Monday, April 09, 2012

The Literature of the Civil War

[Thomas Nast: A Civil War Christmas (Harper's Weekly)]

"Haven't you read enough books about the Civil War?" asked Bronwyn the other morning, as she observed me once more starting my long journey through the well-thumbed pages of volume one of Shelby Foote's three-volume masterwork The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-74).

It's not an unreasonable question, really. I mean, she has had to watch me reading the four massive volumes of Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), the three of Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War (1961-65) - not to mention his earlier trilogy about the Army of the Potomac: Mr Lincoln's Army, Glory Road and A Stillness at Appomattox (1951-53). What is it about that war that I find so fascinating?

I mean, it's not as if I don't read books about other iconic battles and wars: Martin Middlebrook on The First Day on the Somme (1971), Harriosn E. Salisbury on The Siege of Leningrad (1969), Antony Beevor on Stalingrad (1998), Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon's Invasion of Russia in 1812 (2004) ...

[Saint-Gaudens: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (1897)]

Perhaps it's just that there's something otherworldly about the whole thing. The heroes - Abraham Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Robert E. Lee - seem larger than life; the battles - though unimaginably violent - still full of a strange glamour and heroism. How does Robert Lowell put it, in "For The Union Dead" ?
On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year -
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…
I even wrote a poem about it once myself (at least that's what I think it's about):

[Matthew Brady: The Dead of Antietam (1862)]

Civil War

In my dream, everyone was waving at the Dutch Queen, as she drove slowly down our steep street to the sea. Grey-haired, dignified. I was watching the waves, I suppose, trying to get these lines. A small boy tried to drag me back to the crowd, but I pushed him away. He persisted. So did I. “Can’t you leave me alone?”
– Mairangi Bay (30 October, 2001)

Blue waves
upon grey rocks
the Union soldiers
storming Marye’s Heights
at the Battle of Fredericksburg


What shall we do
with the men who did this, General?
surveying the ransacked town
Kill them, said Jackson
Kill them all


The scent never comes off again
said the orderly
as he bandaged Burnside’s head
sawed-off legs and arms
spoiling in heaps nearby

I don't quite know what that dream about the Dutch Queen has to do with the price of fish, but the poem just seemed a bit too literal when I took it out.

The other three scenes all come from the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, where the Union army, under General Burnside, assaulted some well dug-in Confederates under Robert E. Lee, and were repulsed with appalling casualties ...

Coming back to the subject of the literature of the war, though, there really aren't many nineteenth-century American writers who didn't touch on it in some way: Dickinson, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Mark Twain ... One could even argue that Huckleberry Finn is, albeit in an oblique sense, mostly about the "irrepressible conflict". All I've done here, accordingly, is list some of the more canonical examples. I've stuck mostly to those that I myself found entertaining to read:


[C. Vann Woodward: Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981)]

Contemporary Writers on the War:

    Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886)

  1. Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. 1981. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993.

  2. Woodward, C. Vann & Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut: the Unpublished Civil War Diaries. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
    The most famous of Civil War diarists, Mary Chesnut was an intimate of Jefferson Davis and moved in the highest political circles of the Confederacy. Her "diary" was in fact a carefully calculated composition, expanded from the fairly sketchy notes she kept at the time (available in the second of the books listed above).

  3. Hiram Ulysses [Ulysses Simpson] Grant (1822-1885)

  4. Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs. 1885-86. Introduction by James M. McPherson. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  5. Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs and Selected Letters. Ed. Mary Drake McFeeley & William S. McFeeley. The Library of America, 50. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1990.
    Grant's memoirs were written to stave off bankruptcy for his family as he sat dying of cancer in the last year of his life. His style is classic and simple, and goes a long way towards justifying Mark Twain's contention that this is the greatest war book since Julius Caesar. Well worth reading.

  6. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

  7. Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings. 1870. Ed. R. D. Madison. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.
    Higginson, whom we know now mainly because of his correspondence with Emily Dickinson, had a very interesting war, and wrote about it earnestly and informatively.

  8. Herman Melville (1819-1891)

  9. Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces: The Civil War Poems. Facsimile Edition. 1866. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2000.

  10. Melville, Herman. The Poems of Herman Melville: Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War; John Marr and Other Sailors; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Douglas Robillard. 1976. Kent, Ohio & London: Kent State University Press, 2000.

  11. Melville, Herman. Published Poems: Battle Pieces; John Marr; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising & G. Thomas Tanselle. Historical Note by Hershel Parker. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 11. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 2009.
    Melville's poetry will never be as popular as his prose, confined as it is by contorted verse forms and conventional rhymes and tropes: however, there's a strange power in these poems written as the war unfolded. The facsimile edition above is particularly evocative.

  12. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

  13. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Picture of Slave Life in America. 1852. London: Richard Edward King, n.d.

  14. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Hollis Robbins. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2007.
    The book that started the whole thing off. I particularly recommend the lavishly illustrated annotated edition. My old battered nineteenth-century copy has a little more resonance, though.

  15. Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

  16. Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days in America: Newly Revised by the Author, with Fresh Preface and Additional Note. 1882. The Camelot Series. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: Walter Scott, 1887.

  17. Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry & Selected Prose and Letters. Ed. Emory Holloway. 1938. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1964.

  18. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Authoritative Texts / Prefaces / Whitman on His Art / Criticism. 1855, 1891-92. Ed. Sculley Bradley & Harold W. Blodgett. 1965. A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973.

  19. Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. The Library of America, 3. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1982.

  20. Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. 1980. A Bantam Books. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1982.
    Whitman's war poems, collected as "Drum-taps", are definitely worth reading, but the prose notes - written for the most part in Union hospitals in Washington, and collected in Specimen Days - are some of the finest writing about the war. One begins to see that he really is as great as people say.

[Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852 / 2006)]


[Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)]

More Modern Writers on the War:

    Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943)

  1. Benét, Stephen Vincent. John Brown’s Body. 1928. Ed. Mabel A. Bessey. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941.

  2. Benét, Stephen Vincent. Twenty-Five Short Stories. With an Appreciation, “My Brother Steve”, by William Rose Benét. New York: The Sun Dial Press, 1943.
    Hard to know what to say about this early attempt to write the great American epic . It's still quite entertaining to read, but unfortunately too old-fashioned and creaky to survive the onslaught of Paterson or The Cantos.

  3. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-c.1914)

  4. Bierce, Ambrose. The Collected Writings. Introduction by Clifton Fadiman. 1946. New York: The Citadel Press, 1952.

  5. Bierce, Ambrose. In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. 1892. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1941.

  6. Bierce, Ambrose. The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary: With 851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions Added to the Previous Thousand-Word Collection. Ed. Ernest Jerome Hopkins. Preface by John Myers Myer. 1967. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
    Undeniably effective, Bierce's war stories defy easy classification: "cynic" doesn't quite do it somehow: death-worshipper is more like it. However his sense of humour, morbid though it is, goes some way towards redeeming him.

  7. Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

  8. Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. John T. Winterich. With Civil War Photographs. London: The Folio Society, 1951.

  9. Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry: Maggie: a Girl of the Streets; The Red Badge of Courage; Stories, Sketches, and Journalism; Poetry. Ed. J. C. Levenson. The Library of America, 18. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984.
    Probably the most famous Civil War novel ever written, The Red Badge of Courage might be said to have somewhat unfairly overshadowed the rest of Crane's work: particularly the poetry.

  10. Thomas Keneally (1935- )

  11. Keneally, Thomas. Confederates. 1979. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1981.
    After the excellent Gossip from the Forest (1975), about the last days of World War I, and before publishing Schindler’s Ark in 1982, Keneally wrote this interesting account of the first Confederate invasion of the North, a kind of dress-rehearsal for Gettysburg, culminating in the Battle of Antietam: very underrated, I'd say.

  12. Michael Shaara (1928-1988)

  13. Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Maps by Don Pitcher. 1974. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.
    Much praised (and rightly so), this brilliant historical novel had the misfortune to be used as the basis of the screenplay for the clumsy and overlong movie epic Gettysburg (1993), distinguished mainly by appallingly fake-looking sets of whiskers and beards on virtually all of the protagonists ...

  14. Gore Vidal (1925- )

  15. Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. 1984. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1985.
    Wonderfully insightful portrait of Lincoln as a cunning political schemer: concise and brilliant (unusually for Gore Vidal).
[Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1914)]


[Bruce Catton: The Centennial History of the Civil War (1961-67)]

Histories & Historians:

    Charles Bruce Catton (1899–1978)

  1. Catton, Bruce. Bruce Catton's Civil War: Three Volumes in One: Mr Lincoln's Army / Glory Road / A Stillness at Appomattox. 1951, 1952, 1953. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1984.

  2. Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. Vol. 1: The Coming Fury. 1961. A Phoenix Press Paperback. London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2001.

  3. Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. Vol. 2: Terrible Swift Sword. 1963. New York: Fall River Press / London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2009.

  4. Catton, Bruce. The Centennial History of the Civil War. 3 vols. Vol. 3: Never Call Retreat. 1965. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967.

  5. Catton, Bruce, & William Catton. Two Roads to Sumter: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and the March to the Civil War. 1963. Phoenix Press. London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., n.d.
    Bruce Catton appears to be falling out of favour a bit now, which is a shame, as his books on the Civil War, albeit written from a Northern perspective, are still extremely readable and informative ...

  6. Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. (1916-2005)

  7. Foote, Shelby. Shiloh: A Novel. 1952. London: Pimlico, 1992.

  8. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 1 – Fort Sumter to Perryville. 1958. London: Pimlico, 1993.

  9. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 2 – Fredericksburg to Meridian. 1963. London: Pimlico, 1993.

  10. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 – Red River to Appomattox. 1974. London: Pimlico, 1993.
    Foote corrects the Union bias of earlier historians: an unabashed Southerner, he achieves a kind of imaginative empathy with the principal protagonists in the drama which is unlikely ever to be repeated or surpassed. This is certainly the best history of the war to date. It is a military history above all, though - if you want political insights, then Foote still needs to be supplemented by various others.

  11. Doris Kearns Goodwin (1943- )

  12. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
    Asserting that Lincoln was a political genius is not exactly a controversial claim, but Goodwin does make a gripping narrative of his relations with the other members of his war cabinet.

  13. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

  14. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939.

  15. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. One-Volume Edition. 1926 & 1939. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1954.
    The four volume "War Years" is a terrifyingly detailed, virtually day-by-day account of Lincoln's tenure of the White House ... It's actually surprisingly readable if that kind of thing interests you, though. It does me.

  16. Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

  17. Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. 1962. A Galaxy Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
    An indispensible companion to the nineteenth-century literature of the war - quite disjointed, and without a clear beginning or end (hence the contemporary comparisons to Plutarch, rather than Caesar or Thucydides), it still provides the best overview of these books a general reader could hope for ...
[Bruce Catton: The Army of the Potomac trilogy (1951-53)]


[Shelby Foote (1990)]

Films & Photographs:

  1. Burns, Ken. The Civil War, dir. Ken Burns, prod. Rick Burns, writ. Geoffrey C. Ward, narrated by David McCullough (USA, 1990). Complete 3-DVD set:
    1. 1861: The Cause (1989)
    2. 1862: A Very Bloody Affair (1989)
    3. 1862: Forever Free (1989)
    4. 1863: Simply Murder (1989)
    5. 1863: The Universe of Battle (1989)
    6. 1864: Valley of the Shadow of Death (1989)
    7. 1864: Most Hallowed Ground (1989)
    8. 1865: War is All Hell (1989)
    9. 1865: The Better Angels of Our Nature (1989)

  2. Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. Based on a Documentary Filmscript by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, & Ken Burns. 1990. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
    We might as well stop kidding ourselves: this is the source of most modern interest in the war. Ken Burns' documentaries do tend to have a rather formulaic air, and there is a bit of a pious tone to them, too, but it's still hard to see this one as anything short of a masterpiece. He did the job, once and for all, and did it well.

  3. Davis, William C., & Bell I. Wiley, ed. The Civil War: The Compact Edition. Fort Sumter to Gettysburg. The Image of War, 1861-1865, 1: Shadows of the Storm / 2: The Guns of ’62 / 3: The Embattled Confederacy. 1981 & 1982. Introduction by William C. Davis. Civil War Times. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1998.

  4. Davis, William C., & Bell I. Wiley, ed. The Civil War: the Compact Edition. Vicksburg to Appomattox. The Image of War, 1861-1865, 4: Fighting for Time / 5: The South Besieged / 6: The End of an Era. 1982 & 1983. Introduction by William C. Davis. Civil War Times. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1998.
    Nice modern collection of Civil War photographs. There are many such compilations: the iconography of the war is a considerable subject in itself. I do like the convenience of these volumes, though.

[Shelby Foote: The Civil War, vol. 1 (1958 / 1993)]

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Jacket 2: Notes on NZ Poetry

[photograph: Simon Creasey]

First of all, a quick apology. Over the years I've tried to average about one post per fortnight, as those of you who've been kind enough to visit this blog on a regular basis will attest. Over the next few months I'll be lucky to achieve half that, as I have another gig which will be taking up a good deal of my time.

You recall, a few months ago, when I was asked to edit a selection of New Zealand poets for the US-based website Jacket2? No? Well, I was. You can read all about it here.

I guess they must have liked what I had to say, because I've received a follow-up invitation to write a commentary for them, in a section of their site devoted to poetry and poetics-related posts by a variety of guest writers. I suspect that it's more my status as a living breathing New Zealander that inspired the choice than any other personal qualities, as my subject matter is more or less restricted to "Notes on NZ Poetry."

Never mind. I'll just have to make it as interesting as I can.

My column - as I like to think of it - kicks off this weekend (on April Fool's Day - though fortunately the Americans, in a different time-zone, have attributed it to March 31st) with a brief account of the Short Takes on Long Poems" symposium I've just attended (see the post below for details).

I'll try and keep up my other regular blogging "duties" so far as I'm able, but please be patient with me. I know it doesn't really matter to anyone but me how many posts I manage to put up on this huge snake of a blog, but it's nice - sometimes - to fantasise about a huge cadre of devoted readers, eagerly devouring every word one sets down ...