Sword and Pen
Literary culture after the Civil War
Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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.