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)]


Richard said...

Jack why do the New England churches have an air of rebellion? Didn't the South rebel against the North?

And why "sparse"?

I must concede I keep losing track of US history though.

Your poems are typically interesting and enigmatic! Maybe the dream connects to great historical events or you were reading about the Civil War when you felt the need or desire to write your poem?

Is there a Dutch Queen? I wrote a poem inspired by the funeral and proceedings, ceremonies, regalias etc when Princess Diana died. It is rather "disguised" and quite long...but I was surprised how the ceremony of the funeral etc moved me and also maybe aspects of her life and death. But I am no Royalist although I'm not strongly anti-Royalist either. I actually like the fact that there is a Royal family in England!

So these strange connections (via dreams or musings through side burns!) go into our creative side?!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I must confess I've often wondered myself about that "rebellion" line -- I guess he means it metaphorically: that they're rebelling against the status quo that accepts slavery and other political compromises as the price of peace.

There certainly is (or was) a Dutch queen: one of my teachers at school told us a story about how he'd said hello to her one morning as he wandered along the beach, and was subsequently embarrassed because he was too young to realise that he'd used the familiar form instead of the formal one more appropriate to royalty ...

Richard said...

I re-read that poem of Lowell's. It is indeed one of the great poems. Things I missed in it when I read it last about 1990 I think.

Lowell (who was you know by that time was appalled at the Vietnam war and refused to take part in war) is ambiguous about the ideas of his (ancestor, also a poet, Lowell - who wrote poem at the time praising the Union Dead - and Lowell's is also replying to Aitken's poem on the Confederate dead. But it is more than that, as the images at the start of the fish in the aquarium (which is now gone) link us to the "new world" (and he describes an advert for safe that is shown to be god as it survives a nuclear blast! ..but Lowell also has admiration (not unmixed) for Shaw and his "niggers" ... but during the poem new monsters (dinosaur* cranes and bulldozers) are destroying history (good and bad) and the ending is worthy of the best written by Pound:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease

*And I am just finishing V by Pynchon published round the same time and there is a sense of the animate or the total world moving to some atavistic or chaotic state ...although this is put a bit simplistically, but this sense is also in the poem (entropy). And the callous indifference is echoed here. And also at the time the US was in the midst of the Civil Rights events so he echoes the bubbles of the fishes (which he saw as child) with:

When I crouch to my television set.
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

I think he is referring to those actually murdered (churches were burnt down, I recall Kruschev taking the wind out of J.R. Kennedy's sails once when he referred to how churches weren't burnt down (in the USSR) and people burnt to death in reply to the accusation that there was little freedom in the USSR. My father was not very left wing at all but enjoyed that counter by K! Takes me back...I recall the assassination(s) vividly. I know this was before Lowell's poem but there were still a lot of murder and riots and violence taking place at the time of Lowell's poem.)

So the lines about the churches ring true. There was rebellion against slavery and also the flow of time and the destructiveness (and "forgetfulness", but perhaps even if one isn't a Christan represent something stable also they have a "sparse" or limited rebellion against (the South - the bad World or indeed just The World (Word?) or the pervasive and relentless All?) itself and what it represented represents, as well as perhaps Puritanism ("good" and "bad" aspects of...);(another issue or thread in the poem)) the huge juggernaut of the vast materialistic march, but whether they beat Pynchon's Entropy / Codes or Big Mystery Not - is another question and I think this is another thing going on here...) also of Man (humanity) and nature (and all that jazz)...

It is a subtle poem. The is lot going on it it and it is brilliantly structured. One of the great poems. You were thus right to draw attention to biographies of Lowell (in a previous post recently). And it is relevant to US and world history and is very relevant today. And as poem it will last despite or because of any historical changes, wars or events.

Katherine Dolan said...

I must say I sympathize with Bronwyn here. The resident Civil War buff in our house can frequently be found reading contemporary diaries from the period and making musket noises out the side of his mouth. Also, I noticed that you omitted the Gettysburg film, in which Robert E. Lee is played by a duck (Martin Sheen) and the dialogue is really, really bad. On the other hand, there is Lowell's poem, PK Dick's We Can Build You, and South Park's reenactment episode, so oh well.
Great poem by the way.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I do have to specify that I don't myself make "musket noises out of the side of my mouth" -- my own engagement with the cause is generally limited to sniffing back a tear when Lee or Lincoln says something particularly moving (which is, admittedly, a lot of the time ...): "Now, henceforward, and forever free" -- that sort of thing.

You're wrong about the Gettysburg movie, though (as well as its even more execrable prequel Gods and Generals) -- I do mention it above, under Shaara's Killer Angels, though confining my own criticism to the quality of the prop beards in use by the cast (I'd actually pick Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain as even less convincing than Sheen as Lee or Tom Berenger as Longstreet).

We Can Build You is a brilliant addition to the canon, though -- thanks for that.

Katherine Dolan said...

So you did! Sorry about that. Yes, the beards in that movie were outstanding. They needed more adhesive, I think. Jeff Daniels looked like a schnauzer.