Civil War

Imagined Civil War

Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 2002

“The real war will never get in the books.” Walt Whitman 1882 (1)

Fahs says our division of texts into elite and “trash” is a way of “organizing cultural authority…that readers, writers, and publishers would not have recognized at the time.” (3) It’s also interesting, how there were not only “shared rhetorics” in Northern and Southern war writing, but common practices stemming from a shared “commercial literary culture.” (6) In the popular sphere, the commercial nature of writing and printing is (perhaps) more influential than in high literature.

“Conventions of popular literature shaped many Americans’ expectations when war began,” Fahs says. (7) To what degree did the recent shared print experience of the Mexican War (1846-8) influence this? She describes a trajectory of group allegiance leading ultimately to “nation-based individualism,” but it’s hard to distinguish this from an ongoing reaction against the tug of the mainstream. As nationalism grows, and some writers “celebrate the nation as a newly abstract entity,” others begin to assert an individual’s position relative to this new center of gravity. (11) The “felt tension between the needs of the nation and the needs of the individual,” and a “culture-wide sense that all stories were valuable” could both be a response to the overwhelming of individualism and crushing of individual stories that took place in a military camp, a battlefield death, and a mass grave. “As the mass movements of armies increasingly defined the war and the outcome of battle was increasingly mass slaughter, sentimental literature often explicitly fought against the idea of the mass, instead singling out the individual soldier as an icon of heroism.” (94) In this sense, we have a birth of the modern, and a scene-setting for the mythology of the West.

Fahs early on comments on the change produced by technology, but she doesn’t take it far. “Both north and south,” she says, “war became not just an obsessive, all-consuming subject but also a mode of perception and a way of life.” (18) “Newspapers suddenly became an urgent necessity of life,” (a deliberate nod to Gilmore?) satisfying “the public’s desire for news on an hourly, not just daily, basis.” (19) Railroads and telegraph moved mail and information like never before. But this benefit accrued more to the North, which was much better wired. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the result “perpetual intercommunication,” suggesting writers were well aware with the change.

Fahs reports that southern critics claimed “Had a Southern novelist truly painted in as engaging a style” as
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, popular opinion would have been swayed and America would have finally understood “the real workings of out Biblical system of labor, and its truly Christianizing and elevating effects on the slave.” (27) It’s unclear, from her presentation, however, whether this is a widely-held view, or just the ravings of a few critics at the Southern Monthly, who may or may not have believed it themselves. Certainly, no novelist seems to have stepped forward to carry that torch, which probably says something about different the opinions of artists and critics.

There are several more interesting points along the way. Southern papers were regularly indignant over the fact “old patrons of the Yankee weeklies and monthlies would buy them at any price.” (41) At least in more elite literary circles, the political break between north and south doesn’t seem to have created the hoped-for (at least among editors) cultural divide. Fahs also mentions that “the issue that especially exercised the letter writers was [
Harpers Weekly’s] assertion that the war would ‘inevitably sooner of later become a war of emancipation.’” This claim apparently cost Harpers some of their ongoing southern readership – it would be interesting to know how much of the heat came from northerners who’d been hoping it just wouldn’t go that far.

Fahs says “the median age of soldiers was 23.5. Yet imagining soldiers as ‘boys’…suggests a distinct cultural unease with the idea of soldiers as full-grown men separated from the maternalist culture of home.” (109) But maybe the atrocities both sides were able to perpetrate on the other is the real source of this “unease.” Whereas in both north and south, “early wartime poems imagined women renouncing men who would not be soldiers,” (128) maybe neither side was so happy, getting what they’d asked for.

In the book’s fifth chapter (one of the issues with
The Imagined Civil War is that it seems a little like a series of essays, each briefly exploring an area that in the future might support a wider treatment. This is typical of groundbreaking books, though, so maybe that’s a good problem to have.) Fahs explores the changing descriptions of black men in these “low” print media. She reports that some southern propagandists continued to predict a massive return of runaway slaves, as they realized how good they’d had it on the plantations. Northerners were somewhat ambivalent to portraying black men (and it was nearly always MEN) as heroes, until the “aftermath of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth’s fight at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.” (169) Even then, northern whites seemed most comfortable when heroic, armed black men died at the end of their stories. Whites persisted in “refusing to imagine the continuing lives of black men.” (171) W.E.B. Du Bois commented on the irony of black men achieving status in the minds of whites only when they killed white men. Even Louisa May Alcott, who published a story of an inter-racial relationship in Moncure Conway’s radical Commonwealth in 1864, seems to have felt “a fundamental discomfort” with ideas like “black soldiers killing whites they had known.” (173) Fahs doesn’t compare this with portrayals, in the same types of media, of whites killing their neighbors and even relatives. So it’s unclear whether the discomfort was primarily racial, or more a more general feature of coming to grips with the fratricidal nature of the war.

In a chapter on war humor, Fahs raises some interesting questions about the “critical distance” of satirists, who “emphasized the fear, incompetence, cupidity, avarice, and racism of those involved in the war effort.” (201) Between the lines, she hints at a growing class division, as humorists “puncturing prevailing heroic ideas of war,” begin to question the logic that has “so long made all peoples the ready military sacrifices of some people.” (quoting Robert Henry Newell writing as Orpheus C Kerr in the 1861
New-York Mercury, 204). This type of sharp satire was apparently widespread. Fahs describes Lincoln reading satire to his Cabinet, and mentions that Charles Farrar Brown (Artemus Ward) became editor of Vanity Fair in May 1861.

The final two chapters didn’t seem as gripping (or didn’t correspond to my own interests as much), but raised one really significant point, about the shift in story-telling about the war, toward spotlighting individual experiences. It seems as if the increasingly anonymous ways in which Civil War soldiers fought and died spurred a reaction in popular consciousness. The Civil War did not produce the (high) literary response of World War I, possibly because the rich and literate didn’t volunteer for service the way educated Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford went to the trenches. So maybe Fahs exploration of “low” print culture opens the door for an exploration of the birth of American modernism in the Civil War. I hadn’t ever really noticed that Stephen Crane’s
Red Badge of Courage was published thirty years after the war, by a young man who hadn’t even been born until 1871! There’s a lot more to explore here – Alice Fahs has opened a Pandora’s Box that probably contains many more surprises.