‘ the real war will never get in the books’: Selections from Writers During the Civil War
The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home
For a century and more after the Civil War American critics have worried the question of why the experience never inspired a literary classic worthy of the subject. The first to broach the problem were those to whom it must have caused the greatest embarrassment—the writers who lived through the war themselves. It was they who most often demanded the “masterpiece” that measured up to the experience. Some of them aspired to meet that need with a work of their own, but none claimed to have done so, and several lived to confess their failure. Others declared it would never be done. Thus William Dean Howells lamented his “forever-to-be-unwritten novel,” and Walt Whitman believed that “the real war” was beyond the reach of writers. The debate over the explanation continues to the present day. Optimists waited in vain for writers of the postbellum generations to fulfill their hopes. Stephen Crane came nearest perhaps, but Crane was no Tolstoy.
Numerous theories have been put forth to account for the missing masterpiece on the most profound experience in the country’s history. Edmund Wilson opens his Patriotic Gore (1962), a study of some thirty wartime writers, by declaring that “the period of the American Civil War was not one in which belles letters flourished,” and then asks, “Has there ever been another historical crisis…in which so many people were so articulate?” Wilson’s most articulate people were not professional writers, but statesmen, orators, autobiographers, and diarists. He persuasively cites Lincoln, Grant, John Mosby, Mary Chesnut, and Justice Holmes as participants who “dramatize the war as the poet or the writer of fiction has never been able to do.” Melville and Whitman get only passing attention, and Henry James and Twain little more.
Agreeing largely with Wilson, Daniel Aaron in The Unwritten War (1973) also considers some thirty writers but does not confine his sample to those of the war years. He thinks that “From the beginning, the War seemed designed for literary treatment as if history itself had assiduously collaborated with the would-be writer.” It would seem a writer “had only to plagiarize from the plot of the Authorial Providence who first blocked out the acts and scenes.” Aaron agrees with Robert Penn Warren, in his Legacy of the Civil War (1961), that the historic script was “massively symbolic,” even “sibylline,” and that it was America’s Homeric war—but that it still awaits a Homer.
Attempting to supplement Wilson’s view of the sterility of the American literary imagination during the war, Aaron suggests a Freudian “emotional resistance” to racial aspects of the war that made the presumed beneficiary, the liberated slave, “an object of contempt or dread.” This, in Aaron’s view, evoked feelings of guilt and blurred literary insight. But neither these nor other explanations—the reticence of soldiers about “realities” of combat, the delicate ears of a predominantly female reading public, or the divided sympathies of many professional writers—seem wholly adequate. It may well be …