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The Epic Is Yet To Be Written

July 2024
13min read

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.

Two years after Appomattox, William Dean Howells remarked that “our war has not only left us a burden of a tremendous national debt, but has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.” According to an anonymous reviewer for Scribner’s Magazine , it was staggering in 1904. “The war,” the reviewer complained, “still waits for its novel, and will wait until … some man of genius shall steep himself in it and assimilate it.” Despite the popular successes of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox or Winston Churchill’s The Crisis , the “epic character” of the war was an “easy commonplace in talk,” but it was not “felt.” It provided, he said, “a milieu full of color and possibilities,” but it was also potentially boring for its beneficiaries of the next generation who suspected its idealism and who attributed its cause to a “variety of minor selfishnesses.” The middle-aged writer of 1900—too young to have fought in the war and yet too close to see it as an epic—was incapable of reconstructing “the spirit of the last great struggle over an idea,” but in time, he thought, such treatment would be possible.

But could a civil war “fought under modern conditions, and turning on such issues as negro slavery and the constitutional rights of secession” inspire an epic poem or a great novel? Was there “anything about the American conflict which would recommend it especially for poetic or literary handling”? Henry A. Beers, an English professor at Yale University who raised these questions in 1900, doubted whether any war later than the Crusades would “lend itself to epic treatment.” The epic required distance, remoteness, legend, to give it the proper degree of enchantment. “A certain unfamiliarity,” he declared, “is necessary for picturesque effect.”

Feeling his way through masses of statistics, bulletins, and dispatches, the would-be epic poet of the Civil War was likely to lose himself in pedestrian details. He knew too much. He had to convert gun carriages and torpedoes into poetry and to evoke sublime thoughts about battles fought at such unromantic places as Bull Run, Pig’s Point, Ball’s Bluff, and Paddy’s Run.

Beers, nevertheless, was not prepared to say categorically that the American Civil War would never lend itself to literary treatment. Unlike most wars, it was distinguished by “the grandeur of high convictions, and that emotional stress which finds its natural utterance in eloquence and song.” In time, the poet and the romancer would fasten on the most dramatic episodesHarpers Ferry, Gettysburg, the Andersonville prison, the death of Jackson, the duel of the ironclads, the assassination of Lincoln—and the lesser events would fade into the background.

Writing more than a half century ago, Beers commented perceptively (as Edmund Wilson was later to do) on the high literary merit of the non-belletristic Civil War memoirs, but he noted the failure of an American Scott or Tolstoi to emerge. Today it can still be said that no work of Civil War fiction has yet duplicated the blend of verisimilitude and emotion that makes the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, Mrs. Chesnut’s diary, or Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment so memorable. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that this war, so obsessively studied, so minutely dissected, so brilliantly described, has not yet provoked a fictional work that we can confidently call a masterpiece.

Even as the war was being fought, the four writers probably best endowed to record it in history or fiction-Henry Adams, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain—never got close enough to it to observe it at first hand. Their unwillingness or incapacity to engage directly in the war (a fascinating problem in itself) cannot be attributed to their aloofness or apathy, nor does it mean that they failed to gauge its significance. It simply means that by avoiding the battlefields, hospitals, and camps, they disqualified themselves as reporters. For nineteenth-century accounts of the war itself, the fictional records of eyewitnesses or the stories and novels of writers for whom the war was a comparatively recent event, we must turn to men of different temperament and outlook: John W. DeForest, Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Harold Frederic.

According to Howells, who tried without success to build up a following for DeForest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), DeForest’s first novel, was the only work he had found that treated the war realistically and artistically. DeForest based the graphic war scenes of this novel on the letters he had sent home to his family during his three years’ hitch with the 12th Connecticut Volunteers. In this novel he set down with bleak detachment a view of the war that masked little of its horror and barbarism. The scenes of carnage, the butcheries performed by the surgeons in the field hospitals, the episodes of cowardice, skulduggery, political favoritism, and bureaucratic bungling—the seamy side of the war corroborated in the letters of other eyewitnesses—are powerfully incorporated into Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .

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.

No one ever described more honestly than Whitman the dehumanizing effects of the Civil War: the released prisoners emerging into the light—a foreshadowing of Buchenwald and Auschwitz:
can these be men —these little livid brown, ash-streak’d, monkey-looking dwarfs?—are they really not mummied, dwindled corpses?

the toll of bullets, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations:
the dead, the dead, the dead, [he wails] our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me).

Reading his poems and recollections, we believe him when he says, “I comprehended all, whoever came my way, northern or southern, and slighted none.” And when he sees a portentous meaning in the tremendous storms of 1864 that seemed to trail the great battles of that year and the luminous nights as symbolic of the nobility that cuts through the “long stretches of murky gloom,” he gives an epic proportion to a war that was not a “struggle of two distinct and separate peoples” but a conflict between “the passions and paradoxes” within a single nation.

This same Virgilian note is struck by Herman Melville in his seldom-read but profoundly moving volume of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War . It opens with “The Portent,” the image of a hanged John Brown swinging on the gallows, the beard streaming from beneath his death cap like a “meteor of the war,” and it creates (to quote from Howells’ review) “the unrest, the strangeness and solitude, to which the first sense of the great danger reduced all souls.” Howells found Melville’s poems, on the whole, too impalpable to be completely satisfactory, but he failed to see that Melville’s reflective commentary on the course of the war from Bull Run to Appomattox served as a kind of Greek chorus to the national tragedy, that Battle-Pieces were the poetic notations of an observing but passionately engaged mind.

The tone of Battle-Pieces is one of mingled grief and irony. America, “the world’s fairest hope,” is linked with “man’s foulest crime,” and Satan, a “disciplined captain, gray in skill” has given the lie to American optimism. The ladies who cheer the young men marching off to war in “Bacchic glee” will soon learn to sorrow:

How should they dream, that Death in a rosy clime Would come to thin their shining throng?

Youthful veterans become prematurely old, like “The College Colonel” who quickly discovers that war is not a game:

A still rigidity and pale— An Indian aloofness lines his brow; He has lived a thousand years Compressed in battle’s pains and prayers.

Although he rejoices in Union victories, celebrates Gettysburg, the victory at Lookout Mountain, the capture of Fort Donelson, the exploits of individual heroes, his exultation is tempered with pity, and the spirit of his poetry is more elegiac than martial. A war which began with the vanities of plume and sash ends with swarms of “plaining ghosts” and the triumph of brute mechanic power.

Although he pronounces the supremacy of “plain mechanic power,” Melville retains in Battle-Pieces the rhapsodic note, the romantic flourishes now deemed so inappropriate in any would-be realistic portrayal of the war. We have come to accept so completely the view that the Civil War was largely a record of tedium, vileness, and death that any attempt to write of it romantically, to deck it out with plumes and chargers, is dismissed as make-believe. Yet there is much evidence that many volunteers, in the early days of the war especially, were imbued with the most chivalric notions and that William Faulkner’s dashing horsemen may be closer to their intended counterparts than the plain-talking soldiers of MacKinlay Kantor or James Boyd.

Listen to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., writing to his father in 1863:
In addition to the usual sights of battle I saw but one striking object—the body of a dead rebel by the road-side the attitude of which was wonderful. Tall, slim, athletic, with regular sharply chiseled features, he had fallen flat on his back, with one hand upraised as if striking, and with his long light hair flung back in heavy waves from his forehead. It was curious, no one seems to have passed that body without the same thought of admiration.

The most grimy accounts of the war in the letters and memoranda of eyewitnesses like DeForest, Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., or Sylvanus Cadwallader, contain similarly romantic interludes:
The Twelfth was still rocking back and forth [writes DeForest in his war recollections— A Volunteer’s Adventure ] fluctuating between discipline and impulse, when an officer of Sheridan’s staff (a dashing young fellow in embroidered blue shirt, with trousers tucked into his long boots) galloped into our front from the direction of Crook’s column, and pointed to the wood with his drawn sabre. It was a superb picture of the equestrianism of battle; it was finer than any scene by Horace Vernet or Wouwerman. The whole regiment saw him and rejoiced in him; it flung orders to the winds and leaped out like a runaway horse. The wood was carried in the next minute. …

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.

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

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