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The Epic Is Yet To Be Written
What has been the impact of the American Civil War on the generations of novelists and poets since Appomattox? This subject is discussed below by Professor Daniel Aaron of the Department of English at Smith College, in place of the regular essay by Bruce Catton.
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
Graphic as a panorama of war, DeForest’s book, in the words of Robert A. Lively, “was more a calamity in individual lives than a national experience,” and this comment applies even more aptly to the brutal Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce. Bierce transmuted his own very real war experiences (he had volunteered after Sumter and had fought in many actions) into a series of nightmares, and he took a sadistic pleasure in destroying his hapless soldiers. Like Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , Bierce’s victims are tyrannized by their inner compulsions or broken by a destiny that is both impersonal and perverse. The incidents that Bierce and Crane describe might have occurred at Sevastopol or Sedan. What makes their work important in any account of Civil War literature is the deflationary influence they exerted on their successors—the serious ones, at any rate- who henceforth hardly dared to indulge in sentimental heroics.
The Red Badge of Courage is studded with unheroic phrases; it is deliberately antiheroic. Crane will write, for example: “There was a singular absence of heroic poses,” or he will ironically observe that the “officers, at their intervals, neglected to stand in picturesque attitudes.” In the conflagration of war, the human participants move like distracted ants, or Crane fuses them into mindless aggregates that bleed, reel back, disintegrate. Any soldier or officer who even tries to assert himself is ridiculed for his vainglory.
Just as the young writers of World War II fell unconsciously into the prose rhythms of Ernest Hemingway and adopted his attitudes, so many of the Civil War novelists projected the war, as Crane did, through the consciousness of a single bewildered hero and dwelt upon the chaos and indignity of war rather than on its glamour.
Harold Frederic, like Stephen Crane, was born too late to serve in the Union Army, but his fine novel, The Copperhead (1893), and his collection of war tales, Marsena and Other Stories (1894), have fallen into undeserved obscurity. The novel tells of the tribulations of an upstate New York farmer whose pro-Southern sympathies during the war bring upon him the concentrated hatred of his neighbors. The collection of stories focuses on this same community as well as on the war front and is notable for its sensitive recordings of casual events that probably occurred in small villages throughout the country during the war. He catches the anguished cry of a farmer when the first casualty lists come in: “Wa’n’t the rest of the North doin’ anything at all?” a wildeyed, disheveled old farmer cried out in a shaking, halffrenzied shriek from the press of the crowd round the telegraph office. “Do they think Dearborn County’s got to suppress this whole damned rebellion single-handed?”
The successors of DeForest, Bierce, Crane, and Frederic scorn the painted dolls that once postured through the romantic tales of the eighties and nineties. The stench and muck of war have dispelled the odor of magnolia blossoms and roses; the splendid panoramas have faded, and the sociologists and the historians have taken over.
As fiction, many of these novels—James Boyd’s Marching On , Clifford Dowdey’s Bugles Blow No More , Allen Tate’s The Fathers , Andrew Lytle’s The Long Night , Stark Young’s So Red the Rose come to mind—are of much higher quality than most of the early novels of the war. They are richer and denser and more reflective, and their authors are not inhibited by the taboos which bedeviled DeForest and Crane. The battle scenes in these novels are often extraordinarily realistic. But there is no mystery or awe in these books, little of that mythic sense without which the Civil War is likely to become a pastiche of gruesome or idyllic or merely commonplace details, or a historical background against which the novelist may project his social theories. The attitude I miss in the best of these modern Civil War novelists I find in Whitman and Melville, both of them romantic realists whose life and experiences and temperament made them such admirable reflectors and interpreters.
Whitman was heartened by the response of a nation to the “volcanic upheaval,” but he saw it as a miracle, to be regarded with awe. Specimen Days and Drum-Taps are the “interior history” of the war that Whitman declared could never be written. He records the first response of the North to Fort Sumter: the contempt for the South, the mixture of anger, incredulity, and bravado, and the rout at Bull Run that leaves the country “baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.” He mentions the courage of Lincoln on that “crucifixion day.” He goes to Falmouth, Virginia, in December of 1862 and sees a cart-load of “amputated feet, legs, arms, hands.” He sets down the acts of heroism and kindness performed by both sides, and the atrocious cruelties. Multiply these atrocities, he says by scores, aye hundreds—verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford—light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers —and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers- and you have an inkling of this war.