The Epic Is Yet To Be Written


Two years after Appomattox, William Dean Howells remarked that “our war has not only left us a burden of a tremendous national debt, but has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.” According to an anonymous reviewer for Scribner’s Magazine , it was staggering in 1904. “The war,” the reviewer complained, “still waits for its novel, and will wait until … some man of genius shall steep himself in it and assimilate it.” Despite the popular successes of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox or Winston Churchill’s The Crisis , the “epic character” of the war was an “easy commonplace in talk,” but it was not “felt.” It provided, he said, “a milieu full of color and possibilities,” but it was also potentially boring for its beneficiaries of the next generation who suspected its idealism and who attributed its cause to a “variety of minor selfishnesses.” The middle-aged writer of 1900—too young to have fought in the war and yet too close to see it as an epic—was incapable of reconstructing “the spirit of the last great struggle over an idea,” but in time, he thought, such treatment would be possible.

But could a civil war “fought under modern conditions, and turning on such issues as negro slavery and the constitutional rights of secession” inspire an epic poem or a great novel? Was there “anything about the American conflict which would recommend it especially for poetic or literary handling”? Henry A. Beers, an English professor at Yale University who raised these questions in 1900, doubted whether any war later than the Crusades would “lend itself to epic treatment.” The epic required distance, remoteness, legend, to give it the proper degree of enchantment. “A certain unfamiliarity,” he declared, “is necessary for picturesque effect.”

Feeling his way through masses of statistics, bulletins, and dispatches, the would-be epic poet of the Civil War was likely to lose himself in pedestrian details. He knew too much. He had to convert gun carriages and torpedoes into poetry and to evoke sublime thoughts about battles fought at such unromantic places as Bull Run, Pig’s Point, Ball’s Bluff, and Paddy’s Run.

Beers, nevertheless, was not prepared to say categorically that the American Civil War would never lend itself to literary treatment. Unlike most wars, it was distinguished by “the grandeur of high convictions, and that emotional stress which finds its natural utterance in eloquence and song.” In time, the poet and the romancer would fasten on the most dramatic episodesHarpers Ferry, Gettysburg, the Andersonville prison, the death of Jackson, the duel of the ironclads, the assassination of Lincoln—and the lesser events would fade into the background.

Writing more than a half century ago, Beers commented perceptively (as Edmund Wilson was later to do) on the high literary merit of the non-belletristic Civil War memoirs, but he noted the failure of an American Scott or Tolstoi to emerge. Today it can still be said that no work of Civil War fiction has yet duplicated the blend of verisimilitude and emotion that makes the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, Mrs. Chesnut’s diary, or Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment so memorable. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that this war, so obsessively studied, so minutely dissected, so brilliantly described, has not yet provoked a fictional work that we can confidently call a masterpiece.

Even as the war was being fought, the four writers probably best endowed to record it in history or fiction-Henry Adams, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain—never got close enough to it to observe it at first hand. Their unwillingness or incapacity to engage directly in the war (a fascinating problem in itself) cannot be attributed to their aloofness or apathy, nor does it mean that they failed to gauge its significance. It simply means that by avoiding the battlefields, hospitals, and camps, they disqualified themselves as reporters. For nineteenth-century accounts of the war itself, the fictional records of eyewitnesses or the stories and novels of writers for whom the war was a comparatively recent event, we must turn to men of different temperament and outlook: John W. DeForest, Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Harold Frederic.

According to Howells, who tried without success to build up a following for DeForest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), DeForest’s first novel, was the only work he had found that treated the war realistically and artistically. DeForest based the graphic war scenes of this novel on the letters he had sent home to his family during his three years’ hitch with the 12th Connecticut Volunteers. In this novel he set down with bleak detachment a view of the war that masked little of its horror and barbarism. The scenes of carnage, the butcheries performed by the surgeons in the field hospitals, the episodes of cowardice, skulduggery, political favoritism, and bureaucratic bungling—the seamy side of the war corroborated in the letters of other eyewitnesses—are powerfully incorporated into Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .