The Magazine

Sword and Pen

Literary culture after the Civil War

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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From Battlefields Rising

How the Civil War Transformed
American Literature

by Randall Fuller

Oxford, 272 pp., $29.95

The South and America Since World War II

by James C. Cobb

Oxford, 392 pp., $24.95

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies .  .  .
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

When Emily Dickinson, reclusive and wren-like by her own description, wrote those lines, abolitionism was the passion of the hour among her New England contemporaries. But most of them would probably have been baffled by her advice that truth, especially political or social truth, must be “slant”​​—​​shaded, indirect, or subtle​​—​​if it is not to blind. Dickinson punctuated her hundreds of wartime poems with dashes that underscored the gnomic urgency of her diction, often composing several a day during the Civil War. Many were about death: an indirect barometer of the toll of bloodshed that her angry and prophetic contemporaries courted. But the eminent writers examined in Randall Fuller’s fine book were intoxicated by the certainties of the era, and heedless.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord and the most eminent of New England men of letters in the ante-bellum years, had a great deal to say by way of moral admonition. He embraced “transcendentalism,” an imported version of German philosophical idealism, and his pronouncements tended toward an oracular abstraction. Emerson was, however, subtle by comparison with the more vocal abolitionists​​—​​including the “secret six” who had funded John Brown’s incendiary raid of 1859 on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. True to their Puritan heritage, those eminent New Englanders condemned slavery not as an outmoded and inhumane labor system, but as crime pure and simple. No matter that the Constitution protected it and provided for the recovery of fugitive slaves​​—​​nor that Lincoln and other moderate foes contemplated schemes of gradual compensated abolition. No, the gathering storm of regional conflict must be a moral crusade. When war came, many New England worthies refused to countenance Lincoln’s call for volunteers because it was, at first, unclear that the war would be against slavery. Their attitudes mirrored the fundamentalism of Southern “fire-eaters” who insisted as fervently that their slaves were “property” that they enjoyed a constitutional right to carry (and defend with institutional arrangements) wherever the flag flew.

There is an obvious thematic seam in Fuller’s book: the difference between prophecy and art. The New Englanders were prophets, for the most part, and their hatred of slavery often floated free of all earthly considerations. Not so the New Yorkers, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. When Melville, an Emerson admirer, encountered the puzzling assertion in the sage’s essays that poets have “a sense that the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye,” he erupted:

If Mr. Emerson traveling in Egypt should find the plague-spot come out on him​​—​​would he consider that an evil sight or not? .  .  . His .  .  . errors and illusions spring from a self-conceit so intensely intellectual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.

In his skepticism of oracular utterances, Melville shared affinities of attitude with both Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The latter, though of sterling New England origins, had shown in The Scarlet Letter a shrewd doubt of its theological certainties. Like Whitman, he was aware of the human limitations that may render truth “slant.” Both Melville and Hawthorne, by Fuller’s account, underwent literary transformations in the war years. Melville, hailed in youth as a bestselling writer of exotic South Sea adventures, had launched the radically strange Moby Dick to a baffled public and suffered a resulting neglect that lasted, with little respite, until his death. His later masterpiece, Billy Budd, was posthumous and came very near to being lost entirely in an old family breadbox. Melville’s stab at “epic” poetic treatment of the battle scenes he had witnessed or imagined sold few copies and is remembered today only in academic studies.

Hawthorne, the most complex of these literary notables, made an effort to write “slant” in the form of an antislavery polemic for the Atlantic, the house organ of abolitionism. He peppered it with “editor’s notes” written by himself that offered an obligato of doubt to his assertions. But Hawthorne was not a dedicated prophet: He had written a campaign biography that helped his conciliatory Bowdoin classmate and friend Franklin Pierce win the presidency a decade earlier, only to see Pierce reviled as a crypto-Southern traitor to New England attitudes. The war seems to have depressed him, and he left a last novel unfinished at his death.

Whitman was another outlier who, in the war years, laid aside poetry to work as a hospital volunteer. The war worked a lyric transformation in his sensibility, especially after the Lincoln assassination, replacing the boisterous self-assertion of earlier editions of Leaves of Grass with an elegiac note, as in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” It was, again, the difference between prophecy and art.

Fuller’s deeply considered examination of the literary impact of the war​​—​​“transformative,” as his subtitle has it​​—​​affords a fresh and fascinating look not only at Melville, Emerson, Whitman, and Hawthorne but at lesser lights and the loyalties that drove them. Fuller acknowledges important predecessors​​—​​notably Edmund Wilson, whose Patriotic Gore (1962) instructed an earlier generation in similar topics. But Wilson was more leisurely and conversational. For instance, the Confederate guerrilla raider John Singleton Mosby is brushed over here, even a bit demonized. Wilson took a more benevolent look at the impudent “Gray Ghost” and raider behind Union lines, and found him chivalrous, erudite, and, in his postwar reminiscences, “literary” in the more dubious sense. The transition may signal a change in tolerances of difference as the Civil War sesquicentennial approaches. Nor does Fuller explicitly address another of Wilson’s major themes: the effect of the wartime experience upon American prose in the deromanticized and plainspoken idiom of U. S. Grant, Mark Twain, and others. But then, Wilson had nearly a thousand pages to play with in that more reader-friendly time. From Battlefields Rising is a worthy sequel to Wilson and others. It should stand high on any must-read list of books, old or new, as we move into the Civil War anniversary years.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.​​—​​to recall another memorable utterance (William Faulkner’s) that links these two very different books. James Cobb’s treatment of Southern history since 1945 isn’t an explicit sequel to Fuller. But it abounds in markers that tell us much about the shortcomings of the abolitionist passion. Slavery and involuntary servitude may have died​​—​​officially​​—​​during the Civil War with the Thirteenth  Amendment. But peonage and second-class citizenship for black Americans replaced slavery and led a persistent afterlife​​—​​were, in fact, as robust as ever when the firing ceased in the later, larger world war.

James C. Cobb’s The South and America Since World War II is in vital part a chronicle of what C. Vann Woodward called “the deferred commitment to [legal] equality” and its gradual remedy in what he also called “the second reconstruction” of the 1950s and ’60s. In what sense had the longstanding commitment to legal equality been deferred? That story is not well taught in our laundered school history texts. Under congressional authority there had been a ten-year experiment from 1868 in military reconstruction of the seceded states, the so-called “Radical” Reconstruction, itself much mythologized. What befell that experiment after 1877 is, or should be, familiar: Party wheeling and dealing, fatigue and cynicism (brilliantly traced by Woodward in two classics, Reunion and Reaction and The Strange Career of Jim Crow) had, in 1877, overthrown the initial trial of biracial politics in the South. Nineteen years later, the Supreme Court ratified the surrender to legal segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson; and it lasted, effectively, for half a century and more. Little of decisive importance intervened following that collapse of will until the late 1930s, and then only because Franklin Roosevelt was put on notice that equal employment in the burgeoning defense industries would be the price of black cooperation in the war effort. Otherwise, the old order slumbered on, virtually intact at war’s end​​—​​even in the racially segregated armed forces.

But the legacy of racial discrimination had appeared more incongruous than ever, given that the United States had recently fought what one of its military leaders designated a “crusade” for human rights. Cobb traces the ferment that began in the federal courts (and in Harry Truman’s executive order ending racial discrimination in the armed forces). Those initiatives challenged institutional barriers​​—​​segregation in education and public accommodations​​—​​and constituted the most immediate aspect of postwar change. The South, as the author shows, was otherwise moving toward national statistical norms: farms dwindling, cities burgeoning, and Southerners as interested as Yankees in the almighty dollar.

Cobb’s account of the tortured dismantling of racial discrimination in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s is a tale both heroic and disheartening, and even now gradually fading from historical consciousness. The author writes with an appropriate exasperation of the often violent and bizarre measures of obstruction and resistance​​—​​including the shameless subversion of law and order in parts of the Deep South, and determined passive resistance elsewhere. Cobb’s admiring readers may wish, at times, that he had burned a few note cards on industrialization, urbanization, and other social trends, and written with the intuitive flair he displays in his fond and infectious treatment of Southern music and Southern fiction. They are, in some ways, the best pages of the book, as they are the best products of the South since World War II.

Cobb is among the loving critics (as distinct from a surplus of uncritical lovers) of the South, as Southern in his own way as Vann Woodward was. In a final chapter, “Why the United States Needs the South,” he explores the familiar hypocrisies of American hubris and echoes Woodward’s memorable formulations regarding the truly distinctive Southern sensibility. What lingers over the Southern scene, even now, is an assertive strain of Southern-fried religiosity, too frequently invoked to justify inhumane attitudes on race and sexuality. Evidently, the Bible Belt still reads its Bible. The question, as ever, is whether it reads it well.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure


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