March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
Three issues back the critic Paul Fussell explained that Americans have altogether too sunny and vapid a view of the world. Since nothing very terrible ever happened to them, they have no tragic sense: ‘They can’t even imagine it. If they would read more Oedipus Rex and King Lear, under decent instruction, it would help.”
I don’t know how much of a tragic sense my father’s grandfather had. I’m sure he never read Lear under decent—or any—instruction. He was a farmer (an occupation I would think might give anybody a tragic sense), and in 1861 he went off with the Quincy, Illinois, volunteers to save the Union. My father knew him as a grim, close-mouthed, rather terrifying presence who moved about the family’s Manhattan apartment behind a long white beard. One day he decided to visit the tomb of his sometime commander Ulysses Grant in Riverside Park. He took my ten-year-old father along. As they walked around the big, dim, quiet rotunda, the old man was suddenly brought up short by a shabby piece of cloth. It was his regiment’s battle flag; he hadn’t seen it for fifty years.
For a while he just stood there. Then, to my father’s amazement, the granitic man began to weep and to talk. “My God, it was awful,” he said. He told about himself and his farm-boy friends being shoved into action in Shiloh’s ghastly thickets, about how young they all were, about the killing and the dying and the roads and the weather. He talked until closing time, and then he took my father home and never mentioned the war again for the rest of his life.
So perhaps my great-grandfather might have been able to comprehend irony and tragedy without recourse to Oedipus Rex, and perhaps other Americans can too. The tragedy of the Civil War remains fresh. As history goes, it has not been so very long since Americans disemboweled one another in their own apple orchards and small towns, bombarded cities full of their own civilians, and ran up casualty lists that in the South included one in four of the eligible males. And if irony is wanted, I can’t think of one grander and closer to us than the great, half-seen mainspring that drove the carnage—the whole matter of race in this country. Slavery made the Founders’ promise of equality for all men ironic from the start, and the war that finally validated that promise left behind it brutal ironies that torment us still.
The editors have devoted this issue to the Civil War in the full realization that we can only hint at a very few aspects of it. But we hope the stories that follow will at least suggest the immense breadth of the subject. The war unleashed the forces that made the country we live in today, and it has touched every one of us as powerfully, if not as painfully, as it did my great-grandfather.