical analogies between the American takeover of Creole society and the Northern reconstruction of Confederate Louisiana. His Creoles of 1803 voice the same notions of caste, race, and democracy held by their die-hard counterparts of the 1860s and 1870s. In spite of lapses in taste and fits of sentimentality, The Grandissimes took a harder look at slavery, the Negro, and free men of color and at black-white relations than any of his contemporaries and all but a few later Southern writers.
Mary Boykin Chesnut is Aaron’s “most likely candidate to write the unwritten Confederate novel.” Instead, she wrote what her incompetent editors have called a “diary.”* The praise of her talents here is as lavish as that bestowed by Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore. With both it is a love affair. Since the reviewer professes at least equal devotion he can admit of no dissent. Aaron attributes to her “the eye and ear of a novelist as well as the temperament” and thinks “the Diary is more genuinely literary than most Civil War fiction.” As he rightly says, it “abounds with evocative description, turns of phrase, comic episodes, anecdotes, dramatic situations…and down-to-earth realities” that are unmatched in most of the war fiction of her day and later. Not to be outdone in her praise, one might add that there was no sterner critic of slavery among whites who lived with it and, until very recently, no fiercer opponent of the masculine prerogative. The gallows humor of her stoicism in defeat was unfeminine but not un-Southern.
Aaron wastes no time on the myth that the South snatched literary victory from the jaws of military defeat and proved the pen mightier than the sword. To have done so would have been to take seriously the deluge of romantic fiction that he rightly dismisses as unworthy of serious treatment. He does permit himself a digression on the Nashville Agrarians—a digression because they never really addressed themselves to the War, even in their non-polemical and imaginative work. He is more interesting on the problem of why Southern writers have never fully succeeded in imaginatively encompassing the war. Here he leans on Robert Penn Warren’s theory that the legacy of the Civil War for which the South settled was the fraudulent tradition of “The Great Alibi,” the big medicine by which it “turns defeat into victory, defeats into virtues.” It made the South “an innocent victim of a cosmic conspiracy.” Equally fraudulent was the North’s legacy, “The Treasury of Virtue,” which conferred on the victor not an alibi but a pardon, plenary indulgence for all sins, past, present, and future. For the few who spurned such legacies and sought to capture the epic themes of the American Iliad Warren suggests that the War proved too “massively symbolic,” too “sibylline” to capture in verse or prose.
The one writer who seemed to have been endowed with nearly all the qualities, including a Chekhovian nostalgia, of Aaron’s ideal author of the “masterpiece” on the Civil War was William Faulkner. But Faulkner was not much interested in the War itself, only in its consequences. The War is a background and a presence in several of his novels, but never a major concern. What treatment he gives it is usually deflationary, sometimes a blend of the ironic and the elegiac. He combined “mockery and piety, blasphemy and belief.” He often chose ludicrous and unheroic features of the War, but as often honored what he deflated. “He felt the pull of what he disbelieved,” as Aaron says, “but the prevailing tone of his ‘discourse’ was unrapturous, sardonic, tragicomic.”
Walt Whitman once remarked that his experience with life made him “afraid of the historians: the historian, if not a liar himself, is largely at the mercy of liars.” This is not a book about historians or about their treatment of the War. In view of the rather harsh judgments he passes on the literary folk and their efforts, however, it is generous of Aaron to say in passing that “in recent years, historians and biographers have more often come closer to ‘the real sense’ of the War than fiction writers, poets, and literary critics.” That comparison broaches a subject of too many dimensions to be handled here. Besides, it is largely irrelevant. The point at issue is not the accuracy and insight of the historians but the creative imagination of American men of letters. And the conclusion is pretty well sustained that they have not measured up to the challenge left them by the War.
Aaron is mistaken about her "original diaries" having been "later destroyed." They still exist and along with her amended version deserve a skilled and scholarly editor. May he also be respectful and mindful of her jealous admirers.↩
Aaron is mistaken about her “original diaries” having been “later destroyed.” They still exist and along with her amended version deserve a skilled and scholarly editor. May he also be respectful and mindful of her jealous admirers.↩