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.

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