The Epic Is Yet To Be Written


The author of our as yet unwritten Iliad must do more than merely set down the experiences of a sickened and bewildered combatant if he is to capture the meaning of what Melville called “the great historic tragedy of our time.” His hero may pick lice from his uniform, and ride with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan on a gaunt nag “with each rib visible and the hip-bones starting through the flesh.” There may be “no pomp or pride” in his dilapidated hat. But he will not be untrue to history if he displays the “fierce friendship … appetite, rankness” and “superb strength” of Whitman’s soldiers.

As the Civil War drops further and further behind the wake of history, it may acquire the legendary indefiniteness that will tempt the epic poet. Perhaps some unborn artist will then recapture the exultation and anguish of those extraordinary days when practical men were often mystics and when soldiers and politicians felt themselves to be actors in some preordained catastrophe.

—Daniel Aaron The Spectral Soldier