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Civil War in Literature
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

One of the anomalies of the American literary imagination has been its inability—in spite of the vast amount of ink consumed in the effort—to derive a major poem, novel, or play from the central crisis in the national existence. This failure seems even more curious because one of the prominent characteristics of the southern literary mind, at least of the white literary mind, has been the compulsive remembrance of the Civil War. But the southern writer—and this would appear to be a primary reason for the want of a southern War and Peace—has been less concerned to reconstruct the actual time of the struggle than to recount the consequent loss of the antebellum southern culture and, in the response to this loss, the creation of a postbellum culture of survival. Reaching its first full-fledged expression in Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia (1884) by Thomas Nelson Page and its most profound and complex expression in The Sound and the Fury (1939) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) by William Faulkner, the enactment of this drama has found a continuing, significant, if attenuated, expression in novels as recent as those of Walker Percy, especially The Moviegoer (1961) and The Last Gentleman (1966), and of William Styron, notably Sophie's Choice (1979).

Even the earliest southern writing about the Civil War, in the period from the firing on Fort Sumter to the final surrender, produced no treatment of the war comparable to Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps (1865) or Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). In contrast to these limited but distinctive representations of marching and fighting, the best southern poet of the time, Henry Timrod, wrote celebratory poems about the birth and mission of the Confederacy—"Ethnogenesis," "The Cotton Bowl," "Carolina," "A Cry to Arms"—and reached his highest poetic achievement with the exquisite classical "Ode," written to be sung at a memorial service in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery for the dead of a lost war. On a clearly lesser level of literary achievement, the years of the Confederacy found their voice in "Maryland, My Maryland" by James Ryder Randall; "Music in Camp," "Burial of Latane," and "Lee to the Rear" by John R. Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger from 1847 to 1860; and "Little Giffen," a popular sentimental ballad about a Confederate soldier by Francis Orray Ticknor. In the immediate aftermath of the war Father Abram Joseph Ryan became the poetic spokesman of the Lost Cause in such banal yet influential effusions as "The Conquered Banner" and "The Sword of Robert Lee."

The most effective literature of the Confederacy remained largely unknown for a generation or longer in journals, diaries, and letters. Among the most valuable of the contemporary records are those by Sarah Morgan Dawson (1842-99), Kate Stone (1841-1907) and Mary Boykin Chesnut (1873-86). Published in 1913 under the title A Confederate Girl's Diary, Dawson's account of the war years as she witnessed them in Louisiana's capital city of Baton Rouge and in New Orleans is informed by a perceptive eye for detail and a lively intelligence; brought out in 1955 under the title Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, Stone's record of life on a northern Louisiana plantation and later, after the flight of her family from federal invaders, in the east Texas town of Tyler, is also marked by a penchant for realistic detail.

The Dawson and Stone works are surpassed in both literary and historical importance by the account of the Charleston aristocracy during the Confederate period by Mary Boykin Chesnut. First published in 1905 and again in 1949 as A Diary from Dixie, Chesnut's work took on a new significance when C. Vann Woodward, after careful study of the manuscripts, concluded that the diary was written not in the 1860s but between 1881 and 1884, its basis being a journal Chesnut had kept intermittently in the era of the Confederacy. Published in 1981 as Mary Chesnut's Civil War, Woodward's edition of the presumed diary shows that it is essentially an incipient novel. Yet while the motive to make her journal into a work of art reduces Chesnut's reliability as a factual witness, Woodward observes, it enhances her depiction of "the chaos and complexity of a society at war" and endows individual lives across the whole Confederate social spectrum with dramatic reality. A similar power to invest the age of the Civil War with graphic reality emanates from the extensive correspondence of the Jones family of Liberty County, Ga. As collected and edited by Robert Manson Myers in The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War (1972), the Jones family documents constitute the most remarkable epistolary record yet discovered of a southern family in the years immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. Possessing a literary quality conferred both by well-educated minds and by a deep feeling for the drama of life, the Jones letters belong on the shelf of the best southern writing.

In some cases the southern experience of the Civil War as recorded in memoirs by Confederate army officers also deserves a place on the literary shelf, for example, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (1879) by Richard "Dick" Taylor, War Reminiscences and Stuart Cavalry Campaigns (1887) by John Singleton Mosby, and "Lee in Pennsylvania" in Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants, (1879) by James Longstreet. Of greater significance, however, is "The History of a Campaign That Failed" (Century Magazine, 1885), a quasi-fictional memoir in which Mark Twain, a private in a hastily organized volunteer Confederate unit in Missouri, describes his enlistment, brief service, and desertion. By implication a profound questioning of the meaning of war as a social institution "The History of a Campaign That Failed" is unique in southern writing about the Civil War.

Except insofar as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) can be interpreted as a reflection on the Civil War, Mark Twain did not use the war as a subject for his stories and novels. In fact, although Sidney Lanier in his hastily composed Tiger-Lilies (1867) attempted to use his war experiences as the basis of a novel critical of war, southern postbellum fiction largely followed the romantic pattern established by John Esten Cooke in Surry of Eagle's Nest (1866) and Mohun (1869). Persisting well into the 20th century in numerous, now-forgotten popular novels, the romantic mode is illustrated in The Cavalier (1901) and Kincaid's Battery (1908) by George Washington Cable; by the early 20th century Cable had fallen away from the realism of his first Civil War novel, Dr. Sevier (1884), in which he had announced his sympathy with the antislavery motive and provoked the criticism that eventually drove him from the South. Cable's early realism was in a sense picked up by Ellen Glasgow in The Battle-Ground (1902), one of the novels that would eventually comprise a "social history" of Virginia, in which she hoped to rectify a failing of the southern literary imagination that Chesnut had felt but had lacked the literary sophistication to define, namely a "deficiency in blood and irony."

The rectifying irony in Glasgow's attitude toward the Confederacy pales in comparison with the ironic scope of the southern literary vision in the decade following World War I. At the end of the decade a southern woman writer, Evelyn Scott, published a large, panoramic novel, boldly experimental in technique, entitled The Wave (1929). Intended by Scott to be a "progression" toward her final design, the writing of "a comedie humaine of America," this novel, now unjustly neglected, may be the most ambitious attempt to embrace the Civil War in its totality. For most readers the image of the war is more convincingly presented in a still-famous novel that, in its mingling of southern piety and irony, is probably a better novel than serious literary critics have generally said, Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell. From the standpoint of literary art the Civil War is more enduringly presented in Faulkner's only novel that focuses on the war years, The Unvanquished (1938). This work employs a family and community situation as a microcosm of the conflict, as do The Forge (1931) by T. S. Stribling, None Shall Look Back (1937) by Caroline Gordon, and The Fathers (1938) by Allen Tate. Shiloh (1952), by Shelby Foote, strikingly presents the war through a few selected participants in one battle. But Foote's achievement in Shiloh is minor compared with his success in his massive three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative History (1958, 1963, 1974). A masterpiece of the art of narrative, this work has been compared in its sustained narrative skill and power to the writings of Thucydides, Gibbon, Clarendon, and Henry Adams. Walker Percy has called it the "American Iliad." Foote's triumph in historical narrative underlines the fact that no southern writer has written a battlefield story possessing the classic quality of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895). The southern novelist has been better at creating plot situations and characters that embody the long, haunted aftermath of the Civil War, as in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!

The direct use of the Civil War as setting and theme in southern poetry has never been more pronounced than it was in the time of Timrod and Ryan. One of the most noted poems of the 20th-century Southern Literary Renaissance, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (the first version of this appeared in 1926), by Allen Tate, employs the dead soldiers of the South not primarily as defenders of a historical society but as symbols of a capacity for chivalric action that has been lost in the fragmented, narcissistic society of the present century. Critical of Tate for using the Confederate dead merely as symbolic, Donald Davidson composed "The Army of Tennessee," a poem in the conventional heroic manner, but he never published it. His finest Civil War poem, "Lee in the Mountains"—a long meditation by the defeated general projected through a modified stream-of-consciousness technique—is a part of the literature associated with the southern culture of survival.

Lewis P. Simpson
Louisiana State University

Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (1962); Robert A. Lively, Fiction Fights the Civil War (1957); Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962).