Click On Title To Link To Wikipedia's Entry For Ambrose Bierce An Important Post-Civil War Writer Now Somewhat Forgotten In Literary Circles And Who Is Mentioned In The Book Reviewed Below.
The Unwritten War: American Writers And The Civil War, Daniel Aaron, The University Of Wisconsin Press, 1987
As we approach the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War one would be hard pressed to find a subject related remotely to the war and its outcome that has not been covered by one or another Civil War buff. Needless to say the various major military and civilian figures have been covered ad nauseaum. Ditto for the main military strategies and their outcomes. Hardly a skirmish in some god forsaken hollow has been left untouched. And it goes on from there. The songs of both sides, the fashions of the day, the religions of the hour, the sacrifices on the home fronts and the financial credit ratings of both sides, just to pick some random examples, have all in their turn had their day in court. Lately, as the search for new material has gotten more doggedly elusive in the face of such scarcity factors such as the army morale, soldiers’ morality and the meaning of life (or the afterlife) for both sides have come in for inspection. In short, there is no lack of information about almost any facet of the struggle. Yet, this book under review, published originally some twenty years ago, concerning the way the American literary set at the time or since then have, or have not, written the definitive sage of the conflict is well worth the read, and as a very good source for further exploration on the subject as well.
Professor Aaron has taken as his thesis the notion that although the American Civil War would seem to have been a natural subject for some literary figure to attain immortality by writing the its definitive saga. He argues, for several reasons, that this did not occur, or if did it was by someone like William Faulkner who was substantially removed from any serious direct link to the struggle. Fair enough, More than one author, and here I am thinking of Norman Mailer, has broken his literary teeth trying, unsuccessfully, to write the great American novel, Thus that the same frustration may have occurred over a titanic human struggle by those who fought in or had the conflict touch their lives even indirectly does not come as a surprise. What is interesting here is the professor’s extensive overview of his subject and of the structure of his argument.
The professor has divided his book in several sections that reflect various applications of his overall theme. I will not go into detail here on each section but just say that a litany of the names that he evokes form a veritable who’s who of the American literary scene, some very familiar (Faulkner, James, Twain) others lost in the mist of time (DeForest, Tourgee, Cable), over the 100 years after the war (he basically ends his work after looking at Faulkner’s influence). I will, taking my hints from this book, spend more time in this space later going into more depth on many of these authors. For now though it is enough to summarize the sections.
Professor Aaron starts out by looking at the literary divide first- for or against one side or the other (or an off-hand indifference, as in the case of Melville). This tends toward a not unexpected divide between hot Northern “abolitionists” and Southern “fire-eaters”. He goes on to look at Hawthorne, Whitman, and the above-mentioned Melville. He thereafter gives space, but literary short shrift to the “malingerers” those who sat out the war, one way or another. Here Henry James, Mark Twain and Henry Adams get their just dessert. No one expects a literary figure to be a fighter or brave, but it helps when the subject is war, especially a war that will define a new age (successfully or not).
Actual combatant writers come under fire as well. Most of these writers are not memorable and Ambrose Bierce is the only one I have even seen anthologized. The second hand warriors are best represented by Stephen Crane His “Red Badge Of Courage”, required reading in high school certainly had the grit of the battlefield down but I agree with the professor that such a narrow scope is hardly the stuff of the “great” Civil War novel. Southern writers come in for some attention, especially the now well-known name of Sidney Lanier. Part of Professor Aaron argument is an assumption that while the South lost the war it “won” the literary battle. Certainly that was true until recently on the history front on the subjects of the fate of the slave under slavery and Radical Reconstruction. I am not as sure that this premise applies on this question.
Finally, the professor ends with a look at the Agrarians, a revisionist political/literary trend that took to defending the “old regime” in the South. The names Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren (of “All The King’s Men” fame) and John Crow Ransome are associated most closely with this endeavor. And of course at the tag end of that movement, although a literary force in his own right, William Faulkner who put the South, at least in fiction, back on the map. We have nothing common, as far as I can tell, politically or socially but, damn, he could write. As one can see a mere summary leads to many tempting ideas and precludes anything other than a summary to be followed up. In the meantime read this book. It is worth the time.
This is Walt Whitman's well-known homage to the fallen Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. It deserves space in any left history blog. For an excellent musical rendition of this poem (and the inspiration for placing the poem here) listen to Carolyn Hester's "Carolyn Hester At Town Hall" recording from 1965.
O Captain! My Captain!
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart! 5
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck, 15
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.
When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d
WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west, 5
And thought of him I love.
O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me! 10
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard, 15
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary, the thrush, 20
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.) 25
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes—passing the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards; 30
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black, 35
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn; 40
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac. 45
(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies; 50
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)
O western orb, sailing the heaven! 55
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d,
As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on;) 60
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb, 65
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me; 70
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds, blown from east and west, 75
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls, 80
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific; 85
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
Lo! body and soul! this land! 90
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships;
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in the light—Ohio’s shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover’d with grass and corn.
Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes; 95
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill’d noon;
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird! 100
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the bushes;
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.
O liquid, and free, and tender! 105
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear......yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.
Now while I sat in the day, and look’d forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring, and the farmer preparing his crops, 110
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds, and the storms;)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor, 115
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death. 120
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness, 125
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv’d us comrades three;
And he sang what seem’d the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
From deep secluded recesses, 130
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.
And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird. 135
Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe, 140
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome? 145
Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee, 150
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night. 155
The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song! 160
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird, 165
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed, 170
As to long panoramas of visions.
I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody; 175
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war; 180
But I saw they were not as was thought;
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer’d not;
The living remain’d and suffer’d—the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d. 185
Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul,
(Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night, 190
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring, 195
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.
Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird, 200
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well; 205
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands...and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.