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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
Young Holmes, fresh from Harvard, entered battle with the conviction that “high and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof.” When wounded for the first time, his response was rehearsed and literary: When I got to the bottom of the Bluff the ferry boat (the scow), had just started with a load—but there was a small boat there. Then, still in this half-conscious state, I heard somebody groan. Then I thought “Now wouldn’t Sir Philip Sydney have that other feller put into the boat first?” But the question, as the form in which it occurred shows, came from a mind still bent on a becoming and consistent carrying out of its ideals of conduct—not from the unhesitating instinct of a still predominant & heroic will . I am not sure whether I propounded the question but I let myself be put aboard.
Even when Holmes had given up his convictions for a Hemingway-like military code, he found the faith “true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” These superb young officers, these heroes who expose themselves to “Butternut” sharp-shooters, who ride with their long hair streaming behind, are not realistic to the “realists.” But even if the average Johnny Reb was more likely to be (in the words of Charles Francis Adams, Jr.) “long, wiry, dirty, unshorn and dressed in the homespun yellow,” the novelist or poet should not be automatically relegated to the “moonlight and honeysuckle school” because he invents a hero who resembles the romantic Confederate corpse that Adams saw by the roadside.
Only Faulkner, among the contemporary novelists, has created a myth about the Civil War. And even Faulkner’s long saga of Yoknapatawpha County, which begins with a double crime—the introduction of Negro slavery and the private exploitation of a wilderness to which no person or group had just title—even Faulkner’s microcosm only includes the war as an episode in a larger cosmic drama. Perhaps, as Whitman said, the story is too vast for any one book: Of that many-threaded drama [he wrote] with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties—the immense money expenditure, like a heavy-pouring constant rain—with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning—wail of women, parents, orphans—the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Army Hospitals—(it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges) —those forming the untold and unwritten history of the war—infinitely greater (like life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.
And yet if historians (after spending years trying to illuminate this darkness) still disagree about the causes, consequences, and significance of the Civil War, why should we expect a revelation from the novelist or poet? It is really surprising that a people so attuned to the present and the future should not have taken the time to brood over the past? Did not the Civil War itself accelerate the momentum that transformed the nation in a few decades from a predominantly rural and decentralized society (where legend might slowly incubate) into an industrial urban society too new and noisy for retrospective contemplation? Is there any good reason, in short, why this war should have inspired a literary masterpiece?
Perhaps it would have been too much to expect some novelist in the triumphant North to dramatize the insight of Melville’s “College Colonel” or the somber reflection of the Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, brooding in the Charlestown prison. “There were barbarities, no doubt,” Stephens wrote in his Recollections , “and atrocities on both sides horrible enough, if brought to light, to unnerve the stoutest heart and to cause the most cruel and vindictive to sigh over human depravity.” The diffusion of such dark views might have shaken the nation’s faith that Destiny (to paraphrase Emerson) had a sneaking fondness for it. It was safer to see the war as an accident, an aberration, a temporary disorder for which men, not Man, were responsible; it was more American to ignore its sinister import and to concentrate on the glittering future.
One might argue, of course, that the war is still too close to assess, that catastrophes of such magnitude cannot be imaginatively assimilated in less than a century. The Trojan War was long past before Homer interpreted it, and several hundred years separated Virgil and Shakespeare from the respective civil wars they commemorated. No great classic has ever been written about the English civil war of the seventeenth century, a struggle that offers parallels to our own. Thus far, only a few American writers, mystically attached to the Union, have felt the grandeur and the tragedy of the war and tried to construe an event that seemed to them at once personal and mythic.